Venezuelan troops used containers to block access to Tienditas Bridge along the Colombian border
Geneva (AFP) - UN agencies are ready to send aid to Venezuela as requested by opposition leader Juan Guaido, who more than 40 nations recognise as interim president, but they can only act with authorisation from the Caracas government, a spokesman said on Thursday.
Backed by the United States, European and Latin American allies, Guaido is challenging President Nicolas Maduro for the leadership of the oil-wealthy nation to end a crisis that has caused medicine and food shortages and forced more than 2.3 million Venezuelans to flee since 2015.
Some UN agencies are on the ground like UNICEF and the Pan American Health Organisation, part of the WHO, operating programmes in development and prevention, which they plan to expand.
But the World Food Programme, which provides emergency aid to countries in crisis and conflict is not operating in Venezuela at the moment.
"There is an urgent need for more humanitarian assistance," a UN spokesman in Geneva said.
Venezuela's crisis has deepened since last month when Guaido, head of the National Assembly, declared himself the country's legitimate leader. But Maduro has rejected calls for elections and retains the support of Russia, China and Turkey as well as the Venezuelan military.
Guaido has tried to organise shipments of US aid across the border but Venezuelan troops have blocked a crossing point from Colombia. Maduro has rejected all aid shipments saying they would open the way for a US military invasion.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in a letter to Guaido on January 29 responded that the UN is ready to expand its activities in Venezuela for humanitarian aid and development, the UN spokesman said.
"However, he added that for this the United Nations needs the consent and cooperation of the government," the spokesman said.
Venezuela's opposition-controlled parliament has approved a plan for distribution of food and medical aid sent by the United States and Colombia through Colombia and Brazil which have borders with Venezuela.
But any aid shipments will need the cooperation of the powerful military which despite a few defections remains loyal to Maduro and is still seen as key to the outcome of the country's power struggle.
- 'Neutrality' -
Estimating that the country has "huge needs", the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has doubled its resources for Venezuela but it has refused to be drawn into political divisions between Maduro's government and the opposition.
Venezuela's Red Cross said it was ready to distribute aid but only once it is allowed into the country.
Around 2,600 volunteers and Red Cross staff are on the ground running eight hospitals, 33 outpatient medical centres, and providing first aid, a spokesman for the federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies in Geneva said.
"They are also work with communities and people on the move to deliver water, to improve sanitation and hygiene, to prevent diseases, and to prepare for disasters and other emergencies," the spokesman said.
Doctors without Borders (MSF) also has teams ready to respond if needed, a spokesman said.
- 'US-backed conspiracy' -
Once one of Latin America's richest countries with the world's largest oil reserves, Venezuela has slipped deeper into economic crisis. Its inflation is the world's highest and as foreign currency has dried up, the population has suffered from food, medicine and goods shortages.
Maduro says the crisis is a US-backed conspiracy and Washington has imposed sanctions.
The World Food Programme, which cannot enter Venezuela until the government gives it the green light, said it does not have estimates about the food insecurity situation because it does not have teams on the ground.
A small team of WFP experts is being sent to the region immediately as part of preparations, Herve Verhoosel, WFP spokesman told AFP. Teams are also working on the humanitarian crisis from bases on the border of Colombia and neighbouring Ecuador.
"The government is aware of our willingness to provide assistance in Venezuela," Verhoosel said. "WFP is closely following developments in Venezuela and is prepared to enter the country, once authorized, to offer food assistance."