Clashes on Venezuela border over US-backed aid efforts

Venezuelan soldiers being held after driving into Colombia from the Venezuelan side of the Simon Bolivar International Bridge in Cucuta yesterday. President Nicolas Maduro's government has closed bridge crossings on the frontier being used by protest
Venezuelan soldiers being held after driving into Colombia from the Venezuelan side of the Simon Bolivar International Bridge in Cucuta yesterday. President Nicolas Maduro's government has closed bridge crossings on the frontier being used by protesters to deliver aid.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Govt forces skirmish with protesters aiming to oust Maduro and install self-proclaimed leader

BOGOTA (Colombia) • Venezuelan security forces skirmished with protesters at a border bridge yesterday, with rubber bullets and tear-gas fired in the clash over aid shipments between President Nicolas Maduro's government and US-backed opponents trying to drive him out of power.

The site is on a stretch of near-dry riverbed on the Venezuelan frontier crossed by four narrow international bridges where opposition leader Juan Guaido's supporters yesterday planned to start delivering hundreds of tonnes of humanitarian aid to their near-starving nation. Others will attempt to bring food and medicine from Brazil.

Last Friday, a smaller attempt ended in bloodshed: Venezuelan soldiers killed at least one woman and injured a dozen people trying to deliver aid at the remote southern border with Brazil.

Fears ran high that yesterday's operation would end in more, possibly wider, violence. Mr Maduro has closed international entries and ordered security forces to bar the supplies, saying they are part of a plot devised in Washington.

His rival, Mr Guaido, the head of the National Assembly, defied a travel ban and arrived on the Colombian side of the border last Friday.

Mr Guaido, whose claim to be interim president is recognised by the US and dozens of other countries, has pleaded with soldiers to stand aside and let the aid through.

Until now, the soldiers have remained loyal to Mr Maduro.

Volunteers are preparing to don white clothing to walk across the bridges that link Cucuta, Colombia, to Venezuela in hopes of bringing relief to their compatriots.

Colombian President Ivan Duque said a "human torrent" will help get the aid across, there and elsewhere.

"There are more than a million volunteers, and we continue to invite more to join," Mr Guaido told CNN in an interview.

Across Venezuela, there will be large demonstrations to demand that the aid be allowed in and that Mr Maduro leave office, he said.

The initiative is a watershed in Mr Guaido's campaign to replace Mr Maduro, which began only last month, and it is a gamble.

US sanctions on the oil industry, Venezuela's only real source of hard currency, threaten further suffering in a nation wracked by hyperinflation and hunger.

The sanctions are part of a two-pronged approach by Mr Guaido and his US backers - strip Mr Maduro of cash to buy even the scraps of food he has been handing out to citizens, and then ride to the rescue with critical supplies of their own. Traditional aid groups have shunned the effort, saying it is politically tainted.

 
 
 

But Mr Guaido's supporters say they are determined, even in the face of overwhelming force.

"We don't know how yet, but one way or another the aid is getting in," said Ms Katerine Vega, a 31-year-old nurse from the Andean town of Colon who volunteered to cross from Cucuta to help distribute food and medicine.

Meanwhile, Mr Guaido's supporters rallied last Friday at a music festival in Cucuta, organised by British billionaire Richard Branson, in fields next to where aid supplies are being stored. Mr Guaido made a surprise appearance, alongside Mr Duque and Chilean President Sebastian Pinera. Organisers said more than 300,000 people attended.

Mr Maduro's government mounted a smaller competing event on the Venezuela side.

But the regime closed the bridge crossings and supporters were sleeping on and around them, backed up by a heavy police and military presence. Patrols on motorcycles and in Toyota trucks crisscrossed towns and cities near the border. Guardsmen set up checkpoints on major roads and hundreds of soldiers were deployed to the Tienditas Bridge. Armoured vehicles and personnel carriers rolled throughout the area.

Pictures showed some Venezuelan soldiers being detained by Colombian forces after crossing the border. US President Donald Trump has said all options are open if Venezuela continues to block the supplies. The confrontations cap a month-long run of protests and sanctions aimed at unseating Mr Maduro, 56, the hand-picked heir of the late president Hugo Chavez.

After Mr Guaido invoked Venezuela's Charter on Jan 23 to declare himself head of state, the US urged other nations to recognise the 35-year-old as president.

Mr Elliott Abrams, the US special representative for Venezuela, has told reporters in Cucuta that Mr Maduro's days in power are numbered. "Venezuela will be free, maybe tomorrow, maybe the day after, we don't know," he said last Friday. "But we do know very well that Venezuela is going to end with a democracy."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 24, 2019, with the headline 'Clashes on Venezuela border over US-backed aid efforts'. Print Edition | Subscribe