US aid to Venezuela driven by more than just need

MIAMI, United States (AP) — It was billed as the beginning of the end for Nicols Maduro. With foreign leaders in tow and the world watching, anti-Maduro activists gathered in Colombia in February 2019 with the aim of pushing entire warehouses worth of aid — flown in on US military cargo planes — across the border into Venezuela.

Instead, the humanitarian convoy was violently blocked by security forces loyal to Maduro — the first in a series of miscalculations in the Trump Administration’s policy toward Venezuela.

More than two years later, the risky gambit is being questioned by a US Government watchdog. A new report by the inspector general at the US Agency for International Development raises doubts about whether the deployment of aid was driven more by the US pursuit of regime change than by technical analysis of needs and the best ways to help struggling Venezuelans.

The findings were published April 16 but have not been previously reported.

The report focuses on the frenzied few months after opposition leader Juan Guaid rose up to challenge Maduro’s rule, quickly winning recognition as Venezuela’s rightful leader by the US and dozens of allies.

As part of that effort, USAID, between January and April 2019, spent $2 million to position 368 tons of emergency supplies on the Caribbean island of Curacao and on the Colombia-Venezuela border.

Under Guaid’s orders, the aid was supposed to be delivered into Venezuela in defiance of Maduro, who condemned the effort as a veiled coup attempt. But when an opposition-organised caravan that tried to enter Venezuela was blocked at the border, at least one truck caught fire, destroying $34,000 worth of US-supplied aid.

As media attention turned away and Guaido’s fight to unseat Maduro unravelled in the months that followed, the US assistance was quietly repurposed. In the end, only eight tons ever reached Venezuela, with the remaining 360 tons distributed inside Colombia or shipped to Somalia, the report found.

The report said the US deployment of aid responded in part to the Trump Administration’s campaign to pressure Maduro rather than just coming to the aid of struggling Venezuelans.

For example, the assistance was needlessly delivered in giant Air Force C-17 cargo planes instead of cheaper commercial options that were available, the report said. Ready-to-use meals to fight child malnutrition were also sent even though USAID’s own experts had decided the nutritional status of Venezuelan children didn’t warrant its use at the time, investigators said.

To bolster Guaid, USAID — believing UN agencies had been co-opted by Maduro — minimised funding to the United Nations even though some UN agencies had infrastructure inside Venezuela to distribute the aid. A Venezuelan nonprofit organisation, which isn’t identified by name in the report, was awarded funding partly based on its alignment with US foreign policy interests even though doubts persisted about whether it could meet the agency’s legal and financial requirements.

The “directive to pre-position humanitarian commodities was not driven by technical expertise or fully aligned with the humanitarian principles of neutrality, independence and being based on needs assessments”, the report said.

While international aid workers at the time issued similar warnings about the risks of assistance being politicised — the aid convoy in Colombia was preceded by a “Venezuela Live Aid” concert organised by billionaire Richard Branson — the findings of a US agency tasked with auditing how US tax dollars are spent carries additional weight.

The report, which was nearly two years in the making, was prepared to address challenges and “fraud risks” in USAID’s response to the Venezuelan crisis. It contains six recommendations to improve coordination across the sprawling agency — the main vehicle for US foreign assistance — and strengthen controls to avoid politicising humanitarian action.

A USAID spokesperson said the agency welcomed the report’s findings, which it is implementing, and all efforts to improve the effectiveness of USAID’s work, especially in challenging environments.

Many of the decisions came from the office of then-USAID Administrator Mark Green, according to the report.

“The verbal direction did not establish clear accountability nor did it provide justification for decision-making,” the report said.

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