CARACAS — FGovernment officials have raided the headquarters and frozen the bank accounts of a major Venezuelan food charity, endangering vital aid to thousands of children during one of the world’s most serious humanitarian crises.
The raids, which began last week, are the government’s most recent attack on its alleged opponents, as President Nicolás Maduro consolidates his power. After crushing opposition parties, his campaign of repression is increasingly focusing on independent civil organizations trying to mitigate the crisis.
The government has accused the food charity, Alimenta la Solidaridad, of channeling foreign donations for political subversion, without presenting evidence of the alleged offense. The nonprofit organization and its allies called the allegations and raids a cruel political tactic that puts the lives of the country’s most vulnerable citizens at risk.
“The consequences of this will be brutal,” said Susana Raffalli, a prominent Venezuelan nutritionist and activist. “From now on all social workers will be afraid to continue working.”
When Venezuela’s economy began to collapse under Maduro, the government slashed spending on education, health care and even food aid, leaving nonprofits to fill that void. Last year, only four percent of Venezuelans earned enough to meet their basic needs, according to a survey conducted by the country’s most prestigious public universities.
Alimenta la Solidaridad runs dozens of soup kitchens in working-class areas across the country, serving 25,000 children, according to its founder Roberto Patiño. The charity lunch often provides children with their only daily meal, according to The New York Times interviews with dozens of recipients over the past two years.
Many children eat only part of their meals so they can take the rest to their families.
Patiño said the organization will have to interrupt its service next week because the freezing of their bank accounts prevents them from buying food.
The repressive measures began last week when bank regulators and the secret police raided Venezuela’s largest private bank, Banesco, to investigate the charity’s money transfers to vulnerable families, according to Patiño.. The bank issued a statement distancing itself from Patiño, but did not respond to a request for comment on the regulatory body’s raid.
This week, the National Police Against Corruption raided the headquarters of Alimenta la Solidaridad and Patiño’s registered residence, and informed his family that they had an arrest warrant for the activist.
Patiño is a member of Primero Justicia, an opposition party, but has always maintained that his social work is separate from politics.
“We receive people of all political persuasions; politics does not exist in our dining rooms “said Patiño, 32, in a telephone interview from underground. “What hurts me the most right now is that all those kids won’t get their meals next week.”
The measures against the charity are part of a long campaign of repression by Maduro against the social and political forces he does not control. However, they appear to directly contradict his attempts to persuade the incoming Joe Biden administration to ease the international sanctions that have strangled the economy.
Feed Solidarity is part of the UN humanitarian program in Venezuela and has been financially supported by the European Union, several of its main member states, and the Vatican.
The US embassy in Venezuela called the harassment of the charity “a despicable act of the regime,” in a Twitter post on November 26.
Local missions for the European Union and Germany did not respond to requests for comment on the raids against the charity.
Maduro has viewed the United Nations and the Vatican as capable mediators in the country’s political crisis and has sought to rebuild economic ties with Europe to offset the tightening of US sanctions. Feed Solidarity is also the local partner of the international charity Save the Children. Jill Biden, wife of President-elect Joe Biden, chaired the board of trustees of Save the Children’s US chapter until 2018.
“Politically, I didn’t need this,” said Raffalli, the activist, referring to Maduro. “A state that has to raid non-profit organizations to regulate them is a weak state, with very little political capital.”
Roberto Patiño, second from left, and opposition leader Juan Guaidó comfort the family of a man killed in an anti-government protest last year in Caracas, Venezuela, on February 3, 2019. (Meridith Kohut / The New York Times)
Children eat lunch at an Alimenta la Solidaridad dining room in Caracas, Venezuela, on February 5, 2019.
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