As Venezuelans pour into Colombia, U.S. pledges millions more to help ‘man-made’ crisis

After watching thousands of Venezuelans cross the border into Colombia on Monday — some pregnant, some sick on stretchers, some clutching newborn babies — the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Mark Green, said the tragedy of the exodus was compounded by the fact that it was entirely man made.

“We’re standing on the front lines of one of the largest displacements of people in the history of Latin America,” Green said, after visiting the international bridge in Cúcuta, where tens of thousands of Venezuelans enter Colombia every day to escape their nation’s economic collapse. “They are fleeing hunger, lack of medicine and lack of opportunities. And fundamentally, they are fleeing... a despotic and dysfunctional regime.”

He announced that the United States is putting an additional $6 million into health and nutrition programs in Colombia to aid some of the estimated 70,000 Venezuelans that cross the border daily — some for the long term and others seeking food or medicine before returning to their homes.

The USAID funds will help finance a program that feeds 2,700 Venezuelans free hot meals every day in Colombia, and will also support first-aid and vaccination efforts along the border.

The fresh funding is in addition to the nearly $16 million that Washington earmarked in April to help Venezuelan migrants in Colombia and Brazil. Since 2017, the Trump Administration has provided more than $56 million in aid to the region to confront the crisis.

Venezuela’s economic collapse — featuring the world’s highest inflation and chronic food and medicine shortages — has sparked an exodus that is rattling the region. Colombia alone estimates that it has absorbed almost 1 million people who have left Venezuela in the last two years. The influx is straining Colombia’s healthcare system, schools and other social services, particularly along the border.

Betsy Contreras, from El Piñal in central Venezuela, said she traveled for two days to find routine vaccines for her 13-month-old daughter.

There was a time when vaccines were prohibitively expensive in Venezuela’s black market, she said, but now they are simply non-existent.

“We don’t have them and there’s nowhere to find them,” she said..

Venezuela has downplayed the migration and blames its economic woes on U.S. financial sanctions, which it says have kept it from refinancing its debt and importing more food and medicine.

Green said the Maduro administration has routinely rejected offers of international aid. And he dismissed the notion that lifting U.S. sanctions might make a difference to average Venezuelans.

“If anybody thinks that Nicolás Maduro would do anything but continue to further his despotic rule, I think they are wrong,” he said. “The pressure on Maduro [through sanctions] is an effort to get the regime there to change its behavior. I have not seen any evidence that backing off pressure would help everyday Venezuelans.”

While the United States is unable to provide humanitarian aid inside Venezuela, it has earmarked $15 million for civil society groups in the country. And Green noted that many Venezuelans, like Contreras and her infant daughter, were crossing the border seeking food, medicine, education and other services, but had no intention of staying in Colombia.

By helping those people, he said, USAID is making a difference within Venezuela.

Green, who has visited refugee camps in Burma, Bangladesh, Sudan and South Sudan, said the Venezuelan crisis was also notable because it’s a “real-time catastrophe” growing every day, each time a Venezuelan crossed the border.

“I think in the United States, the average American thinks about displacement and displacement-caused humanitarian crises as happening in far-off places,” Green said. “But this is our neighborhood. These are our neighbors.”

Related stories from Miami Herald