Funds seized in U.S. help Venezuela health workers survive crisis

CARACAS (Reuters) - For Venezuelan hospital security guard Yurymay Diaz to buy a full cart of groceries and put aside enough money to buy new shoes for her daughter, it took two special bonus payments worth nearly 20 times her monthly salary.

Francis Guillen (C), who was a nurse at a public hospital and now sells homemade hair products at an informal street stand, participates in a healthcare workers' protest against low wages in Caracas, Venezuela, October 29, 2020. REUTERS/Adriana Loureiro

The two $100 deposits to the 48-year-old mother of two in September and October did not come from the Caracas hospital where she works, but rather from funds seized by the United States from the government of President Nicolas Maduro.

Diaz is one of 62,700 health sector workers to receive payments through an effort by Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido to channel seized offshore funds to those on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic who also struggle under the country’s crippling economic crisis.

“For what someone like me makes, that’s like a million dollars. It felt like more money than I’d ever had in my life,” said Diaz in an interview in her sister’s home where she lives.

“When it started, people laughed at us. It was terrible what they were saying on social media. But once they started depositing, we were the ones writing to them.”

In recent years, the U.S. government has imposed a series of sanctions on the socialist Venezuelan government of Maduro in an effort to dislodge him from power, accusing him of corruption, human rights violations, and rigging his 2018 re-election. Maduro denies those accusations and blames the sanctions for hurting Venezuela’s economy.

The United States and dozens of other countries have recognized Guaido as the rightful head-of-state, but Maduro retains the support of the military and controls state functions.

The ‘Health Heroes’ program marks the first time Guaido’s opposition has managed to directly transfer funds frozen by the United States as part of its sanctions.

The economic relief for health workers - who make around $5 per month - is a rare concrete victory for Guaido, who has seen his popularity wane since a euphoric opposition in 2019 helped him assume the parallel presidency.

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Health Heroes taps into some $342 million held by Venezuela’s central bank in offshore funds in the United States and seized under sanctions. A total of $18 million will be transferred to Venezuelan health workers, according to the opposition-run parliament.

The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, had to approve each of the recipients, said opposition legislator Manuela Bolivar.

“We depended, in effect, on the honesty of the participant, but because it’s public money we had to guarantee that the beneficiary was who they said they were,” said Bolivar, one of the organizers of the effort, in an interview in her home.

The U.S. Treasury Department declined to comment.

Venezuela’s information ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Maduro has repeatedly accused Guaido and his allies of stealing funds belonging to his government. Ruling Socialist Party officials have dismissed the idea that the funds would ever reach beneficiaries.

The parliament has also set aside a further $13.6 million of the seized funds to pay themselves. They say they have not received salaries since 2016, when Maduro cut off funding to the legislature.

Francis Guillen, a nurse at a public hospital who left her job this year, used her bonus to buy a point-of-sale terminal to make it easier to process payments for homemade hair products she now sells in a market.

She said part of the second $100 payment was used to buy a blender to make cakes to sell, and has stashed the rest away to have money onhand for Christmas presents.

“It’s a drop of water in the middle of the desert,” Guillen, seated at a living room table filled with containers of her family’s home-made hair gel, said in an interview in her home in the working class neighborhood of Artigas on the west end of Caracas.

“We don’t aspire to depend on Juan Guaido, nor do we aspire to depend on the government... We want a dignified salary.”

Reporting by Brian Ellsworth and Vivian Sequera; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Diane Craft