Venezuelans are demanding their government let humanitarian aid into the country after the Maduro administration has apparently blocked several requests to import fee medicines into the crisis ravaged state.
On Tuesday opposition leader Lilian Tintori penned an open letter to President Nicolas Maduro asking the socialist leader to open a “humanitarian channel” that would enable civil society groups to bring medical supplies into the country.
Tintori, who is married to jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, said that over the past two weeks she has worked with Venezuelan expats in Miami, Bogota and Panama City to collect 100 tons of donated medical supplies to help stock Venezuela's ailing hospitals.
But the donations— mostly basic supplies such as gloves and syringes—are currently stuck in warehouses in foreign cities due to a lack of proper import permits from the Venezuelan government. The opposition is making hay out of the situation by demanding the government issue the paperwork and not put politics before human need.
“You can open a humanitarian channel that will enable international aid to reach those who most need it,” Tintori said in a press conference, directing her message to President Maduro. “This is something that will help Venezuelans, and is separate from politics.”
Venezuela's crisis has devastated the public health sector. Medicine supplies are reportedly down by 85%, according to the National Federation of Pharmacies.
Hospitals in the socialist-run nation regularly lack basic supplies such as antibiotics and over-the-counter painkillers as the government runs out of U.S. dollars to import goods. The situation has gotten so dire that the New York Times reports there have been incidents of newborns dying in maternity wards hit by energy blackouts.
The Venezuelan government, however, has denied several attempts by NGOs and opposition groups to bring humanitarian aid into the country, opting instead to import medicine from political allies such as the Chinese government.
The first major aid-block happened in February, when the government turned down a request by the opposition-led congress to enroll Venezuela in a World Health Organization program that provides subsidized medical supplies to struggling countries. Then in May, lawmakers from Venezuela’s ruling socialist party voted against a bill that would have allowed congress to authorize medical imports without the president's approval.
The socialist government has not explained why it has rejected these initiatives. But opposition leaders say the president is trying to hide the country’s stark state of affairs. “They don’t want to admit that there is a health crisis in this country,” said Juan Andres Mejia, an opposition congressman who supported the latest health crisis bill.
Civil society groups are also finding it equally difficult to help the country. Last week, Caritas, an international NGO linked to the Catholic Church, said it had tried three times in the past month to get an import permit to bring medicines and food into Venezuela. But every request for import paperwork was ignored, the group says.
“We are urgently in need of international cooperation,” Caritas Venezuela director Janeth Marquez said in an interview with Catholic News Agency, CNA “People are suffering because they don’t have medicines, and their quality of life is now diminished.”
Venezuela has been wary of international cooperation since the early 2000’s, when foundations like the National Endowment for Democracy backed opposition parties that tried to organize a referendum to remove Hugo Chávez from power. In response to those campaigns, Venezuela’s government made laws that make it hard for local nonprofits to access foreign funds.
But some Venezuelans think the government is now going too far by neglecting international aid in its time of need. Human rights groups are taking to Twitter to pressure the government to stop blocking efforts by foundations to get assistance, by posting photos and messages under the hashtag #Aceptalaayuda (Accept the aid).
“Health should not be polarized; it is a human right,” said human rights group Provea in a post.
Venezuelan citizens are also joining the Twitter campaign with their own photos and messages. "You can die if treatment is interrupted due to lack of medicines," wrote Twitter user Xiomara Guzman.
Alejandra Sapene, a psychologist who has promoted the #aceptalaayuda campaign, said she is tired of hearing stories of young children dying in Venezuela due to a lack of medicine. She said the hashtag campaign started separately from Lilian Tintori’s calls for a “humanitarian channel,” but the end goal is the same.
“The government hasn’t done enough to guarantee medical supplies,” Sapene told Fusion. “If they can’t guarantee supplies, they should at least accept what is given to the country.”
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.