Turn the Lights On - A New Chapter of Humanitarian Aid in Venezuela

Date: May 12, 2019

Venezuela is going through a complex humanitarian emergency, or what many have called the worst humanitarian crisis in the history of Latin America. The economic sanctions imposed by the US government in early 2017 are now labeled as the direct cause of the deaths of 40,000 Venezuelans in 2018.

This high death-count was released in a widely disseminated article by Mark Weisbrot and Jeffrey Sachs in 2019, sponsored by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) in Washington DC[i]and contended by sanction supporters. The article includes contributions of witnessing organizations on the ground, such as CodeVida and Provea in Venezuela.[ii]These organizations focus on the day-to-day struggles of the Venezuelan people by observing and documenting a wide range of events, including the devastating conditions of hospitals and brutal attacks on individual protestors.

Rafael Uzcátegui, the current general coordinator of Provea in Venezuela, outlines the organization's position through his Twitter account.[iii]As Human Rights activists, they denounce the oppression of Maduro's regime but, at the same time, express their strong opposition to any type of intervention from the US.

As organizations like Provea make explicit, the bare life indicators listed in the CEPR report are hardly a proper account of the suffering in a country bending under electric shortages and a lack of all supplies, including medical means, in the midst of extreme forms of violence. This is the unavoidable everyday reality for millions of Venezuelans. These events and the clashes between protestors, mostly resulting in deaths and incarcerations, continuously compose the Twitter feed as we follow the crisis in Venezuela.

Provea goes further than reporting anecdotal accounts of the events and manages to create reports such as the September 2018 document on the conditions of HIV, cancer, diabetes, and hypertension patients in the country, identifying 300,000 people at risk due to the lack of doctors, medical supplies, and medicines needed for treatment.

In January 2019, further sanctions were imposed on Venezuela by the US, following their support of Juan Guaido as the new legitimate president over Nicolas Maduro. These sanctions will most likely result in an increasing number of deaths and the intensification of the suffering and displacement of the population.

For many years to this date, the Venezuelan government of Maduro has been unable to respond to this dire situation and has even tried to deny the need for humanitarian assistance, resulting in a confusing array of humanitarian responses conducted by a diverse range of aid workers.[iv]This ecosystem of humanitarian practices[v]is comprised of various foreign governments, including the US through the presence of USAID, as well as Latin American countries like Brazil and Colombia, Venezuelan NGOs (CodeVida and Provea), the ENCOVI, a survey on living conditions led by three Venezuelan Universities, and, more recently, the Red Cross.

In this list, it is impossible to exclude the political opposition movement led by Juan Guaido and the seated administration of Maduro that allowed the delivery of the first humanitarian relief shipment from China, consisting of medicine and hospital supplies, to enter the country via air cargo. The receipt of this shipment took place on March 30th, more than a month after Twitter exploded with posts of a sabotaged aid convoy set on fire (by protestors, according to a report from The New York Times) on the Cucuta bridge at the border of Colombia and Venezuela. After the Chinese aid was delivered, the Red Cross followed with a cargo shipment from Panama on April 16, opening a new chapter in the humanitarian emergency.

The root of this crisis is complex but is ultimately a standoff between global powers, or in the language of the cold war era, a proxy war. Venezuela has the highest reserves of oil in the world, once managed by international oil conglomerates and now under PDVSA, a state company supported by a wide range of actors, including Russian and Chinese interests. But to speak of the geopolitical context, its players, their tensions, and the colonial structures in Latin America is a distraction from the collateral damage[vi]of the US-imposed economic sanctions. Weisbrot and Sachs (2019) go as far as calling the deaths resulting from the sanctions collective punishment[vii]and a crime against humanity; in other words, an illegal act under international and US laws.

To understand possible paths to recovery, we can focus on the organizations and people better positioned to inform the humanitarian efforts in the country. Organizations such as CodeVida and Provea should be considered at the frontline of the humanitarian ecosystem, with both cautionary and emancipatory potential for the success and further evolution of humanitarian aid. CodeVida and Provea have many advantages over the Red Cross and Chinese aid. They are capable of providing indicators with context, history, and meaning. Furthermore, they are made of people that understand the locality and can help to situate data,[viii]thus lending them a better understanding of the conditions of the Venezuelan people.

