The crisis in Venezuela poses one of the biggest challenges to democracy and human rights in the hemisphere today, and the need to address the country’s complex humanitarian emergency is more urgent than ever. In this context, U.S. policymakers are examining ways to support the revival of negotiations between the Maduro government and the Venezuelan opposition in Mexico, as well as the implementation of humanitarian agreements which showed early promise before the talks were suspended.
With this in mind, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) is publishing The Crisis Can’t Wait: How U.S. Policymakers Can Support Humanitarian Accords in Venezuela, a new policy memo assessing opportunities for U.S. policymakers to advance agreements that can broaden the humanitarian response on the ground, while considering the lessons learned from past efforts to advance humanitarian agreements in the country. This report is the outcome of fieldwork and interviews in Venezuela carried out by the co-authors, WOLA Director for Venezuela Geoff Ramsey and Program Associate Kristen Martinez-Gugerli, with NGO activists, medical experts, and humanitarian and political actors in August and September 2021.
The report finds that the scale of Venezuela’s complex humanitarian emergency remains dire, and that it has been exacerbated by the government’s inadequate and politicized response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the authors also note that since 2020, a series of humanitarian agreements between the Maduro government and Venezuelan opposition have benefited the population—and have offered important lessons for future accords. Thanks to these agreements, health workers have seen improved access to personal protective equipment, and international agencies such as the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) are better-positioned to bolster the humanitarian response in the future.
However, there is much more that the United States can do to encourage further progress. In their memo, Ramsey and Martinez-Gugerli offer a series of concrete policy recommendations for U.S. policymakers. The report concludes that the Biden administration should:
- Name a high-level State Department official in Washington—either a Special Representative or a Deputy Assistant Secretary with a portfolio focused exclusively on Venezuela’s crisis and regional implications. This individual should coordinate closely with the Venezuela Affairs Unit (VAU) in Bogotá and with all relevant international stakeholders. Naming a high-level official who can complement the VAU’s work from Washington and help coordinate initiatives across the U.S. government would streamline the policy process and help ensure a more rapid response to changing dynamics on the ground.
- Direct senior State Department and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) officials to make clear that the U.S. government is willing to include Venezuela in its COVID-19 vaccine donation program, and to address logistical and transparency obstacles. The administration should continue to work with all relevant stakeholders to encourage the timely and equitable vaccination of the Venezuelan population in line with humanitarian principles. Particular attention should be paid to the possibility of donating vaccines directly to third-party humanitarian actors on the ground, with a focus on vaccines that do not require an ultra-cold chain, such as the Johnson & Johnson/Janssen COVID-19 vaccine.
- Urge the publication of a national COVID-19 vaccination plan in line with international standards in Venezuela. While Venezuela has at least partially vaccinated nearly half of its population, only a third has been fully vaccinated. Meanwhile, the process itself lacks transparency or order, resulting in confusion, misinformation, and apprehension among the population. Publishing a detailed vaccination plan, especially one that is created alongside independent experts in the Mesa Técnica as well as UN agencies, would benefit the Venezuelan people and lay a solid foundation for further agreements that can address COVID-19 vaccination needs.
- Emphasize the role of the UN and non-governmental organizations in the successful implementation of any humanitarian agreement, given widespread government corruption. In order to verify the terms of any agreement, U.S. diplomats should encourage the parties to include monitoring and evaluation language into any agreement to address Venezuela’s humanitarian emergency. Just as PAHO worked to track the implementation of the 2020 agreement on COVID-19 testing, international humanitarian agencies like PAHO and UNICEF should be granted full monitoring and evaluation access in the case of future humanitarian accords. Even then, it will be nearly impossible for these organizations alone to fully monitor implementation across Venezuela’s 23 states and Caracas. For this reason it is important for international and local NGOs, particularly those with experience in the health and humanitarian sectors, to be incorporated into the drafting, implementation, and evaluation of any agreement.
- Press for a response that addresses the differential impact of the humanitarian situation on specific segments of the population including indigenous people, individuals with disabilities, immunocompromised individuals and those taking antiretrovirals, and others in conditions of vulnerability. It is important for the humanitarian response to specifically target these groups, and for the U.S. to publicly encourage political actors in Venezuela to prioritize aspects of the humanitarian emergency that disproportionately impact these populations.
- Encourage relevant stakeholders in Venezuela to prioritize humanitarian agreements that address the differentiated impact of Venezuela’s crisis on women and girls. The deterioration of the sexual, reproductive and maternal health systems in Venezuela has left women and girls vulnerable to health complications and unable to seek treatment, making the collapse of Venezuela’s public health system a particularly severe issue for women in the country. Humanitarian agreements to invest in the national infrastructure to provide sexual and reproductive health services, which benefit all women including mothers and pregnant women as well as young children, would greatly alleviate the disproportionate impact of the humanitarian emergency on Venezuelan women. Venezuelan women should be at the forefront of discussions on how to address this particular issue.
- Provide necessary human resources and other support to the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), so that it can move quickly once agreements are made—and avoid delays that could derail them. While sanctions have become an increasingly popular foreign policy tool, OFAC does not generally have the resources or personnel to respond quickly to changing events on the ground. There is widespread frustration among Venezuelan humanitarian and civil society organizations over the lack of clear channels to address things like overcompliance (excess caution by banks and other financial institutions) and other banking-related sanctions matters. Even the Venezuelan opposition has had to adapt its strategies to account for the backlog of license requests within the OFAC Licensing Division. When the opposition-controlled National Assembly approved the use of resources to pay lawmakers’ salaries and mobilize resources for health workers, it took more than four months for the U.S. Treasury Department to unfreeze those funds. In any future humanitarian agreements involving frozen funds, the administration should prioritize their smooth and swift implementation and provide OFAC the resources it needs to do so.
- Prioritize humanitarian agreements strictly based on their ability to address urgent concerns in accordance with humanitarian principles—not on a logic of taking political credit. A successfully-implemented agreement that improves living conditions in Venezuela may be able to establish confidence and credibility in negotiations among a skeptical public. U.S. officials should firmly insist on the core humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence.
- Support agreements that broaden access for, and end the repression of, humanitarian organizations on the ground. Venezuelan humanitarian groups, as well as other civil society organizations, continue to face systematic harassment and intimidation from authorities. Broadening access for humanitarian organizations—so that they can exercise their freedom of movement and operation, as well as unhindered transportation through military checkpoints—would be an important step forward, and the U.S. should support the creation of an operational framework for humanitarian organizations along these lines.
- Commit to fully-funding the UN Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) for Venezuela for 2021. The Biden administration should commit to a fully-funded humanitarian response inside Venezuela, while also pushing for better access for humanitarian actors. Although the United Nations’ 2021 HRP for Venezuela requests $708.1 million, only 29.4 percent of this ($208.1 million) has been funded as of November 15, 2021. The United States, the primary donor, has contributed to assistance outside the plan, but this aid amounts to only $101 million. Further commitments are urgently needed.