MIAMI -- It was billed as the beginning of the end for Nicolás 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. A new report by the inspector general at the U.S. Agency for International Development 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.
The report focuses on the frenzied few months after opposition leader Juan Guaidó rose up to challenge Maduro’s rule, quickly winning recognition as Venezuela’s rightful leader by the U.S. and dozens of allies.
As part of that effort, USAID between January and April 2019 spent $2 million to position 368 tons of emergency supplies on the Caribbean island of Curacao and on the Colombia-Venezuela border.
Under Guaidó’s orders, the aid was supposed to be delivered into Venezuela in defiance of Maduro, who condemned the effort as a veiled coup attempt. But when an opposition-organized caravan that tried to enter Venezuela was blocked at the border, at least one truck caught fire, destroying $34,000 worth of U.S.-supplied aid.
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. In the end, only eight tons ever reached Venezuela, with the remaining 360 tons distributed inside Colombia or shipped to Somalia, the report found.
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 says.
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.
Since 2017, the U.S. has provided more than $500 million in humanitarian and development assistance to respond to the humanitarian crisis, much of it to countries like Colombia, Peru and Brazil that have absorbed the largest number of migrants.
Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman