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IFRC gains entry to ease Venezuelan crisis

IFRC said Venezuela will allow it to deliver emergency aid, the first time President Nicolás Maduro's government acknowledged the humanitarian crisis.

GENEVA (AN) — The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said Venezuela's government and opposition will allow it to deliver emergency aid.

The decision marks the first time President Nicolás Maduro's government has essentially acknowledged that his nation's economy has all but collapsed and Venezuelans who cannot flee are in the grips of a severe humanitarian crisis, reeling from lack of food and other basic services.

“The IFRC will be able to scale up health activities across the country in a manner that is independent, neutral, impartial and unhindered, reaching more vulnerable people," IFRC's President Francesco Rocca said in a statement delivered at a press conference in the capital, Caracas, after meetings this past week with humanitarian, social and political organizations.

Earlier this month, IFRC said it was seeking US$13 million in aid for Venezuela to reach 220,000 highly vulnerable people mainly in need of health aid. The plan also complemented work across the region to deliver humanitarian aid in neighboring countries such as Colombia, where more than 740,000 Venezuelans have sought food and shelter.

Until now, Maduro, an authoritarian leader, had maintained his hold in the cash-poor, oil-rich nation while refusing to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid. The absence of essential services, along with severe hyperinflation and food and medicine shortages, has contributed to an exodus of about 3 million people since 2015, according to United Nations estimates.

Backed by the military, Maduro has refused to concede power despite the nation’s worsening constitutional and humanitarian crises. His nation has the world’s biggest proven oil reserves and is the fifth biggest oil exporter, and his government controls the state-owned oil and natural gas company Petróleos de Venezuela. But the company had been pumping oil at a 70-year low even before the latest international sanctions on the oil sector went into place.

The crisis deepened in January when the opposition-majority National Assembly declared Maduro’s 2018 re-election invalid and named the assembly's president, Juan Guaidó, as the interim president of Venezuela until credible, free and fair elections could be held. More than 50 nations have since formally recognized Guaidó as the country's legitimate leader.

The 'power of humanity'

IFRC, based in Geneva, said it was supporting the Venezuelan Red Cross, which runs a network of eight hospitals and 33 medical clinics, and offers community-based medical screenings, consultations and disease prevention and hygiene programs. The Venezuelan Red Cross had more than 2,600 volunteers nationwide, including 500 to deliver first aid.

“In a country torn apart by the struggle between powers, the power of humanity has prevailed," said Rocca, an Italian lawyer who fought organized crime before serving as a Rome hospital director and president of the Italian Red Cross.

But problems abound. Last year, U.N. human rights investigators suggested the International Criminal Court should take up evidence that Venezuelan security forces carried out hundreds of arbitrary killings and other abuses in the name of fighting crime.

The Geneva-based Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, or OHCHR, said Maduro's government seemed to have done almost nothing to hold accountable 357 officers investigated between 2015 and 2017. The investigations focused on 505 killings that occurred during supposed neighborhood raids.

As IFRC scales up its operations, Rocca said, it will rely on "committed" Venezuelan Red Cross volunteers to reach people in need around the nation, with health care as the priority.

"This is a crucial step forward in expanding humanitarian services in Venezuela, with a specific focus on health, saving more lives, and alleviating the suffering of vulnerable people who are facing a dire situation," he said.