CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – For the second time this month, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has reached an agreement with the type of global aid agencies he has often avoided in order to bring aid to his country’s people.
Maduro signed an agreement this week to allow the United Nations World Food Program to provide school meals for 1.5 million children. A deal follows with another agency to access COVID-19 vaccines under a program supported by the United Nations.
Maduro had for years rejected numerous offers of humanitarian aid as useless and as veiled attempts by the United States and other hostile forces to destabilize his socialist government.
This position seems to have wavered amid continuing difficulties.
“I am ready … as president of the republic to move forward with courage in the signing of new projects, new agreements and new food plans that put life, nutrition, proteins and development at the center of the entire Venezuelan family “Maduro said Wednesday, two days after signing the school canteen initiative.
Venezuela has vaccinated part of its population with the Russian Sputnik vaccine and the Chinese Sinopharm. But on April 10, the Maduro government announced it had covered a $ 64 million down payment to join the UN-backed COVAX vaccine program, a step that had been delayed by the fact that the United States and many other nations had deprived its government’s control over its foreign 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 rightful ruler of the country, putting his hand on Venezuela’s purse strings. A few weeks before Maduro’s vaccine was announced, Guaidó and a group of former National Assembly members agreed to ask the U.S. Treasury Department to release a portion of the frozen funds to pay for access to COVAX.
While the two deals show Maduro reversing his stance on aid, they both also help reassert his position as the country’s leader.
There’s no question in Venezuela, where he controls all levels of government, as well as the security forces, but he’s contested overseas by countries that consider his 2018 re-election fraudulent.
“Clearly, the situation has come to a point where it is more of an advantage for Maduro to pose with the head of the World Food Program than a weakness,” said Jacqueline Bhabha, a professor of health practice and human rights at Harvard University.
“He made a political calculation; (WFP officials) calculated that it is worth being associated with him,” Bhabha added.
The World Food Program initiative aims to feed children in parts of the country where access to food is most fragile. It will provide school meals, help remodel school canteens, and train staff. It is hoped to reach 185,000 students by the end of the year and 1.5 million by the end of the 2022-2023 school year.
Both Maduro and Guaidó tweeted – separate – images of themselves with David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Program.
The UN agency hopes to begin alleviating growing hunger in the country with the largest declared oil reserves in the world. It is estimated that at least one third of Venezuelans have enough to eat and struggle ranked the country among the nations with the greatest food challenges.
Beasley joined by Maduro during 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, with bonuses included, is barely enough to buy just 2 kilograms (4.4 lbs) of chicken.
Maduro’s critics blame the economic collapse for years of corruption, clumsy and bad policies. Its allies blame the US economic sanctions, the sabotage of its enemies and the global collapse in oil prices.
“Maduro is getting some water during a wildfire and that water is the best WFP could get,” said Jacqueline Mazza, who teaches Latin American Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
While Maduro likes to show that he “sniffs his nose” at international observers, Mazza said he probably hopes to get a “disproportionate amount of goodwill” out of the deal.
Aid agencies authorized to work in Venezuela in the past have often complained of government interference. Doctors Without Borders said in November that it was withdrawing help from a Venezuelan hospital that treats COVID-19 patients after authorities refused to grant work permits for essential staff.
Bhabha said the school lunch plan is a stopgap, not a solution to the country’s critical food situation. Millions of people have fled the collapse of the Venezuelan economy in recent years, but Bhabha noted that the poorest people often do not have the resources to leave and therefore continue to suffer.
“Famine and hunger are an extremely important political tool that is being manipulated,” he said. “Famine in our day happens for political reasons, it no longer happens for natural reasons”.
Garcia Cano reported from Mexico City.