The World Food Program director called on the US and other nations to provide financial assistance to Colombia. NGOs have tried to help Venezuelans directly, but President Maduro has repeatedly refused humanitarian aid.
The World Food Program director, David Beasley, urged the international community on Tuesday to help Colombia handle the humanitarian "catastrophe" that is unfolding at the border with neighboring Venezuela.
Beasley delivered the warning after a two-day visit to the Colombian border city of Cucuta, where he gathered testimony from Venezuelans who had crossed the border.
"I asked, 'Why are you here?', and the answer people gave me was, 'We don't have any food.' And they said, 'Even if we had money, there's no food,'" Beasley recounted. "I don't think people around the world realize how bad the situation is and how much worse it could very well be," the WFP director said.
"This could turn into an absolute disaster in unprecedented proportions for the Western Hemisphere," Beasley warned.
Read more: Could there be a Venezuelan refugee crisis?
Colombia at risk
The Venezuelan exodus has sparked alarm across Latin American nations. It is estimated that as many as 3 to 4 million Venezuelans have emigrated, with several hundred thousand in 2017 alone. The bulk of these migrants in 2017 have fled to neighboring Colombia. The Colombian Ministry of Defense, Luis Carlos Villegas, said that there were approximately 700 thousand Venezuelan immigrants registered in the country.
Read more: Venezuelan exodus is Colombia's burden
While Beasley said Venezuela's humanitarian crisis was not being driven by an armed conflict, he also warned that the crisis could worsen. He pointed to the example of Syria, a country with a smaller population than Venezuela, which began with a minor food emergency and now has 6 million people a day that need UN food assistance.
As hyperinflation and widespread shortages of food and medicine batter Venezuela, the UN has offered to assist the South American nation directly. Yet, President Nicolas Maduro has repeatedly rejected offers of humanitarian aid, claiming that these are veiled attempts by the US and others to destabilize his government.
Read more: For Venezuela HIV patients, lack of medicine 'a death sentence'
Now the WPF director is urging the US and other nations to provide financial assistance to Colombia. The food NGO already has an established presence in Colombia, where it had helped feed those displaced by the country's half-century guerrilla conflict and it is currently working with the government to help meet its malnourishment eradication goal by 2030.
Beasley stressed the importance of shielding Colombia from the adverse effects that Venezuela's crisis could bring. "Colombia has made so much progress in the past many years with peace and the last thing it needs now is for all that success to be undone," he said.
Read more: Venezuelans facing economic crisis cross border to secure cash lifelines
On Saturday, the UN Refugee Agency asked countries in the region to share the burden of the Venezuelan refugee tide and appealed for countries to allow them in and provide them the necessary protections.
The last straw
Violent protests erupted across the country following a Supreme Court decision in late March 2017 to strip the legislative branch of its powers. Amid an international outcry, President Nicolas Maduro reversed the decision, but it was too late. Thousands took to the streets to call for new elections and dozens died in clashes with security forces.
Starvation a growing problem
Venezuelans spend more than 30 hours a week waiting in lines to shop, and are often confronted with empty shelves when they finally enter a store. President Maduro blames the crisis on US price speculation. The opposition, however, accuses the Socialist government of economic mismanagement.
Health care crisis 'reminiscent of war zones'
In Colombia, Venezuelans are collecting medical supplies to send home, as seen in this picture. Hospitals around the country have compared conditions to those seen only in war zones. As patient deaths rise, health officials have sounded the alarm on the rise of malaria and dengue fever.
Venezuela's National Assembly seizes power from opposition-led congress
Venezuela's pro-government constituent National Assembly was established in July of 2017. The new body adopted the authority to pass legislation on a range of issues, effectively taking away the powers of congress, which was under the opposition's control. The move drew wide international condemnation.
Western powers slap sanctions Venezuela's ruling officials
In response to the ongoing political crisis, the United States and European Union imposed a series of sanctions against ruling officials. The US has blacklisted members of the Constituent Assembly and frozen all of Maduro's assets that are subject to US jurisdiction. The EU, meanwhile, has banned arms sales to the country and is lining up to freeze assets and impose travel restrictions.
Government victorious in regional elections
In October 2017, Venezuela held two votes: regional elections and elections for governors, which were overdue since 2016. The opposition boycotted the vote, but then split, as some candidates and small parties chose to participate. This caused a deep rift within Maduro's opponents. The government went on to sweep the contest, which detractors say was unfair and heavily favored the regime.
Debt default looms
Last November the oil-rich, cash-poor nation faced its day of reckoning, as officials met with creditors to hammer out a deal to keep the country from defaulting on its debt — estimated to be up to $150 billion (€127 billion). US and EU sanctions, however, have limited the chance of an agreement. Creditors will almost certainly go after the country's oil reserves.
The 'massacre of El Junquito'
In January, Oscar Perez, Maduro's enemy number one, was found by police in the Caracas neighborhood of El Junquito. The ex-cop had been on the run since he launched grenades at government buildings in the wake of the 2017 protests. The government labeled him a "terrorist." Perez and six other rebels were killed in the ambush, which the opposition denounced as an "extrajudicial killing."
Presidential elections scheduled
The new National Assembly announced in January that it would grant Maduro's call for snap presidential elections on April 22. The electoral authority, CNE, later moved the date to May 20. The EU, the US and 14 Latin American nations warned that they would not recognize the results. The mainstream MUD opposition alliance boycotted the vote.
Maduro was re-elected to a second six-year term on May 20 with about 68 percent of the vote. Turnout was only 46 percent, according to the election body. However, the MUD opposition alliance, which boycotted the vote, put turn out at less than 30 percent. The Organization of American States called the elections neither free nor fair.
jcg/rc (AP, EFE)
Each evening at 1830 UTC, DW's editors send out a selection of the day's hard news and quality feature journalism. You can sign up to receive it directly here.