Venezuela Humanitarian Aid Met With Tear Gas and Gunfire on Borders

By Reuters
February 23, 2019 Updated: February 24, 2019

Venezuelan troops loyal to ousted socialist dictator Nicolás Maduro fired tear gas and rubber pellets at supporters of interim President Juan Guaidó as they tried to bring foreign aid over the Colombian border on Feb. 23.

The clashes occurred as Guaidó, who most Western nations recognize as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, gave a personal send off to an aid caravan from the Colombian city of Cúcuta and Maduro’s socialist regime defied international pressure to step down.

Guaidó briefly boarded one of a dozen trucks carrying U.S.-backed humanitarian aid before they set off toward the border, where they were pushed back by Venezuelan security forces.

Colombia’s government said their contents would be unloaded and transported by “human chains” that have formed on the road that leads toward Venezuela.

But in the towns of San Antonio and Ureña, just across the border, troops fired tear gas and rubber bullets at opposition activists including lawmakers walking toward the frontier who were waving Venezuelan flags and chanting “freedom.” Witnesses reported constant gunfire without being able to identify the origin.

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Venezuelan security forces take position while clashing with demonstrators in Ureña, Venezuela, on Feb. 23, 2019. (Andres Martinez Casares/Reuters)

“They started shooting at close range as if we were criminals,” said shopkeeper Vladimir Gomez, 27, wearing a white shirt stained with blood. “I couldn’t avoid the (rubber) bullets and they hit me in the face and my back. We have to fight.”

Fearing a repeat of the violence at other border crossings, Guaidó ordered the volunteers on the Columbian side of Tienditas bridge to not move toward Maduro’s military stationed near shipping containers blocking the crossing.

Many of the demonstrators said they were peaceful civilians who simply wanted aid because of widespread food and medicine shortages in the once-prosperous country suffering an unprecedented economic meltdown.

“I’m a homemaker, and I’m here fighting for my family, for my children and parents, resisting the military’s tear gas and soldiers on motorbikes,” said Sobeida Monsalve, 42.

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Venezuela’s opposition supporters demand to cross the borderline between Colombia and Venezuela at Simon Bolivar bridge as Venezuela’s security forces stand in the borderline blocking their way in the outskirts of Cúcuta, Colombia, on Feb. 23, 2019. (Edgard Garrido/Reuters)

Others barricaded streets with burning tires, set a bus alight and hurled stones at security forces to demand that Maduro allow aid into a country ravaged by food and medicine shortages in the wake of an economic meltdown fueled by Maduro’s failed socialist policies.

National Guard troops also fired tear gas in Santa Elena near the Brazilian border where people tried to set up barricades to prevent armed pro-government agitators from entering.

On Feb. 22, troops had opened fire in a village in the area killing a woman and her husband. Thirty-five National Guard troops are being held by the indigenous community in protest, the mayor of the broader Gran Sabana municipality said.

Two humanitarian aid trucks crossed the Brazilian border although they had not passed through the Venezuelan customs checkpoint, according to a Reuters witness.

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A demonstrator lies on the ground after hitting a barbed wire while clashing with security forces in Ureña, Venezuela, on Feb. 23, 2019. (Andres Martinez Casares/Reuters)

Embarrass the Military

A social media video showed troops who defected on Feb. 23 driving armored vehicles across a bridge linking Venezuela and Colombia, knocking over metal barricades in the process, and then jumping out of the vehicles and running to the Colombian side.

“What we did today, we did for our families, for the Venezuelan people,” said one of the four men in a video televised by a Colombian news program, which did not identify them. “We are not terrorists.”

Colombian television also showed images of what it said was a Venezuelan officer who identified himself as Major Hugo Parra, recognizing Guaidó as president.

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A member of Venezuela’s security forces looks on in Ureña, Venezuela, on Feb. 23, 2019. (Andres Martinez Casares/Reuters)

Thirteen members of Venezuelan securities forces had defected on Feb. 23, including 10 members of the National Guard officers and two police officers, Colombia’s migration authority said.

Maduro blames the country’s dire situation on U.S. sanctions that have blocked funds and hobbled the OPEC member’s oil industry.

Thousands of government supporters clad in signature red shirts led a rally in downtown Caracas to denounce intimidation by the United States and to demand that the Trump administration halt sanctions.

While the need for basic food and medicines is desperate, Venezuela’s opposition also hopes the operation will embarrass military officers who continue to support Maduro.

Thousands of white-clad protesters gathered at a military base in Caracas to demand that the armed forces allow the aid in, after declaring the aid on its way in a news conference flanked by three Latin American presidents, including Colombia’s Ivan Duque.

“This is the biggest battle that the armed forces can win,” said Sheyla Salas, 48, who works in advertising. “Please join this struggle, get on the right side (of history), allow the humanitarian aid to enter.”

President Donald Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton canceled plans to travel to South Korea to prepare for a summit addressing North Korea’s nuclear program in order to focus instead on events unfolding in Venezuela, his spokesman said on Feb. 22.

Luke Taylor contributed to this report.