CARACAS (Reuters) - The first shipment of humanitarian aid from the Red Cross intended to alleviate a dire economic crisis in Venezuela arrived in the once-prosperous, oil-rich country on Tuesday, a representative of the organisation and a lawmaker said.
The delivery came after an about-face by President Nicolas Maduro, who last week said his socialist government had reached an agreement with the Red Cross to bring aid. Maduro had blocked previous efforts to deliver assistance and has denied the existence of a humanitarian crisis.
“The International Red Cross today delivered its first batch of support for Venezuela, together with the revolutionary government that I lead, and it was received in a legal and orderly way, complying with international protocols,” Maduro said in a speech broadcast on state television.
There was little hope that the shipment - intended to help hospitals cope with shortages of equipment and frequent power outages - would be anything more than a palliative measure for Venezuela, where over three million people have fled the chaos of hyperinflation and chronic shortages of food and medicine.
But opposition lawmaker Miguel Pizarro said the lack of “interference” by Maduro’s government with the entry of aid was a positive step and that more shipments would arrive in the days ahead.
“The same people who had previously denied the arrival (of aid), who had previously brought this country to the verge of confrontation, are today complying with humanitarian principles,” Pizarro told reporters at the Congress, adding that the Red Cross would handle the logistics of distribution.
Venezuela was plunged into a political deadlock in January, when Juan Guaido, the leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly invoked the country’s constitution to assume an interim presidency, arguing Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate.
Guaido has since been recognised as Venezuela’s rightful leader by most Western nations. Several countries, including the United States and neighbouring Colombia, contributed to a February effort to deliver aid across Venezuela’s land borders, in the hopes soldiers would disavow Maduro’s orders to block it.
While that effort failed, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said in late March it was prepared to start an aid operation.
Tuesday’s shipment, which arrived via airplane from Panama, included 14 power generators, 5,000 litres of distilled water, and three surgery equipment kits capable of serving 10,000 patients each, according to the Red Cross.
Mario Villarroel, the Red Cross’ president in Venezuela, said on Twitter that the materials would be distributed to hospitals around the country.
The United Nations estimates that a quarter of Venezuelans are in need of humanitarian assistance, with 1.9 million suffering from malnutrition and some 300,000 whose lives are at risk due to lack of medicine.
Reporting by Vivian Sequera, Shaylim Castro and Mayela Armas; writing by Luc Cohen; editing by G Crosse