As Venezuelans starve, their government offers hurricane aid to Caribbean islands

A Red Cross crew accompanies Peter Cuffy and his wife, Jenita Cuffy, as they walk through Codrington, their town on the island of Barbuda, in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. Their home is among the many damaged by the storm.
A Red Cross crew accompanies Peter Cuffy and his wife, Jenita Cuffy, as they walk through Codrington, their town on the island of Barbuda, in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. Their home is among the many damaged by the storm. The Washington Post

When Hurricane Harvey hit, Venezuela offered $5 million in aid to Texas through its Citgo petroleum company. Then came hurricanes Irma, Jose and Maria, and with every threat, Venezuela’s military cargo planes and helicopters were there, helping with relief and recovery from Cuba to Dominica.

The South American country may be engulfed in political and economic turmoil with acute food shortages, soaring prices and fresh U.S. sanctions, but that isn’t stopping its besieged government from coming to the rescue of Caribbean islands ravaged by a string of catastrophic storms. The assistance is raising questions about whether it’s more about scoring political points and winning allies than humanitarianism.

“It’s all politics,” said Russ Dallen, a managing partner at investment bank Caracas Capital Markets who also advises U.S. lawmakers on Venezuela.

“Harvey hits and they come with a bid to give $5 million. Venezuelans are starving and they are going to give $5 million away to help Texans in million-dollar mansions who got flooded? It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense except as a marketing scheme.”

The island nations, though, welcome the help, which they said has been critical to their residents.

“Venezuela has been playing a very important role,” said St. Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves. “They took food and water very early to different places, moving [hundreds] of people from Barbuda to Antigua, ferrying food and water to Dominica, from St. Lucia, from St. Vincent.”

In Antigua, where it was the first to respond after Hurricane Irma decimated the smaller island of Barbuda early last month, one Venezuelan military plane flew in mattresses, water and medical personnel while another evacuated hundreds of storm survivors as a second powerful hurricane — Jose — threatened the island days later.

Some of the relief work was risky. Antigua’s foreign minister, Charles Fernandez, said the mammoth military aircraft had to land on a private, waterlogged grassy strip rather than the airport runway, which was deemed too short, and had to be pushed out of the mud at one point.

“There was a feeling they couldn’t do it,” he said. “The captain went over, looked at it and said, ‘We can do it.’ Our own airport authority had said it couldn’t be done.”

This is not the first time that Venezuela has provided aid to the region. But critics believe that more than ever, the country, which has used its Petrocaribe subsidized oil-export program to wield political influence in the region, has geopolitical motivations with its latest round of generosity.

President Nicolás Maduro’s leftist government has faced mounting pressure as the U.S. and other countries in the region have denounced him as a dictator following repressive street protests and a July 30 vote allowing him to strip lawmakers of power and put in place a new Venezuelan constitution.

While Washington has issued sanctions against the regime, including restricting Venezuela’s ability to borrow money from American creditors, the Organization of American States has sought to suspend Venezuela from the body.

But the OAS’ attempts have been stalled mainly by Caribbean nations, which in June blocked an OAS resolution demanding Maduro stop his plans to convene a constituent assembly to draft the new constitution.

Earlier this year, Venezuela announced it was withdrawing from the OAS, which it has long-accused of being a Washington mouthpiece.

“They are saying, ‘Look at what we are doing to help’...which they have used effectively to keep the OAS from sanctioning them,” said Dallen, the investment bank adviser.

The tactic has been effective in the past, Dallen said, pointing to Venezuela’s help for Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. The country even forgave billions of dollars in Petrocaribe debt owed by Haiti.

Haiti abstained from the June OAS vote on suspending Venezuela. But two months earlier, its ambassador accused the U.S. and other hemispheric diplomats of orchestrating a “cosmetically disguised” coup in Venezuela.

“Venezuela has been very generous to Haiti after their previous disaster, and the Haitians have never forgotten that,” Dallen said, “and amazingly they voted with Venezuela at the OAS when the U.S. was trying to sanction them. That’s ultimately the targeted results.”

Still, while many Venezuelans are suffering amid the country’s economic crisis, the socialist administration has refused offers of international aid for its own citizens.

Fernandez, the Antiguan minister, said he understands the difficulties in Venezuela, but he sees the South American nation as a friend that has always “reached out to the Caribbean.”

“When my people’s backs are to the walls and someone reaches out a hand, I don’t bite it. I say, ‘Thank you,’ ” he said. “We have a humongous task. China has come to our aid. Venezuela, Cuba sent assistance even though they got hit hard by the hurricane. We could have said ‘No,’ and then what? Who would have really helped us?

“You see what is happening in Puerto Rico? I am sure they wish they had a Venezuela to come and offer them assistance,” Fernandez said.

Last week, Maduro boasted that his country had helped hurricane victims in the hemisphere more than Washington.

“We’ve helped the victims of Hurricane Harvey more than Donald Trump,” he said. “And now we have ordered a special program of aid and solidarity with the people of Puerto Rico who have also been abandoned by Donald Trump.”

Citgo has since announced that it will donate up to 50,000 barrels of diesel to the U.S. territory to assist federal, state and local authorities in providing services to those afflicted by Hurricane Maria.

During a high-level United Nations meeting on Irma’s impact in the Caribbean last month, Venezuela Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said not only was his country the first to respond in Barbuda but Venezuela had made a $1 million donation to Antigua’s hurricane relief fund.

Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne, who has advised his fellow Caribbean leaders to stay out of Venezuela’s internal affairs, noted that the country was more responsive than “some countries that have enormous resources.”

“I think it is to their credit that they have gone the extra mile to assist Antigua and Barbuda and other countries,” Browne said in an interview with the Caribbean Media Corp., just before he attended the UN General Assembly meeting in New York where he publicly thanked “the government and people of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela who went beyond the call of duty to assist.”

Asked about Venezuela’s political troubles, Browne said in the CMC interview: “I’m quite sure that a lot of things that are said about Venezuela are grossly exaggerated”

Patrick Antoine, a diplomat who represents Grenada in the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, which includes many of the hurricane-struck islands, said the region should be grateful for Venezuela’s assistance.

Speaking at a press conference last week after returning from storm-ravaged Dominica, Antoine recounted how a Venezuelan search and rescue team saved a Trinidadian man and his Canadian wife, flying them off the island after their home was devastated by Maria.

“We ought to very publicly say ‘Thank you’ to the government and to the people of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela,” said Antoine. “Regardless of what ideological perspective you come from, the level of service that they have given as first responders will stay with me for a very long time. And should stay with us all.”

Miami Herald Latin American Correspondent Jim Wyss contributed to this report.