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U.N. needs to show leadership on Venezuela

  • Richmond Times-Dispatch
  • 16 Apr 2019
  • BY ANDRES OPPENHEIMER Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. Contact him at © 2019 Miami Herald

Until now, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had been shamelessly silent about Venezuela, refusing to even consider a full-scale U.N. response to the country’s humanitarian crisis.

But that might be changing. On April 10, for the first time, Guterres stated in a tweet that “7 million people in Venezuela need humanitarian assistance. We are working to expand our assistance, in line with the principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence.”

The statement was in stark contrast with Guterres’ previous comments, which ignored the depth of Venezuela’s tragedy.

But as it became clear in a newly released 71-page joint report by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Human Rights Watch advocacy group, the situation in Venezuela not only is creating a regional refugee crisis, it also is putting a large number of lives at risk in Venezuela.

As happened in Yemen and Syria, almost 3.5 million Venezuelans have fled Venezuela in recent years. Luis Almagro, head of the Organization of American States, told me recently that the figure might reach 10 million over the next four years.

And contrary to the latest narrative of Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro

that U.S. sanctions are to blame for Venezuela’s disaster, the Johns HopkinsHRW report shows that the country collapsed long before the Trump administration imposed oil sanctions on Venezuela in January.

Venezuela’s catastrophe is entirely due to Maduro’s corruption-ridden and chaotic rule. Consider some of the figures in the report:

Between 2008 and 2015, only one case of measles was recorded in Venezuela. Between June 2017 and 2019, there have been more than 9,300 reported cases of measles.

Malaria cases have skyrocketed from fewer than 36,000 in 2009 to more than 414,000 in 2017.

In 2016, maternal mortality rose 65%, and infant mortality rose 30%from a year earlier, according to Venezuelan government figures. The Maduro government has since stopped releasing maternal and infant mortality figures.

In 2018, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said that 3.7 million people in Venezuela were undernourished. That was 12% of the population, up from 5% a few years earlier.

After years of denying Venezuela is facing a humanitarian crisis, and after recently sending troops to stop food and medicine donations from the United States and other Western countries from entering, Maduro is now accepting help from the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The ICRC has vowed to expand its budget for emergency health care in Venezuela from $9 million to $24 million. But that’s just enough to help about 650,000 Venezuelans, or less than 10% of the estimated 7 million who need urgent health assistance, according to a U.N. report leaked to the media last month.

Human-rights activists are asking that Guterres stop behaving like a wimp and push through a drastic increase of U.N. humanitarian relief operations in Venezuela instead of waiting for Maduro’s permission to do so.

Contrary to U.N. officials’ claims that only the Security Council or the General Assembly can order a major escalation of U.N. relief efforts in Venezuela, Guterres could do a lot by himself, human rights groups say.

“We’re asking Guterres to show leadership, and make a factual declaration calling Venezuela what it is: a severe humanitarian emergency requiring a U.N. systemwide scaleup,” says Lou Charboneau, of Human Rights Watch. “It’s impossible to imagine that the U.N. system would not mobilize to respond” to such a request, Charboneau told me.

Indeed, if Guterres declared Venezuela a high-level humanitarian emergency, as he did recently with Yemen, it would help unlock vast U.N. resources to help Venezuelans at risk.

Such a move by the U.N. secretary-general would also put unprecedented pressure on Maduro to accept the aid. If Maduro doesn’t allow it, he would pay a high political price and be further exposed to the Venezuelan people for what he is: a ruthless and incompetent tyrant.

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