CARACAS, Venezuela – Government agents raided offices and frozen the bank accounts of a large Venezuelan charity. Thousands of children are threatened by a lifeline during one of the world’s deepest humanitarian crises.
The raids, which began last week, are the government’s latest attack on perceived opponents as President Nicolás Maduro steadily consolidates power. After crushing opposition parties, his campaign of repression has increasingly been directed against independent civil organizations trying to alleviate the crisis.
The government has accused the charity Feed the Solidarity of channeling foreign donations for political subversion without providing evidence. The charity and its allies called the allegations and raids a persistent political ploy that threatens the lives of the country’s most vulnerable citizens.
“The effects will be brutal,” said Susana Raffalli, a well-known Venezuelan nutritionist and relief activist. “Every social worker will now be afraid to keep working.”
When Venezuela’s economy collapsed under Maduro, the government drastically cut spending on education, health care, and even food aid, and let nonprofit groups fill the void. According to a survey of the country’s largest public universities, last year only 4 percent of Venezuelans earned enough to meet their basic needs.
According to its founder, Roberto Patiño, Feed the Solidarity operates dozen of soup kitchens in working-class areas across the country that care for 25,000 children. According to interviews by the New York Times with dozen of beneficiaries over the past two years, the charity lunch is often the only daily meal for children.
Many children only eat part of their meals so that they can bring the rest home to their families.
Mr Patiño said the charity will have to suspend its service next week because the freeze on its bank accounts is preventing it from buying groceries.
The crackdown began last week when banking regulators and secret police raided Venezuela’s largest private bank, Banesco, to investigate the charity’s money transfers to vulnerable families, Patiño said. The bank issued a statement distancing itself from Mr Patiño but did not respond to a request for comment on the regulator’s raid.
This week, the secret police raided Feed the Solidarity’s office and registered residence of Mr. Patiño and informed his family that they had an arrest warrant for the activist.
Mr Patiño is a member of the moderate opposition Justice First party in Venezuela, but has always claimed that his social work is separate from politics.
“We receive people from all political tendencies, there is no politics in our canteens,” said the 32-year-old Patiño in a telephone interview from hiding. “What hurts me the most now is that all these kids are not going to eat next week.”
The crackdown on the charity is part of Mr Maduro’s long campaign of repression against social and political forces beyond his control. But it seems to directly contradict his attempts to convince the incoming Biden administration to ease the international sanctions that have strangled the economy.
Feed the Solidarity is part of the United Nations humanitarian program in Venezuela and has received financial support from the European Union, several of its main member states and the Vatican.
The US Embassy in Venezuela described the harassment of the charity in a Twitter post on Thursday as “a despicable act of the regime”.
The local missions of the European Union and Germany did not respond to requests for comments on the raids against the charity.
Mr Maduro has seen the United Nations and the Vatican as appropriate mediators in the country’s political crisis and sought to rebuild economic ties with Europe to offset the tightening of American sanctions. Feed the Solidarity is also the local partner of the international charity Save the Children, which was run by Jill Biden, wife of Mr Biden, until last year.
“Politically, he didn’t need that,” said Ms. Raffalli, the auxiliary activist, referring to Mr. Maduro. “A state that has to raid nonprofits in order to regulate them is a weak state – a state with very little political capital.”
Isayen Herrera contributed to the coverage.