CARACAS, Venezuela — Government agents have raided the offices and frozen the bank accounts of a major Venezuelan food charity, threatening a lifeline for thousands of children 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 is increasingly targeting independent civil organizations trying to alleviate the crisis.
The government has accused the food charity, Feed the Solidarity, of channeling foreign donations for political subversion, without providing evidence. The charity and its allies called the accusations and raids a callous political ploy that threatens the lives of the country’s most vulnerable citizens.
“The effect of this will be brutal,” said Susana Raffalli, a prominent Venezuelan nutritionist and aid activist. “Every social worker will now have fear to continue working.”
As Venezuela’s economy crumbled under Mr. Maduro, the government drastically cut spending on education, health care and even food aid, leaving nonprofit groups to fill the void. Only 4 percent of Venezuelans last year earned enough to meet their basic needs, according to a survey by the country’s largest public universities.
Feed the Solidarity runs dozens of soup kitchens in working-class areas around the country, serving 25,000 children, according to its founder, Roberto Patiño. The charity’s lunch often provides the children’s only daily meal, according to New York Times interviews with dozens of beneficiaries over the past two years.
Many children only eat part of their meals so they can take the rest home to their families.
Mr. Patiño said the charity will have to interrupt its service next week because the freezing of their bank accounts prevents them from purchasing food.
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, according to Mr. Patiño. The bank issued a statement distancing itself from Mr. Patiño, but did not respond to request for comment on the regulator’s raid.
This week, the secret police raided Feed the Solidarity’s office and Mr. Patiño’s registered residence, telling his family that they had an arrest warrant for the activist.
Mr. Patiño is a member of Venezuela’s moderate opposition party Justice First, but he has always maintained that his social work is separate from politics.
“We receive people from all political tendencies, there are no politics in our canteens,” Mr. Patiño, 32, said in a phone interview from hiding. “What hurts me the most now is that all these children will not have their meals next week.”
The crackdown on the charity forms part of Mr. Maduro’s long campaign of repression against social and political forces outside his control. But it appears to directly contradict his attempts to persuade the incoming Biden administration to loosen the international sanctions that have strangled the economy.
Feed the Solidarity is part of the United Nations humanitarian program in Venezuela and has been supported financially by the European Union, several of its main member states and the Vatican.
The U.S. Embassy in Venezuela called the harassment of the charity “a despicable act from the regime,” in a Twitter post on Thursday.
The local missions of the European Union and Germany did not respond to requests for comment on the raids against the charity.
Mr. Maduro has viewed the United Nations and the Vatican as suitable mediators in the country’s political crisis and has tried to rebuild economic ties to Europe to compensate for tightening American sanctions. Feed the Solidarity is also the local partner of the international charity Save the Children, whose U.S. arm was chaired by Mr. Biden’s wife, Jill Biden, until 2018.
“Politically, he didn’t need this,” said Ms. Raffalli, the aid activist, in reference to Mr. Maduro. “A state that needs to raid nonprofits to regulate them is a weak state — a state with very little political capital.”
Isayen Herrera contributed reporting.