U.N. halts Venezuela cash transfer programs

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro delivers his annual state of the nation speech in Caracas
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(This January 20 story corrects to change sourcing in paragraph 1 to United Nations, clarifies budget language in paragraph 8)

CARACAS (Reuters) - The United Nations said on Wednesday it has temporarily suspended programs in Venezuela that provide cash transfers to the poor via local nonprofit organizations.

"We're working with pertinent authorities so that the (cash transfer programs) are in line with the country's financial/banking regulatory framework with the aim of reactivating them, guaranteeing the safety of humanitarian workers and continuing to support ... vulnerable people," the agency wrote in an email.

It added that the suspension does not affect other humanitarian activities in its portfolio, and that it is seeking to provide other types of benefits to those who have been receiving cash transfers.

Venezuela's information ministry did not reply to a request for comment.

The decision follows Venezuela's detention of five members of HIV-prevention organization Blue Positive who now face charges including criminal association and money laundering, according to local media reports.

Blue Positive was not part of the OCHA cash transfer programs, according to the sources.

But the detentions followed a spate of police raids on nonprofit organizations, which the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights described as "disconcerting" in a statement earlier this month that called on Venezuela to stop harassing aid workers.

The United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in its 2020 Humanitarian Response Plan for Venezuela established a budget of $78.7 million for cash transfer and voucher programs via 32 humanitarian organizations.

Relief organizations worldwide are moving toward cash transfers to help poor citizens meet basic needs such as acquiring food while cutting costs associated with delivering supplies themselves.

But Maduro's government has been suspicious of foreign aid.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido last year created a program that made several monthly deposits of $100 to a group of health workers using funds seized in the United States, angering ruling Socialist Party officials.

Local minimum wage for most of 2020 was around $1 per month.

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth, Vivian Sequera and Luc Cohen in Caracas; Editing by Matthew Lewis & Shri Navaratnam)