Just 8 of 368 Tons of U.S. Aid to Venezuela Actually Reached Country, Report Says

Only eight tons worth of U.S. aid out of 368 provided to Venezuela in 2019 actually reached the nation amid political and economic turmoil in the country that has led to a humanitarian crisis, a report by the Office of the Inspector General at the U.S. Agency for International Development published April 16 found.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) spent around $2 million to purchase and transport humanitarian aid to the Colombia-Venezuelan border and Caribbean island of Curacao between February and April 2019. The report revealed 360 tons that were not received was distributed in Colombia or shipped to Somalia, the Associated Press reported.

"USAID partnered with the State Department to prioritize the delivery of assistance to the Venezuelan people and to neighboring countries supporting and aiding Venezuelan migrants," the summary of the report said.

The report concerned the time period where Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó challenged the rule of President Nicolás Maduro and the U.S. recognized Guaidó as the country's leader, the Associated Press reported.

USAID's aid, which was ordered to be delivered to Venezuela under Guaidó, was opposed by Maduro and called a coup attempt. This led to an opposition organized caravan being blocked at Venezuela's border where a truck caught fire and destroyed $34,000 worth of U.S. aid.

The purpose of the report was to assess USAID's challenges in responding to Venezuela's crisis and their management of fraud risks.

"We made six recommendations to improve USAID's response to the Venezuela regional crisis and, in some instances, improve USAID's future responses to international disasters," the statement on the report said.

"Venezuelans are migrating primarily to neighboring countries in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) to escape severe shortages of food, medicine, and healthcare services; skyrocketing hyperinflation and unemployment; outbreaks of infectious diseases; and one of the highest homicide rates in the world," the report's introduction stated.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Damaged Trucks Carrying Venezuela Aid
Only eight tons worth of U.S. aid out of 368 provided to Venezuela in 2019 actually reached the nation amid political and economic turmoil in the country that has led to a humanitarian crisis. In this February 23, 2019, file photo, charred trucks that were part of a humanitarian aid convoy attempting to cross into Venezuela sit parked on the Francisco de Paula Santander international bridge in Cucuta, Colombia. Fernando Vergara/AP Photo

It was billed as the beginning of the end for Maduro. With foreign leaders in tow and the world watching, anti-Maduro activists gathered in Colombia in February 2019 with the aim of pushing entire warehouses worth of aid—flown in on U.S. military cargo planes—across the border into Venezuela.

Instead, the humanitarian convoy was violently blocked by security forces loyal to Maduro—the first in a series of miscalculations in the Trump administration's policy toward Venezuela.

More than two years later, the risky gambit is being questioned by a U.S. government watchdog. The report raises doubts about whether the deployment of aid was driven more by the U.S. pursuit of regime change than by technical analysis of needs and the best ways to help struggling Venezuelans.

The findings were published April 16 but have not been previously reported.

As media attention turned away and Guaido's fight to unseat Maduro unraveled in the months that followed, the U.S. assistance was quietly repurposed.

The report said the U.S. deployment of aid responded in part to the Trump administration's campaign to pressure Maduro rather than just coming to the aid of struggling Venezuelans.

For example, the assistance was needlessly delivered in giant Air Force C-17 cargo planes instead of cheaper commercial options that were available, the report said. Ready-to-use meals to fight child malnutrition were also sent even though USAID's own experts had decided the nutritional status of Venezuelan children didn't warrant its use at the time, investigators said.

To bolster Guaidó, USAID—believing U.N. agencies had been co-opted by Maduro—minimized funding to the United Nations even though some U.N. agencies had infrastructure inside Venezuela to distribute the aid.

A Venezuelan nonprofit organization, which isn't identified by name in the report, was awarded funding partly based on its alignment with U.S. foreign policy interests even though doubts persisted about whether it could meet the agency's legal and financial requirements.

The "directive to pre-position humanitarian commodities was not driven by technical expertise or fully aligned with the humanitarian principles of neutrality, independence and being based on needs assessments," the report said.

While international aid workers at the time issued similar warnings about the risks of assistance being politicized—the aid convoy in Colombia was preceded by a "Venezuela Live Aid" concert organized by billionaire Richard Branson—the findings of a U.S. agency tasked with auditing how U.S. tax dollars are spent carries additional weight.

The report, which was nearly two years in the making, was prepared to address challenges and "fraud risks" in USAID's response to the Venezuelan crisis. It contains six recommendations to improve coordination across the sprawling agency—the main vehicle for U.S. foreign assistance—and strengthen controls to avoid politicizing humanitarian action.

A USAID spokesperson said the agency welcomed the report's findings, which it is implementing, and all efforts to improve the effectiveness of USAID's work, especially in challenging environments.

Many of the decisions came from the office of then-USAID Administrator Mark Green, according to the report.

"The verbal direction did not establish clear accountability nor did it provide justification for decision-making," the report said.

A former Trump-era official disputed some of the report's findings, maintaining that the decision to send the aid on military planes was taken by the White House and State Department over objections from USAID. The former official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal decision making,

Green, in a statement, said he was proud of USAID's work to help Venezuelans in desperate need of assistance with bipartisan support from Congress.

"The Venezuelan crisis is one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world under the most challenging conditions where the illegitimate Maduro regime continues to place obstacles that prevent basic necessities for the Venezuelan people," said Green, who is now president of the Woodrow Wilson Center, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington. "The Venezuelan crisis is a destabilizing force that impacts the entire region and assistance continues to be needed to help save lives."

Whatever mistakes were made, the Trump administration's actions—coinciding with Venezuela's economic collapse—were key in pushing other governments and humanitarian groups to focus on the country's plight.

Shortly after Guaidó's aid delivery caravan failed, USAID started quietly working behind the scenes with U.N. agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other groups to get aid into Venezuela, where such goods are frequently distributed at government hospitals and agencies controlled by Maduro.

Those efforts have continued under President Joe Biden and recently saw the announcement that the World Food Program would soon begin distributing meals to 1.5 million Venezuelan children at a time of rising hunger in the oil-rich nation.

More than 5.1 million Venezuelans have fled the country since 2014, some of them by foot, to escape hyperinflation, widespread shortages of basic goods and a crumbling health care system.

A Man in Caracas, Venezuela
Only eight tons worth of U.S. aid out of 368 provided to Venezuela in 2019 actually reached the nation amid political and economic turmoil in the country that has led to a humanitarian crisis. Above, a man waits to fill water container from a pipe that runs mountain spring water in Boyaca Avenue on May 28, 2020, in Caracas, Venezuela. Carlos Becerra/Getty Images