Weisbrot and Sachs’ (2019) report makes strong statements about the causation of the crisis in Venezuela and assigns the deaths to many culprits in a pie chart of bare life. The report is reinforced by the information provided by CodeVida and Provea, but the report fails to recognize the real contribution of these organizations being on the ground in proximity to the situation. CodeVida and Provea are witnesses, and through their forensic work, they have the potential to create rich datasets and archives that recognize the provisional status[ix]of how the population experiences risks.

It is easy to see that politically-motivated humanitarian aid, such as USAID or the Chinese aid, will mostly serve the objectives of the ones deploying it. There is no doubt that the Venezuelans are suffering, and all assistance is urgently needed regardless of origin, but it is perplexing that with all the wealth under the feet of the Venezuelans, many more will still continue to suffer and die. While the stalemate between superpowers is prolonged in the arena of geopolitics, only through the work of counting, collecting, and archiving can Venezuelans begin to imagine a recovery operation.

It is essential to recognize that in the future reconstruction, international organizations will only make a fraction of the effort, and the funding will have to come from the oil wealth in a humanitarian space yet to be reconfigured. Venezuelans will need more than the analytics of economists like Sachs, regardless of their contribution to justice in international relations. Bare life indicator approaches will not be enough since they do not allow for the open-ended processes that are required to identify public demands.

As for the ongoing efforts, join Rafael Uzcátegui and Provea next Sunday as they move the auxiliary space of the humanitarian crisis to the Centro Cultural Chacao, where, together with a group of local NGOs, they will host a homage to Bob Marley. A concert with the motto Rise for your Rights and, as the poster advertises, garantizada luz con planta electrica, electric power in the form of light (and music), will be guaranteed by a small, mobile, power-generating station.


[i] “Economic Sanctions as Collective Punishment: The Case of Venezuela” is a report by Mark Weisbrot and Jeffrey Sachs, released very recently in April, 2019. It was picked up by Fox News and other news outlets.

[ii] CodeVida is the organization advocating for the right to healthcare access, and Provea is an organization working with human rights activists throughout Venezuela.

[iii] Some of the twitter accounts I follow are @NicolasMaduro, @jguaido, @SecPompeo, @AmbJohnBolton, @_Provea, @codevida, and @fanzinero, among many others.

[iv] Aid Workers: I use the term to describe all actors, local and foreign, since categories are difficult to define and NGOs, government institutions, foreign aid organizations, and others all prepare for recovery.

[v] Humanitarian Ecosystem: A Combination of Weizman's "humanitarian present" and Smirl's "auxiliary space."

[vi] Collateral damage as defined by E. Weizman: Collateral is structural rather than accidental. It is in the collateral – flood or blood – that a government – divine or human – can demonstrate, indeed exercise, its power.

[vii] Collective punishment: Defined by the Geneva and Hague international conventions.

[viii] Situated data: A notion based on feminist STS and critical data studies.

[ix] Provisional status of risk categories in the analysis of institutional risk assessment by Sheila Jasanoff.


Casey, N., Koettl, C., & Acosta, D. (2019, March 10). Footage contradicts U.S. claim that Maduro burned aid convoy.The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/10/world/americas/venezuela-aid-fire-video.html

Dillon, L., Lave, R., Mansfield, B., Wylie, S., Shapiro, N., Chan, A. S., & Murphy, M. (2019). Situating data in a Trumpian era: The environmental data and governance initiative. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 109(2), 545–555. https://doi.org/10.1080/24694452.2018.1511410

Jasanoff, S. (2012). Science and public reason. Routledge.

Redfield, P. (2011). Cleaning up the Cold War: Global humanitarianism and the infrastructure of crisis response. The MIT Press.

Weisbrot, M., & Sachs, J. (2019).Economic sanctions as collective punishment: The case of Venezuela. Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). https://cepr.net/images/stories/reports/venezuela-sanctions-2019-04.pdf

Smirl, L. (2008). building the other, constructing ourselves: Spatial dimensions of international humanitarian response. International Political Sociology, 2(3), 236–253. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-5687.2008.00047.x

Weizman, E. (2011). The least of all possible evils: Humanitarian violence from Arendt to Gaza. Verso.