Are United Nations Agencies Failing Venezuela?

Hugo Pérez Hernáiz

On July 21, nearly 50 human rights organizations in Venezuela—including PROVEA, COFAVIC, and the Human Rights Center of the Andrés Bello Catholic University (UCAB)—signed a public letter to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in which they urged UN agencies in Venezuela to adopt a more vocal position on the situation in the country.

In the letter the organizations express their indignation at what they call “the conduct of silence of several agencies of the United Nations System established in Venezuela, particularly with regard to those responsible for health and nutrition, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), as well as the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).” Only the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is singled out in the letter as worthy of positive recognition for the role it is playing in the country.

The organizations claim that the UN agencies have received independent reports about “the progressive deterioration of the nutritional status of the population since 2012, (and) the generalized failures in the provision of medicines, supplies, and services.” The groups also express concern over the admission made by the Information Service of the United Nations during its regular briefing on July 19 that UN agencies “do not have enough people on the ground.” During that briefing, representatives of the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that they were still in the process of assessing the information they are receiving about the situation in the country.  

The Venezuelan government has in the past taken great pride in its hunger and poverty reduction efforts. In the case of nutrition levels and food security, the government regularly claims to have been praised by the FAO for its food distribution policies. First in 2012, and then in June 2013, the FAO recognized Venezuela for reducing by half since 1990 the number of people consuming less than 1,800 calories per day.

Indeed, in its last report presented to the National Assembly in January 2016, the government’s Instituto Nacional de Nutrición (INN) claims that 96.4% of Venezuelans have access to three or more meals per day. According to INN’s report, the national undernourishment index (Índice de Prevalencia de Subalimentación) showed a substantial decrease in the percentage of population considered to be undernourished, dropping from a high of 21% in 2000 to 5% in 2012, the last year for which data has been published.

Since at least 2013, however, local nutrition experts have contested the government’s assertions and spoken about a “hidden hunger” phenomenon, arguing that there are problems with the quality of the caloric intake. According to these experts, the share of deep fried foods and carbohydrates in the average Venezuelan’s diet increased in recent years. While this trend does imply an increase in caloric intake—as the government claims—it may have also contributed to an increase in obesity and other health problems, mostly in children. In 2014, the Conditions of Venezuelan Life (Encuesta Condiciones de Vida del Venezolano, ENCOVI) survey, conducted by local universities, also found that Venezuelans were buying more rice, corn flour for arepas, and pasta. Proteins to fill the arepas (usually chicken or beef) were being progressively substituted with margarine or mayonnaise. The survey also found that among the poorest, fruits and vegetables were almost absent from the regular diet. The same ENCOVI survey for 2015 revealed a worsening situation: 12.1% of those surveyed said they ate no more than 2 meals a day and, as revealed in the previous survey, those meals had high carbohydrate and low protein content.

Given criticisms of its overreliance on the Venezuelan government’s figures, the FAO explained on its webpage that its recognition of the government’s progress that year was based on data from 1990 up to 2012, which showed an improvement in distribution of food and caloric consumption in the population. The agency also argued that it used the same government-compiled data for all countries, without distinction, and that the fact that most of the food was imported by the country or not was not part of its calculations for caloric intake levels. The FAO also said that it was “monitoring the situation in Venezuela,” given reports of scarcity in the country that year.

In June 2015 the FAO again recognized Venezuela, among other Latin American countries, as having made “exceptional progress” in hunger reduction. And most recently, on July 19, 2016, the FAO representative in Venezuela, Marcelo Resende, met with government representatives and heard from the head of the Comités Locales de Abastecimiento y Producción (CLAP), Freddy Bernal, about the government’s strategy to “fight the non-conventional and economic war,” which it claims is being waged against the country by its enemies. According to Bernal, the FAO’s representative said in the meeting that Venezuela was not in a situation in which it needed humanitarian aid.

Seemingly contradicting the FAO’s Venezuela representative, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), urged Venezuela this month to accept humanitarian aid in order to back food and medicine distribution efforts. It also complained that its South American representative, Amerigo Incalcaterra, had been denied a visa to visit Venezuela since 2014. The opposition has called for the government to accept the implementation of a “humanitarian corridor” to bring aid into the country. Opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski said last week that the government does not want to accept humanitarian aid because that would imply accepting its failure. The Venezuelan government has, for its part, denied that there is a humanitarian crisis and that the country is in need of humanitarian aid. Government officials are fearful of what they consider foreign meddling behind the cover of humanitarian aid. PSUV leader Diosdado Cabello recently declared that to accept humanitarian aid would represent the acceptance of “an invasion of the country, and they (the opposition) want this using the supposition that there is no medicine.”

This month’s brief re-opening of the Colombian-Venezuelan border, and reports of thousands of Venezuelans traveling to Colombia to buy basic products, also resulted in apparently contradictory declarations from another UN agency, the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Its local representative in Colombia, Martin Gottwald, told AFP that the country was receiving a “silent arrival” of many people from Venezuela who crossed the border and that some of those people “then remain in the Colombian side in an irregular status.” He also acknowledged that he did not have the most current data on the issue, but that there has been a significant increase of Venezuelan asylum-seekers in Colombia. “From what we are hearing from NGOs, the (Catholic) Church, and other actors on the border, the avalanche has begun, it is no longer something potential,” declared Gottwald.

But a day after his declarations the Venezuelan government claimed to have received a note from the Caracas office of the UNHCR saying that after consulting with its representative in Bogotá and its headquarters in Geneva, it had confirmed that “the information published did not reflect the content of its representative’s (Gottwald) statement.”

The letter to Ban Ki-moon signed by local organizations asks the Secretary General to require the UN agencies to act according to the organization’s Human Rights up Front Initiative, which “encourages staff to take a principled stance and to act with moral courage to prevent serious and large-scale violations.” The letter ends by urging the United Nations System to stop “failing to fulfill its responsibilities in Venezuela, in order to be able to prevent irreparable consequences in terms of loss of life and further escalation of the deteriorating food and health conditions in the country, affecting the most vulnerable, if it does not implement, as quickly as possible, a mechanism of international cooperation and humanitarian assistance.”