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People wearing face masks walk past a mural depicting Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro in Caracas on April 17, 2020, amid the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.  © 2020 Federico Parra / AFP

(Washington, D.C.) – An agreement between Venezuelan authorities and the opposition to allow millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to be delivered to Venezuela apolitically through the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) is an important step forward, Human Rights Watch said today.

Venezuela’s Health Minister, Carlos Alvarado and the National Assembly’s health advisor, Julio Castro, signed the agreement on June 1, 2020 to coordinate efforts to obtain international funding to strengthen Venezuela’s ability to respond to the pandemic. They also requested “technical and administrative support from PAHO,” a branch of the United Nations. The agreement has received support from Venezuela’s Vice President for Communications, Tourism, and Culture, Jorge Rodríguez, and Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader.

“This agreement is an enormous victory for the Venezuelan people, whose rights and wellbeing should be leaders’ top priority,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “It is largely the result of sustained international pressure on the Maduro government, which after showing a reckless disregard for the life and health of its people, finally turned to the outside world for help amid a pandemic, a humanitarian emergency, a crumbling economy, electricity cuts, and gas shortages. The next step is to turn agreement into actions that start saving lives.”

Venezuelan opposition leaders have indicated that money from a Fund to Liberate Venezuela would be sent to Venezuela through PAHO. The fund consists of US$20 million dollars previously administered by the Maduro government that the US government froze. In addition, some resources from that fund will be used to support other independent humanitarian groups working in Venezuela and to provide individual Venezuelan health professionals with $100 per month for three months, a source knowledgeable about the opposition’s plans told Human Rights Watch. The Spanish government also stated that it had transferred frozen funds from the Venezuelan government in Spain to PAHO.

The agreement sets forth the following priorities:

  • Detecting Covid-19 cases;
  • Providing adequate and timely treatment of confirmed cases;
  • Providing supervised isolation of symptomatic cases and quarantine for people with whom they were in contact;
  • Protecting health workers;
  • Putting in place preventive and infection control measures in health facilities;
  • Providing epidemiological monitoring, information analysis, and situation reports; and
  • Communicating risks to the public to ensure they adopt preventive measures.

“Every day that goes by with a health system in shambles, limited water for health professionals to wash their hands, no reliable epidemiological data, and lack of adequate protection for health workers puts the lives of many Venezuelans at risk,” said Kathleen Page, a physician and faculty member of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Johns Hopkins Centers for Public Health and Human Rights and for Humanitarian Health. “The measures included in the agreement could make a huge difference in Venezuela’s response to the pandemic, but their success will require sufficient funding and proper implementation, with adequate supervision by an independent third party.”

The agreement does not specify how the delivery of aid will be implemented or monitored. Since PAHO and other UN agencies with a presence in Venezuela will be unable to fully monitor implementation of the agreement across the vast territory of Venezuela, the government should ensure that UN agencies and international and local non-governmental organizations face no obstacles in monitoring the deal.

In a report released on May 26, Human Rights Watch and experts from Johns Hopkins Centers for Public Health and Human Rights and for Humanitarian Health documented that Venezuela’s health system is grossly unprepared for the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic, further jeopardizing the health of Venezuelans and threatening to contribute to regional spread of the disease. Although more aid has reached Venezuela in recent months than previously, it is woefully insufficient to address the country’s needs. The report recommended increasing international pressure to ensure a fully funded, full-scale, UN-led humanitarian response in Venezuela.

As of June 5, Venezuela had 2,087 confirmed cases of Covid-19, and 20 deaths. The real number is almost certainly much higher, given the limited availability of reliable testing, limited transparency, and the persecution of medical professionals and journalists who report on this issue. Overcrowding in low-income areas and prisons, as well as limited access to water in hospitals and homes, makes it likely that the novel coronavirus will rapidly spread within the country. The massive exodus of Venezuelans, and the migration back and forth across Venezuela’s borders due to the pandemic, increases the risk of the virus spreading further.

On June 3, UN Secretary-General António Guterres welcomed the agreement and encouraged “the main stakeholders to implement this agreement in accordance with the humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence.”

Human Rights Watch and the Johns Hopkins Centers for Public Health and Human Rights and for Humanitarian Health reiterate their call for Guterres and the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock to lead efforts to address this issue. Members of the Lima Group, the United States, and the European Union should press Venezuelan authorities under Maduro to immediately open doors to a full-scale, UN-led humanitarian response to prevent catastrophic spread of Covid-19 in the country. It is critically important for foreign governments to depoliticize aid and for the US government to ensure that existing sanctions do not contribute to the crisis or hinder humanitarian efforts.

The World Food Program and its partners have the logistical capacity to deliver a significant amount of humanitarian aid nationwide. The Maduro government has not authorized their deployment in Venezuela.

“The next step to ensure an adequate response to Covid-19 and the ongoing humanitarian emergency in Venezuela is allowing the World Food Program and its partners full access to the country so they can feed more hungry people nationwide,” Vivanco said. “It’s critical to keep pressing Venezuelan authorities under Maduro. They’re the key to ensuring that sufficient aid reaches the Venezuelan people.”

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