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Venezuela's Maduro begins allowing aid against hunger, virus

FILE - In this April 10, 2021 file photo, a man waits to unload bags of basic food staples, such as pasta, sugar, flour, and kitchen oil, provided residents through the CLAP government food assistance program in the Santa Rosalia neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro signed a deal the week of April 23, 2021 to let the U.N. World Food Program create a program to provide school meals for 1.5 million children, after years of rejecting humanitarian aid offers as unnecessary and as veiled attempts by the U.S. and other hostile forces to destabilize his government. (AP Photo/Matias Delacroix, File)
FILE - In this April 10, 2021 file photo, a man waits to unload bags of basic food staples, such as pasta, sugar, flour, and kitchen oil, provided residents through the CLAP government food assistance program in the Santa Rosalia neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro signed a deal the week of April 23, 2021 to let the U.N. World Food Program create a program to provide school meals for 1.5 million children, after years of rejecting humanitarian aid offers as unnecessary and as veiled attempts by the U.S. and other hostile forces to destabilize his government. (AP Photo/Matias Delacroix, File) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

CARACAS – For a second time this month, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has reached an agreement with the sort of global aid agencies he has often shunned to bring help to his country's people.

Maduro this week signed a deal to let the United Nations World Food Program provide school meals for 1.5 million children. It follows an agreement worked out with another agency to access COVID-19 vaccines under a U.N.-backed program.

Maduro for years had rejected numerous humanitarian aid offers as unnecessary and as veiled attempts by the United States and other hostile forces to destabilize his socialist government.

That stance appears to have wavered amid continuing hardships.

“I’m ready ... as president of the republic to move boldly forward in signing new projects, new agreements and new food plans that put life, nutrition, protein and development at the center of the entire Venezuelan family,” Maduro said Wednesday, two days after signing the school lunch initiative.

Venezuela has been vaccinating part of its population with the Russian Sputnik vaccine and the Chinese Sinopharm. But Maduro's government on April 10 announced it had covered a $64 million down payment to join the U.N.-backed COVAX vaccine program — a step that had been delayed by the fact that the U.S. and several other nations had stripped his government of control over its foreign assets held within their borders.

The U.S. and about 60 other countires instead recognize Maduro's chief rival, opposition leader Juan Guaidó, as the country's legitimate ruler — putting his hand on Venezuela's purse strings. Weeks before Maduro's vaccine announcement, Guaidó and a group of former members of the National Assembly agreed to ask the U.S. Department of the Treasury to release a portion of the frozen funds to pay for COVAX access.

While the two deals show Maduro flipping in his stance on aid, both also help reassert his position as the country's leader.

That's not in doubt within Venezuela, where he controls all levels of government, as well as the security forces, but it's challenged abroad by countries who consider his 2018 reelection to have been fraudulent.

“Clearly, the situation has gotten to a point where it’s more of an advantage for Maduro to pose with the head of the World Food Program than it is a weakness," said Jacqueline Bhabha, professor of the practice of health and human rights at Harvard University.

"He’s made a political calculation; (WFP officials) have made a political calculation that it’s worth being associated with him,” Bhabha added.

The World Food Program initiative aims to feed children in parts of the country where access to food is most fragile. It will provide school meals, help remodel school cafeterias and train staff. It hopes to reach 185,000 students by year’s end and 1.5 million by the end of the 2022-2023 school year.

Both Maduro and Guaidó tweeted images — separate ones — of themselves with David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Program.

The U.N. agency is hoping to get a start at easing growing hunger in the country with the world's largest claimed oil reserves. It estimated at least a third of Venezuelans struggle to get enough to eat and ranked the country among the nations with the highest food challenges.

Beasley flanked by Maduro during a televised event expressed gratitude for the support the agency received from all stakeholders, “allowing us to be independent, neutral and not allowing our work to be politicized.”

A typical monthly wage of about $5, with bonuses included, is just enough to buy just 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of chicken.

Maduro's critics blame economic collapse on years of corruption, bumbling and wrong-headed policies. His allies blame U.S. economic sanctions, sabotage by his foes and the global collapse of oil prices.

“Maduro is getting a little bit of water on a raging wildfire, and that water is the best that WFP could get,” said Jacqueline Mazza, who teaches Latin American studies at Johns Hopkins University.

While Maduro likes to show that he “snubs his nose” at international observers, Mazza said he is probably hoping to get a “disproportionate amount of goodwill” from the agreement.

Aid agencies allowed to work in Venezuela in the past often have complained of government interference. Doctors Without Borders in November said it was withdrawing help from a Venezuelan hospital treating COVID-19 patients after authorities did not give work permits for essential personnel.

Bhabha said the school lunch plan is a stopgap, not a solution to the country's critical food situation. Millions of people have fled Venezuela's collapsing economy in recent years, but Bhabha noted that the poorest people often lack the resources needed to leave — and so continue to suffer.

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Garcia Cano reported from Mexico City.