Following a sharp increase in Venezuelan migration since 2015, the corporate mainstream media, alongside the governments of the US, EU and Colombia, is aggressively pushing the narrative of a “humanitarian crisis,” at the same time that Western NGOs flock to set up shop along the Colombian border.
But what if NGOs are being used to influence how the movement of people from Venezuela into Colombia is being shaped and reported, and what’s more, if they are directly benefiting from this situation? To explore the idea, we focus on one such NGO, US-based Mercy Corps, which recently announced an expansion of its operations on the Colombo-Venezuelan border.
Mercy Corps’s budget for global operations, of the order of US $500 million (according to its 2017 annual report), includes funding from US and EU government agencies. Its financiers have included the UK’s International Department of Development, which has regularly sent aid via Mercy Corps to rebel-held areas in Syria. Other funders include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Clinton Foundation.
In March 2018, Mercy Corps carried out a “rapid needs assessment” (RNA) of Venezuelan migrants arriving at two main points along the Colombian border. The information gathered was used to “demonstrate” the dangers involved during and after crossings from Venezuela, and the reasons for leaving the country. It is in response to this second question that the people interviewed by Mercy Corps all say the same thing: they are migrating due to an economic crisis in Venezuela, which is linked to hyperinflation.
Independent UN experts, as well as other commentators, have shown on many occasions that the causes of this economic crisis have been significantly exacerbated by the economic sanctions imposed for years upon Venezuela by the US, as well as clarifying that the crisis in Venezuela is economic, not humanitarian. Even US State Secretary Mike Pompeo recently admitted that the sanctions “sometimes have an adverse impact on the people of Venezuela.”
However, Mercy Corps is not concerned with narratives that expose US and EU complicity, and as such, its recommendations fail to include the most obvious point: end the sanctions and stop the hostility towards Venezuela as they are inflicting hardship on its population.
Instead, Mercy Corps’ RNA identified 3 basic needs to be met by the Colombian government: a path to legal entry into Colombia that did not involve passports, the legal right to work in Colombia with the same wages and protections as Colombians and access to shelter, food and water. It is on this third point which Mercy Corps looks to fish for substantial (tax-free) donations and financing from the Global North.
In April, the Colombian government agreed that migrants could register, without passports, at any of the 500-plus checkpoints it would set up along the border over a two month period, to end in June. The reason given was to see how many Venezuelans were entering Colombia. The checkpoints were spread along the 1,500 mile border. Any information supplied by migrants at the checkpoints would be retained by NGOs, not passed to government departments.
By August, the Colombian government agreed that nearly half a million Venezuelans could remain in Colombia for up to two years, look for employment and have access to basic services. The reason given for this change was to accommodate humanitarian needs.
This shift in policy was a reversal of the government’s ruling in February, when up to 3,000 Colombian soldiers were stationed along the border to check for passports. This tightening of rules was referred to as a “diplomatic closure” and the government claimed in a short time the number of migrants fell by 30%.
Yet within a few weeks Bogota U-turned its policy to allow the unhindered movement of Venezuelans, and NGOs such as Mercy Corps were conscripted to enable the process. The new policy of the Colombian government met exactly the needs identified by Mercy Corps, suggesting that the campaign for this migration was an international, organised effort.
In October of this year, Mercy Corps announced they are expanding their services on the border, including providing migrants with a debit card to purchase products. Yet, one out of every three Venezuelans attended by Mercy Corps did not see any improvements to their diet in the two weeks since arriving to Colombia, and 12 percent reported that it had worsened.
Since the Colombian government changed its policy, the number of people leaving Venezuela has increased, according to the Migration Policy Institute, an organisation affiliated to the EU.
As the exodus expands, the humanitarian needs of migrants grow more urgent.
Humanitarian crisis? Mercy Corps as a propaganda tool
The situation of Venezuelan migrants is now being called a “regional humanitarian crisis,” creating a picture of unimaginable catastrophe that needs external intervention.
This escalating crisis narrative of an expanding exodus is placing Venezuela under intense scrutiny. While punishing Venezuela with sanctions from the front, and promoting a migration crisis from behind, the EU and US, with the cooperation of Colombia, are attempting to box Venezuela into a more isolated and vulnerable position.
Colombia has enjoyed close ties with the EU, and soon after changing its policy on Venezuelan passports, it became a NATO partner, further cementing its EU and US dealings. This ballistic development means that the consequences of border conflict, fuelled by a recent movement of 5,000 extra troops to the Catatumbo border region, should be taken very seriously.
Meanwhile, Mercy Corps has consistently driven a narrative of a full-blown humanitarian crisis and rampant violence under President Maduro, including unfounded allegations of repression and torture. For instance, the NGO has made the unsubstantiated, hyperbolic claim on their website that “newborns in Syria have a better chance of survival than those born in Venezuela today,” wich clearly looks to stoke the fire.
