Humanitarian Aid Ready to Enter Venezuela on February 23

The Venezuelan crisis is moving at breakneck speed. After a nearly two-decade-long crisis, the international community is moving toward consensus: there is no more time to waste in Venezuela. In the United States, the Venezuelan crisis has historically been and should continue to be a bipartisan issue. The role of the international community is vital to help Venezuelans restore their democracy through legitimate and constitutional means. A concrete step in that direction is defying Nicolas Maduro by providing desperately-needed provision of humanitarian assistance—which is set by Juan Guaidó, the interim president, to enter the country on February 23.

It’s difficult to scratch the surface of the full catastrophe and the dire situation that Venezuelans are living in. As extensively reported by CSIS Americas , the humanitarian conditions inside of a once-thriving country are in many ways similar to a war-like scenario, except there is no war. Maduro not only rejects humanitarian aid from abroad but also uses food as a weapon. However, the international community has responded to the request of Guaidó for humanitarian assistance. Aid delivered to Colombia—from the United States, Lima Group countries, and other nations throughout the world—is being positioned near the border with Venezuela in anticipation of February 23.

From a humanitarian and constitutional perspective, Guaidó is well within his power to request aid. After January 10, Maduro lost any legitimacy to continue in office. When this situation occurs, the Venezuelan Constitution indicates that the National Assembly will preside over the government on an interim basis –until free and fair elections are held. This is why more than 50 countries have recognized Guaidó as the interim president of Venezuela.

Q1: What Will Happen on February 23?

A1: The Maduro regime and Venezuelan military face an imminent dilemma on February 23: whether to let the much-needed humanitarian aid into Venezuela or block it, potentially with the use of force. Despite Maduro’s stances on allowing aid, the international community has already mobilized about $50 million dollar and pledged about $100 million in humanitarian aid to enter Venezuela. Thousands of volunteers and Venezuelan opposition figures inside and outside of the country are organizing relief caravans to retrieve the aid supplied by Colombia, the United States, and other countries. Cúcuta, the Colombian border city and main crossing point to Venezuela, has become a hub for organizing aid efforts.

But similar to Maduro’s cling to power, the Venezuelan military will have the final say in whether the food aid enters the country or not. Despite growing discontent in the barracks, in part due to the economic and humanitarian collapse, the Maduro regime, heavily supported by Cuban intelligence, still successfully controls the military. Recent orders of multiple arrests are helping to squelch dissent. However, Venezuelan military officials face a dilemma, as blocking humanitarian aid would be considered by international law to be a crime against humanity. Unfortunately for them, “following orders” is not a legitimate defense.

Q2: What Are the Likely Scenarios?

A2: Maduro’s general strategy has been to buy time until the protests and the international community lose momentum and interest. Multiple dialogue attempts have let the Maduro regime off the hook. But as domestic and international pressure increase, the illegitimate de facto government faces no positive outcome on February 23. If the Venezuelan military lets aid enter the country, it would undermine and put Maduro’s leadership into question. If the food aid is blocked, it would likely backfire on desperate and starving Venezuelans, including the military itself—giving more reasons to protest.

Maduro’s worst-case scenario may be the escalation of conflict, as he has never before been in a weaker political position. Cash-strapped and desperate, Maduro himself is cornered on all sides, including pressure from both the Cubans and the deeper mafia state that operates within Venezuela. On the other hand, if the Venezuelan military lets the aid enter the country, Maduro could potentially use the food and medicine for his own benefit.

Perhaps of greater concern, the presence of regime-supported armed groups within the Venezuelan territory and its border with Colombia could propel and escalate conflict. Venezuela has become a hub for a wide range of smuggling and trafficking activities . Colombian guerrilla groups, such as ELN and remaining FARC members, colectivos, and other non-state actors could be encouraged to assist in rejecting humanitarian efforts. In the end, Maduro’s dictatorship operates much like a mafia state .

Q3: What’s Next for the International Community?

A3: The United States, the Lima Group, and the international community should continue leading efforts to help Venezuelans through peaceful and non-violent means, such as providing humanitarian aid. The path to limit the suffering of Venezuelans and help restore Venezuela’s democracy could be accelerated if the following steps are taken in the short-term:

  • provide much-needed humanitarian assistance within Venezuela, starting on January 23;
  • help Guaidó’s government get off the ground by recovering the Republic’s assets from Maduro’s control and transferring them to Guaidó and the National Assembly;
  • back the National Assembly’s amnesty law for current and former military officials who decide to help restore the country’s democracy and let humanitarian aid in;
  • increase pressure on Maduro and his inner circle with individual sanctions, especially by countries who have not imposed sanctions yet;
  • prohibit any further international agreements or oil payments to the Maduro regime; and
  • recognize the new ambassadors appointed by Guaidó’s government in those countries and institutions that have recognized him as the legitimate interim president of Venezuela.

There is no silver bullet to resolve the Venezuelan crisis. However, from a humanitarian and international law perspective, the provision of humanitarian aid should be a top priority. The international community should do everything necessary to help, starting with the window of opportunity brought by the February 23 deadline.

Moises Rendon is an associate fellow and associate director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Moises Rendon

Moises Rendon

Former Senior Associate (Non-resident), Americas Program