Washington, DC—As the global pandemic caused by COVID-19 continues to strain health systems around the world, the toll it could take among Venezuela’s already suffering population could be devastating unless the global community mobilizes in support of humanitarian solutions.
The lack of urgency in declarations by political actors in Washington and Caracas about the impact of the pandemic in Venezuela is deeply alarming. There are widespread shortages of equipment, supplies, medicine, and even running water in hospitals across Venezuela. With the pandemic overrunning health systems across the developed world, it is highly unlikely that Venezuela’s collapsed health institutions will be able to meet the need for hospital beds, ventilators, and necessary medicine.
In order to avoid a tragic outcome, it’s clear that the international community will have to inject significant resources into the Venezuelan public health system and provide other forms of relief. In order for such international assistance to be scaled up, there must first be a basic agreement between the de facto Maduro government and the National Assembly, presided by Juan Guaidó. While the first has territorial control, the second has democratic legitimacy and access to international financial support. Though U.S. officials claim to support a negotiated solution to the crisis, Venezuelans cannot wait for a response to the pandemic until after a transition. As efforts to achieve a broader negotiated solution continue, it is urgent that the White House facilitate a sectoral agreement between Maduro and Guaidó that allows for a proportionate humanitarian response to the pandemic.
Such an agreement should be approved by the democratically-elected National Assembly, and should be implemented with transparency by reliable authorities with experience in public health and food security. While there is a nascent UN humanitarian presence in Venezuela and humanitarian organizations are doing lifesaving work on the ground, these groups face serious obstacles. It is vital that the Maduro government broaden access to visas and registration. As the UN Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has noted, “the inability of international NGOs to register has also impacted the operational capacity to respond on a greater scale.”
In addition to supporting such an agreement, the U.S. government should support a robust humanitarian response to COVID-19 by offering conditional sanctions relief. Economic sanctions did not start the country’s deep economic crisis, but they have undeniably exacerbated it. The financial sanctions that began in August 2017 do not apply to transactions related to food and medical imports, but as we have warned, these exemptions do not prevent the reality of widespread overcompliance. They also prevent joint ventures and international agreements that could recover Venezuela’s electricity grid. Additionally, the January 2019 oil sanctions have reduced revenue to pay for imports overall.
For this reason we urge the Trump administration to heed the recommendation of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, who has called for broad economic sanctions in Venezuela to be eased so that “more resources could be allocated to treating and preventing the epidemic.” While we recognize that full sanctions relief may be unlikely, the Trump administration can and should consider issuing a general license to authorize oil sales provided that Maduro demonstrate that proceeds would go towards a humanitarian response to the health crisis.