Harnessing its “independent charity voice,” Mercy Corps is playing its part as a propaganda tool in vilifying the Venezuelan government, enabling its US and EU funders to continue their sanctions, which only worsen the economic hardship of average Venezuelans, the root cause for leaving their country, as explained in Mercy Corps’ own needs assessment. And whilst all this goes on, Mercy Corps gleefully rakes in ever greater funding so as to “attend” to the “humanitarian crisis” they, together with the mainstream media, have played a key role in manufacturing.
Political interference and profit from Mercy Corps
However, beyond playing a role in the international media war, Mercy Corps is intimately linked to the Washington policy-making establishment that has formulated the US policy of illegal, unilateral sanctions.
Mercy Corps is connected to the influential US Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) through its CEO Neal Keny-Guyer, who declared earnings of $460,000 just for his Mercy Corps role in 2017. Apart from being a member of the CFR, he also serves as chairman for Interaction, the US’ largest alliance of NGOs and sitting on the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Fragility, Violence and Conflict. The CFR, a virtual who’s who of America’s wealthiest and most powerful people, claims it “helps policymakers” on “international peace and stability,” whilst actually pushing Washington’s neoliberal agenda and interests around the world.
The president of the CFR is Richard Haass, Middle East advisor under George Bush, and advisor to Colin Powell under George W. Bush. On his 2016 election win, Donald Trump publicly considered Haass as an advisor.
The CFR president recently displayed his frustration that US-backed military coups and UN- sanctioned military intervention in Venezuela, all of which would create a further migratory exodus, were taken off the table, despite ongoing rumours from the White House, Bogota, and even Brasilia, that they may be be possible.
For those here and the region who will be quick to criticize the administration for this, i ask what is your policy other than watching Venezuela become a failed state that is starving and crushing its people and creating hundreds of thousands of refugees? https://t.co/ynG6foQvSD
— Richard N. Haass (@RichardHaass) September 8, 2018
Venezuela's future is bleak. Sanctions and refugee support will not alter things. R2P is essentially dead. Local govts need the capacity to deal w internal and regional security challenges. Existing regional bodies are inadequate. my latest from @ProSyn https://t.co/FL5odme3Cw
— Richard N. Haass (@RichardHaass) September 26, 2018
In February the CFR made a Preventive Action Plan which recommended more economic sanctions for Venezuela, and in May more US sanctions were imposed.
Whilst sanctions have helped create the conditions which drive people out of Venezuela, US government aid has flowed to NGOs in Colombia, to which Mercy Corps has taken its chunk.
Mercy Corps’ 2017 financial statement shows that the organization benefited from US $464,452,000 in governmental grants and private backing alone, only spending $139,876,000 in humanitarian relief and $46,699,000 in humanitarian recovery. Of this humanitarian relief, the vast majority was spent on the mysteriously entitled “subgrant” category, and only $21,753,000 on actual materials and supplies for migrants.
Aid and NGOs: Assets of US policymakers
In August, the US announced an aid plan at the United Nations Assembly General (UNGA), matching the plan set out by the CFR.
Additionally, in an April article the CFR also suggests “…bypassing the government, if enough aid is provided by the United States, the Lima Group, and the EU to enable people to bring some back into Venezuela.”
The CFR continues: “While not the ideal means to provide humanitarian aid inside Venezuela, smuggling is a well-established activity and effectively closing the border to the influx of such aid would significantly add to the discredit of the Maduro government.”
Indeed, the CFR is explicitly advocating illegal smuggling as a means of destabilizing the elected government in Caracas. Meanwhile, smuggling is a problem for Venezuela, but not in the terms described by the CFR. On the contrary, Venezuela has suffered from extensive smuggling of subsidized goods and fuel into Colombia, exasperating shortages and as such generating more inflation.
Mercy Corps: A toy in the US imperialist toolbox
This game played by think-tanks and policymakers reveals Washington’s glaring double-standards vis-a-vis Venezuela. While they help to create and exploit the need for basic foods and medicines in another hemisphere, roughly 45,000 of their own people die each year through lack of health care. Around 30 million Americans have no medical cover at all, roughly the population of Venezuela, which has health care written into its constitution.
Every year a further 2 million Americans travel out of the US for treatment they cannot afford at home. Some will die if they do not find treatment abroad, but instead of being a crisis, this is termed ‘medical tourism.’
At the same time, the US is deporting tens of thousands of Hondurans, while more attempt to cross the border into the US every day, a legacy of Hillary Clinton’s 2009 adventurism.
Yet, we are constantly told to believe that Washington cares about migrants and the well-being of Venezuelans.
While US policymakers play games around Venezuela, with toys from the imperialist toolbox, along with their EU friends, it is no wonder Maduro fears assassination.
This article is a combination of two texts by Nina Cross, the first of which was published by the Morning Star, edited by Venezuelanalysis.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.