Venezuela Maduro begins authorizing aid against hunger and virus

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – For the second time this month, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has struck a deal with the kind of global aid agencies he has often shied away from bringing aid to the people of his country.

Maduro signed an agreement this week to allow the United Nations World Food Program to provide school meals to 1.5 million children. It follows an agreement with another agency to access COVID-19 vaccines under a UN-backed program.

Maduro had for years rejected many offers of humanitarian aid as unnecessary and as veiled attempts by the United States and other hostile forces to destabilize his socialist government.

This position appears to have faltered amid persistent difficulties.

“I am ready … as President of the Republic to boldly move forward in signing new projects, new agreements and new food plans that put life, nutrition, protein and development at the center of everything the Venezuelan family, ”Maduro said Wednesday. , two days after the signing of the school meals initiative.

Venezuela has vaccinated part of its population with the Russian vaccine Sputnik and the Chinese Sinopharm. But Maduro’s government announced on April 10 that it had covered a down payment of $ 64 million to join the UN-backed COVAX vaccination program – a step that had been delayed by the fact that the United States and several other countries had stripped its government of control of its foreign country. assets held within their borders.

The United States and some 60 other countries instead recognize Maduro’s main rival, opposition leader Juan Guaidó, as the country’s legitimate ruler – getting his hands on the purse strings of Venezuela. Weeks before Maduro’s vaccine announcement, Guaidó and a group of former members of the National Assembly agreed to ask the US Treasury Department to release some of the frozen funds to pay for access to COVAX.

While both deals show Maduro reversed his stance on aid, both are also helping to reaffirm his position as the country’s leader.

There is no doubt in Venezuela, where he controls all levels of government, as well as the security forces, but he is challenged abroad by countries which regard his 2018 re-election as fraudulent.

“Obviously, the situation has gotten to a point where Maduro has more of an advantage to pose with the head of the World Food Program than a weakness,” said Jacqueline Bhabha, professor of health practice and human rights. man at Harvard. University.

“He made a political calculation; (PAM officials) made a political calculation that is worth associating with him,” Bhabha added.

The World Food Program initiative aims to feed children in areas of the country where access to food is most fragile. It will provide school meals, help renovate school cafeterias and train staff. He hopes to reach 185,000 students by the end of the year and 1.5 million by the end of the 2022-2023 school year.

Maduro and Guaidó tweeted pictures – separate pictures – of themselves with David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Program.

The United Nations agency hopes to start alleviating growing hunger in the country with the world’s largest claimed oil reserves. At least a third of Venezuelans are estimated to struggle to get enough to eat and rank the country among the countries with the greatest dietary challenges.

Beasley, accompanied by Maduro at a televised event, expressed gratitude for the support the agency has received from all stakeholders, “allowing us to be independent, neutral and not allowing our work to be politicized ”.

A typical monthly salary of around $ 5, including bonuses, is just enough to buy just 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of chicken.

Critics of Maduro attribute the economic collapse to years of corruption, clumsy and misguided policies. His allies blame the US economic sanctions, the sabotage by his enemies and the global collapse in oil prices.

“Maduro gets some water on a raging wildfire, and that water is the best water WFP can get,” said Jacqueline Mazza, who teaches Latin American studies at Johns Hopkins University.

While Maduro likes to show he is “laughing” at international observers, Mazza said he was probably hoping to get “a disproportionate amount of goodwill” from the deal.

Aid agencies licensed to work in Venezuela in the past have often complained about government interference. Doctors Without Borders said in November it was withdrawing aid from a Venezuelan hospital treating patients with COVID-19 after authorities failed to give work permits to essential staff.

Bhabha said the school meal plan was a stopgap, not a solution to the country’s critical food situation. Millions of people have fled Venezuela’s collapsed economy in recent years, but Bhabha noted that the poorest people often lack the resources to leave – and therefore continue to suffer.

“Famine and famine is an extremely important political tool, which is being manipulated,” she said. “Famine these days happens for political reasons, it no longer happens for natural reasons.”

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Garcia Cano reported from Mexico City.

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