Showdown Looms as Venezuela Opposition to Confront Border Troops Over Aid

By Reuters
February 23, 2019 Updated: February 23, 2019

CUCUTA, Colombia/URENA, Venezuela—Venezuela’s opposition and activists prepared on Saturday, Feb. 23, to confront troops stationed along the country’s borders to block their plan to bring in food and medicine.

Opposition volunteers in neighboring Brazil and Colombia plan to arrive at the border to help carry humanitarian aid to a sick and hungry population suffering from an economic meltdown under President Nicolas Maduro.

While the need for basic food and medicines is real, the effort is also meant to embarrass military officers who continue to support Maduro’s increasingly isolated government.

Juan Guaidó, recognized by most Western nations as the country’s legitimate head of state, defied court orders not to leave Venezuela by arriving on Friday in the Colombian border city of Cucuta, where aid from the United States and Colombian governments is stockpiled in warehouses.

Sebastian Pinera Juan Guaido
Chile’s President Sebastian Pinera, and Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, Colombia’s President Ivan Duque, Paraguay’s President Mario Abdo Benitez and Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary General Luis Almagro, attend the “Venezuela Live Aid” concert at the Tienditas cross-border bridge between Colombia and Venezuela, in Cucuta, Colombia, on Feb. 22, 2019. (Marcelo Segura/Courtesy of Chilean Presidency/Handout via Reuters)

Guaidó, 35, head of the opposition-run Congress, has provided few details on the transport plan. Trucks are expected to be driven by Venezuelan volunteers and some opposition figures have suggested forming human chains.

“Today the obstacles that the dictatorship created will tomorrow be rivers of unity, of peace,” Guaidó said in a news conference on Friday in Cucuta, where he was received by Colombian President Ivan Duque.

Venezuelan soldiers may bar the way.

Vice President Delcy Rodriguez said in a tweet late on Friday that Venezuela’s government shut the Tachira border that connects it with Cucuta temporarily “due to a series of illegal threats” by Colombia.

A group of frustrated Venezuelans who were seeking to cross into Colombia to work on Saturday morning threw rocks and bottles at National Guard troops, who responded with tear gas.

“We were all going to work, we want to work, the people attempted to force through,” said Viviana Meza, 29, who works in a Cucuta restaurant.

Demonstrators clash with Venezuela’s security forces in Urena, Venezuela, on Feb. 23, 2019. (Andres Martinez Casares/Reuters)

At least four National Guard officers on Saturday at the border disavowed Maduro’s government and requested assistance from the Colombian government, Colombia’s migration agency said on Saturday.

Videos on social media showed crowds first jeering and then cheering the men as they were escorted away by Colombian police.

Maduro blames the country’s dire situation on U.S. sanctions that have blocked the country from obtaining financing and have hobbled the OPEC nation’s oil industry. Rodriguez says the aid is poisoned.

Concerns about the potential for violence flared on Friday when the Venezuelan army opened fire in a village near the Brazilian border after indigenous leaders attempted to prevent them from advancing, killing a woman and her husband.

Venezuelan activists clash with security forces in Urena, Venezuela, on Feb. 23, 2019. (Andres Martinez Casares/Reuters)

“I don’t plan to leave my house over the weekend, especially after what happened near Brazil,” said Paulina Sanchez, a 68-year-old grandmother who lives just 300 yards (meters) from the Francisco de Paula Santander bridge, one of the crossings through which aid may pass. “This could turn into a powder keg.”

Nearly 200,000 people attended a benefit concert in Cucuta on Friday featuring Latin pop stars, including Luis Fonsi of “Despacito” fame, many of whom called on Maduro to step down.

A rival concert held by the ruling Socialist Party on the Venezuelan side was sparsely attended.

In January, Guaidó invoked articles of the constitution to assume interim presidency and denounced Maduro as a usurper, arguing his 2018 re-election was illegitimate.

By Nelson Bocanegra and Anggy Polanco