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How Venezuelans are filling aid needs even as government denies crisis (+video)

Path to progress

Venezuelans at home and abroad are bringing in outside supplies to counter worsening shortages of food, baby formula, and medicines.

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    In this July 17 photo, a woman carrying a bundle on her head waits in line to cross the border into Colombia through the Simon Bolivar bridge in San Antonio del Tachira, Venezuela. Tens of thousands of Venezuelans crossed into Colombia to hunt for food and medicine that are in short supply at home after Venezuela’s government opened the long-closed border.
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When Tati Delgado Ranalli went home to Venezuela during her graduate school’s winter break last year, she expected to reconnect with family and friends – not spend the bulk of her time searching for antibiotics.

“I felt so guilty for getting sick in Venezuela,” says Ms. Delgado, who moved away last fall to study international development. “In Canada, I can find everything I need at a nearby pharmacy.” But getting ill back home meant tapping family and friends to help her find basic – yet scarce – medicines.

The experience motivated her to join the growing crowd of Venezuelans abroad taking action – no matter how small – to bring assistance to loved ones back home.

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Ana Isabel Otero, founder of Comparte Por Una Vida, sits atop a shipment of boxes that arrived from Houston, Miami, New York, and Panama at her organization's Caracas office on June 27, 2016. Comparte Por Una Vida

Delgado founded “Medical Aid for Venezuela,” which has raised nearly $4,260 via Gofundme and sent eight boxes of medical kits back home. She relies on a network of doctors and vetted Venezuelan NGOs to pick up the items once they arrive and distribute them across the country.

Venezuela has long faced shortages of staple goods, but over the past year those scarcities have significantly worsened in the wake of sky-high inflation, low oil prices, and years of government policies blamed for the dwindling production of domestic goods.

The country consequently has experienced increased incidences of infant deaths and fainting and undernourished children as well as shortages of vital supplies at hospitals and pharmacies. Using surveys from 2015, a recently released report by the Latin American Study of Nutrition and Health found that nearly a quarter of Venezuelans only get two or fewer meals a day, a statistic that observers say has no doubt gotten worse in recent months. As of April, medical supplies were down more than 85 percent from normal levels, according to the National Federation of Pharmacies.

But the government refuses to acknowledge it is facing a humanitarian crisis. It’s more than semantics: Without a declared emergency, official international aid from organizations like the United Nations or World Health Organization can’t enter the country. Even larger-scale nongovernmental organizations like Caritas, a Catholic charity, have struggled to get proper visas to bring in food and medical aid to help the population.

As a result, Venezuelans abroad who send vitamin supplements, baby formula, and medicines to their loved ones and the broader community are some of the only lifelines for relief back home.

“It’s not that food or drugs are being stored somewhere [in Venezuela] – it’s that there are none. If international help doesn’t arrive, people won’t have any basic goods or treatments,” Delgado says. “Venezuelans more than ever are relying on individuals abroad.”

Francisco Valencia, president of Codevida, a coalition of medical and health-rights NGOs based in Caracas, agrees.

“Venezuelans outside the country have seen the news and the magnitude of the situation and are organizing to help,” he says. Codevida has received donations from citizen-led initiatives in Miami (Programa de Ayuda Humanitaria para Venezuela) and Madrid (Asociación Civil Venezolanos en Madrid), among others.

“Up until now, private packages have trickled in without problem. But the only real solution is to activate international humanitarian aid. We are facing a catastrophe that can only be solved with a large-scale response,” Mr. Valencia adds.

Environment of mistrust

A key obstacle to delivering aid within the country is the environment of mistrust between many NGOs and the government.

For decades in Venezuela, a historically middle-income country with great oil wealth and a largely paternalistic state, there was little attention from international civil society organizations and scant demand for local initiatives.

But that began to change in 1989, following riots spurred by a drop in oil prices and accompanying economic reforms. Human rights organizations started to blossom in the wake of military violence toward protesters.

By the time Hugo Chávez, President Nicolás Maduro’s late predecessor, was elected in 1999, Venezuela had an operating civil society, but his administration’s style became a polarizing force.

The Comparte Por Una Vida team delivers donations at Hospital José Gregorio Hernandez in a remote Andean town in Trujillo State on Aug. 2, 2016. Comparte Por Una Vida

“The government had a perspective that in various circumstances amounted to: However good your project is, if it is not explicitly on behalf of the government, we aren’t interested,” says Phil Gunson, a Caracas-based senior analyst for the International Crisis Group.

It’s an attitude that many say continues today, along with a wariness toward some NGOs spurred by international groups’ support for opposition-led referendums that sought to remove Mr. Chávez from office.

Some, like Lilian Tintori, the wife of imprisoned opposition leader Leopoldo López, who launched a campaign to gather donations across the world, have faced pushback from Mr. Maduro’s government when trying to get permits to transport supplies across Venezuelan borders. In June, with nearly 100 tons of basic medical supplies like rubber gloves and syringes stuck in warehouses from Miami to Bogota, she called on the government to “open a humanitarian channel that will enable international aid to reach those most in need.” The UN’s human rights office last month urged similar action.

Without politics, success

But for Ana Isabel Otero, founder of the local initiative “Comparte Por Una Vida,” (Share for a Life), focusing on relief work without politicizing it has been key to finding success.

“My focus is very positive. We’re not denouncing the government – we’re focusing on trying to help, to resolve a problem,” she says.

Ms. Otero, the director of a digital marketing firm, says she was horrified by a news story last April that reported only eight in 38 babies at a nearby public hospital had access to formula.

She called a contact at the newspaper to learn more.

“The journalist took me to the hospital and I realized the situation was far worse than I ever imagined,” says Otero. “It really affected me. I couldn’t know that a child wasn’t eating, could die, and not do anything about it.”

Three and a half months later, the foundation she launched in response to the realities she saw that night – like desperate mothers leaving babies to search for formula across the city – has taken off. Comparte Por Una Vida encourages families that have extra tins of formula, baby bottles, or other resources around the house in Venezuela to donate them. And more broadly, the campaign calls on the international community to get involved by collecting nutritional supplements and supplies for babies and kids and shipping them to Venezuela for distribution.

“Venezuelans who live outside the country want to help, but they don’t know how. And when you give them a way … they jump to action,” she says. The foundation – made up of five local staff members and more than 100 volunteers abroad – now delivers formula and supplements to 19 children’s homes and hospitals across Venezuela.

Confirmation for donors

Like many groups collecting donations abroad, she doesn’t want to go into details on how the products are brought into the country: “It’s complicated to get donations in, but I don’t like to focus on that,” Otero says.

Laura Freimanis Hance, vice president of Programa de Ayuda Humanitaria Para Venezuela (Humanitarian Aid Program for Venezuela), an effort to donate medical supplies that started in Miami in 2014, says her group goes to great lengths to show donors that contributions arrive safely, without disclosing too much about how. For example, if a group in Michigan donates, the organization might include a University of Michigan flag in the shipment. The contact in Venezuela that collects the donations will then take a photo of the boxes, the flag, along with that day’s newspaper to send as a form of receipt.

Otero and her team also take added steps to ensure the products they deliver don’t fall onto the black market, only dropping off enough supplies to last a few days at a time.

For Otero, she’s proud to see her compatriots abroad coming together to try and make a difference back home. And she’s hopeful that despite the reality of children dying and kids missing school due to extreme hunger, this may be a moment of cultural change for Venezuela.

“I hope this can inspire people, and demonstrate that each individual can contribute their grain of sand toward change,” she says.

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