Arepas by Airmail?

Escasez en Venezuela, Central Madeirense • Wikimedia Commons

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Food riots, bare shelves, and soaring crime rates in Venezuela have put the country’s desperate conditions on the international radar this summer. But faith communities and individuals who want to help might need to show uncommon creativity.

That’s because the Venezuelan government prohibits foreign nongovernmental organizations from operating in the country. The international relief agency World Vision abides by those rules and maintains no presence in Venezuela.

Episcopal Relief & Development likewise does not work in Venezuela and has received no requests for monetary or technical assistance from the Diocese of Venezuela since the crisis began, said Abagail Nelson, senior vice president for programs.

“The diocese is focusing on people in the affected areas, and it has been clear about taking a pastoral role rather than getting involved in the political situation,” Nelson said. “Through their internal networks and capabilities, they are supporting and caring for one another.”

But needs are severe and the situation remains dangerous, especially for poor residents who lack access to the underground economy, according to Dany Bahar, a resident fellow in the Global Economy and Development program at the Brookings Institution. Unlike middle- and upper-class people who have savings in dollars, the poor in Venezuela have few options and face mounting risks.

“In this crisis, the poor are the ones that are being affected the most by far,” said Bahar, who is also an associate at Harvard’s Center for International Development. “People are hungry. They’re spending hours in line at the supermarket. Crime has gone up.”

To assist from abroad, Bahar said, would-be donors have two viable options: they can send either dollars or food. Dollars are not of much inherent value in a country where inflation is expected to exceed 700 percent this year, according to International Monetary Fund projections.

“If I sent $1,000 to you in the church in Venezuela, it would only make sense for you if you could exchange it in the black market,” Bahar said. “Otherwise, you would get very few bolívars, which is the local currency, and there’s really nothing you can do with that.”

Sending money directly to congregations to help meet local needs is a practice preferred by some relief groups in other regions of the world. The Anglican Relief & Development Fund supports organizations within the Anglican Communion when they ask for help. On behalf of the Anglican Church in North America, the ARDF gives away $800,000 to $900,000 per year, but no requests for funds have come from Venezuela.

“We just don’t react unless there is a place for the funds to go to,” said Canon William Deiss, executive director.

Observers say the humanitarian crisis in oil-rich Venezuela has been brewing for years, but the economy collapsed this year after a plunge in oil prices. As imports became unaffordable for a government with no foreign currency to spend, inflation skyrocketed. Long lines formed outside stores whenever deliveries might be en route. Unrest has spread and violent crime has soared, along with calls for elections to replace President Nicolás Maduro.

Meanwhile, a basic challenge persists: how to feed the hungry? The answer might involve the second option: send food to where it can be distributed.

That’s what Venezuelan immigrants to the United States do to help their families back home, said Bahar, who is from Venezuela and has relatives there. They use Miami-based courier services with track records for successfully navigating Venezuelan borders and assuring that goods reach their destinations. Individuals and congregations in the Episcopal Church could potentially do the same, he said, by collecting non-perishables and sending them to church addresses in the Diocese of Venezuela.

Shipping food might or might not technically violate Venezuelan law, Bahar said. But either way, the government is allowing it, perhaps because it’s helping keep a measure of peace in an otherwise tumultuous situation. And Venezuelans are glad to receive necessities because some essentials simply are not available, even on the black market.

“There are basic goods that are missing and medicines that are missing” from the underground economy, Bahar said. Thus, when Venezuelans have a choice, those in difficult situations would rather receive goods than money.

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