CARACAS, Venezuela — Food has become weaponized in Venezuela. So have syringes, antibiotics and other medical equipment.
In this impoverished country, millions go hungry every day and others are unable to get needed care because of severe shortages of medical supplies. In short, food and medicine have become invaluable commodities in the battle over Venezuela’s political soul.
Juan Guaidó, the U.S.-backed opposition leader who declared himself interim president of the country last month in an effort to oust embattled President Nicolás Maduro, tweeted recently that more than $100 million worth of aid had been collected for the country. But only a sliver — 85,000 rations — has been delivered to ailing Venezuelans, while millions in aid sits just across the border in Colombia. On Thursday, billionaire Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, announced he had organized a concert in Cucuta, Colombia — just over the border from Venezuela — to urge delivery of the aid.
But Maduro, who claims the humanitarian crisis has been concocted by the media and political enemies, argues the delivery of supplies is simply a step toward “intervention” by the United States and the nearly four dozen other countries backing Guaidó. On state television Tuesday, Vice President Delcy Rodriguez went so far as to call the assistance being offered by United States and other countries a “biological weapon” that is “poisoning and cancer-causing.”
On Wednesday, Maduro’s government announced that China and Cuba would send 933 tons of “health products” to Venezuela.
“Once there’s need for aid, it’s natural that the issue will take political connotations,” said Luis Vicente Leon, a political analyst and the director of polling agency Datanalisis. “The image of blocking the aid is terrible for Maduro and the government now reacts by receiving aid from other allies. It’s a political classic: They will try to turn the image into aid coming in to fight impacts caused by U.S. sanctions and blockades.”
Venezuela has been left deeply impoverished by decades of policies that led to crippling corruption and mismanagement, first under leftist firebrand Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013, and more recently under his successor, Maduro. In recent years, hyperinflation made basic goods unaffordable, causing an economic crisis that has prompted millions of Venezuelans to flee. Many of those who stayed behind are unable to afford essential food and medicine.
Shannon Scribner, associate director of humanitarian programs and policy at Oxfam America said that in times of crisis globally, it’s often “those in power [who] are controlling who will eat and how often they will eat.”
In 2017, the United Nations declared that famine was looming in Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria, and that it was occurring in South Sudan.
The U.S. State Department called the crisis in South Sudan “man-made” and “the direct consequence of a conflict prolonged by South Sudanese leaders who are unwilling to put aside political ambitions for the good of their people.”
In Yemen, about 20 million people don’t have enough food — and many of them are not hungry because of a lack of supplies, but because they can’t afford to buy them. Import restrictions implemented by the U.S.-backed Saudi-led military coalition, as well as broad hyperinflation, supply disruptions and other factors have caused food prices to soar. The restrictions were intended to cut off supplies to Houthi rebels, but have made civilians the victims of food shortages, too.
As of late last year, aid agencies warned that more than half of Yemen’s districts were facing emergency conditions, and Save the Children said that hunger may have killed as many as 85,000 children since the war began.
Andreina Aponte in Caracas contributed to this report.