By Stephanie Nebehay and Brian Ellsworth
GENEVA/CARACAS (Reuters) – The United Nations on Monday announced $9.2 million in health and nutritional aid for crisis-stricken Venezuela, where hunger and preventable disease are soaring amid the collapse of the country’s socialist economic system.
It is the first U.N. emergency funding for the government of President Nicolas Maduro, which blames the country’s economic problems on U.S. financial sanctions and an “economic war” led by political adversaries.
Government critics celebrated the move as a recognition by Venezuelan authorities that the country faces a humanitarian crisis – something Maduro has denied in the past – and a step toward treating a population starved of basic services.
But some worry the funds could fuel the corruption of the ruling Socialist Party, which was put on display last week when a former Venezuelan treasurer told U.S. prosecutors he took $1 billion in bribes.
The U.N. Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) will support projects to provide nutritional support to children under five years old, pregnant women and lactating mothers at risk, and emergency health care for the vulnerable, CERF’s website said.
“CERF allocations are made to ensure a rapid response to sudden-onset emergencies or to rapidly deteriorating conditions in an existing emergency,” according to CERF’s website.
CERF mainly funds projects in countries at war or experiencing other crises like natural disasters, a U.N. official told Reuters, adding that other U.N. agencies may have provided funding to Venezuela through separate programs.
Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Aid for Venezuela’s crisis has until now been focused on South American nations that have received most of the 3 million Venezuelans who have left the country amid a mass exodus since 2015. CERF’s website shows it has provided $6.2 million for “Venezuela’s Regional Refugee and Migration Crisis.”
Many governments have been wary of providing direct aid to Venezuela, where officials face sanctions from the United States and Europe for alleged wrongdoing including corruption, human rights abuses and drug trafficking.
“I celebrate them finally accepting aid,” exiled opposition legislator Jose Manuel Olivares, a doctor and activist on health issues, said in a telephone interview, but added:
“This is a government of profoundly corrupt institutions, and (the funds) could end up in a public official’s bank account in a tax haven”.
(Reporting and writing by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; additional reporting by Luc Cohen in Caracas; Editing by Mark Heinrich and James Dalgleish)