Deadly bor­der con­fronta­tion

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - ANA VANESSA HER­RERO AND ERNESTO LON­DONO THE NEW YORK TIMES

Venezue­lan National Guards­men block a road Fri­day on the bor­der with Brazil, where se­cu­rity forces fired on indigenous Venezue­lans protest­ing the govern­ment’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to block aid de­liv­er­ies from out­side the coun­try. At least two peo­ple were killed and more than a dozen wounded.

The po­lit­i­cal show­down in Venezuela es­ca­lated into deadly vi­o­lence near the bor­der with Brazil on Fri­day, as se­cu­rity forces fired on a group of indigenous Venezue­lans protest­ing the govern­ment’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to block aid de­liv­er­ies from out­side the coun­try.

Wit­nesses and lo­cal of­fi­cials re­ported the con­fronta­tion a day after Venezue­lan Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro, fac­ing the big­gest chal­lenge of his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer, or­dered all cross­ings at the Brazil bor­der closed.

At least two civilians were killed and more than a dozen wounded in the con­fronta­tion with se­cu­rity forces in the Gran Sa­bana area, along Venezuela’s south­east bor­der with Brazil, ac­cord­ing to Americo de Grazia, an op­po­si­tion law­maker from the state of Bo­li­var. The Gran Sa­bana area is in­hab­ited by the Pe­mon, an indigenous com­mu­nity.

The Venezue­lans were protest­ing the govern­ment’s de­ci­sion to halt all unau­tho­rized im­ports of emer­gency food and med­i­cal aid into Venezuela, which is suf­fer­ing in­creas­ingly se­vere short­ages. The op­po­si­tion has vowed to de­liver tons of do­nated hu­man­i­tar­ian aid to­day, even against Maduro’s or­ders.

Ri­cardo Del­gado, a Pe­mon leader, said the ten­sions that led to the con­fronta­tion be­gan in the pre-dawn hours when a con­voy from the army and the National Guard at­tempted to reach a check­point on the bor­der to help pro­tect it. A group of indigenous pro­test­ers blocked their pas­sage, be­cause they want the aid to en­ter.

Del­gado said he told con­voy of­fi­cers that they could not pass, and they left. But hours later, he said, the con­voy re­turned, this time shoot­ing at the indigenous group block­ing the streets.

“I was sleep­ing and the shoot­ing woke me up,” he said.

In videos posted on Fri­day from Santa Elena de Uairen, a bor­der cross­ing town in the Gran Sa­bana re­gion, dozens of mil­i­tary po­lice hold­ing shields could be seen block­ing the road­way. A small crowd of pro­test­ers gath­ered, singing Venezuela’s national an­them and chant­ing, “They are killing us with hunger.”

The po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion, led by Juan Guaido, the head of the National Assem­bly who de­clared him­self pres­i­dent last month, has vowed to forcibly bring in aid this week­end. He has the back­ing of for­eign al­lies, led by the United States.

Maduro has said Venezuela is not a coun­try of “beg­gars” and does not need the aid, and has called Guaido a stooge of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Maduro posted a video on his Twit­ter ac­count Fri­day with scenes of am­ple med­i­cal sup­plies and health care work­ers lis­ten­ing to his in­struc­tions.

“We are mak­ing ev­ery ef­fort to make the national pub­lic health sys­tem not stop and rise to the high­est level in the world,” Maduro wrote.

But Venezuela is reel­ing from its worst eco­nomic cri­sis ever, with deep-seated hunger, short­ages and hy­per­in­fla­tion that Maduro’s op­po­nents have blamed on cor­rup­tion and mis­man­age­ment. More than 3 mil­lion Venezue­lans have fled in re­cent years.

The big­gest po­ten­tial flash point is the bridge at Cu­cuta, Colom­bia, a ma­jor bor­der cross­ing where Venezue­lan au­thor­i­ties have blocked the lanes with tanker trucks and fenc­ing. The United States and other for­eign pow­ers have been stock­pil­ing goods on the Colom­bian side of the bridge.

In­ter­na­tional groups have warned that clashes at the bor­der could have far-reach­ing ef­fects. Jason Mar­czak, direc­tor of the Adri­enne Ar­sht Latin Amer­ica Cen­ter at the At­lantic Coun­cil, a Washington-based pol­icy re­search group, called it a “crit­i­cal mo­ment.”

“Venezuela’s bor­ders are a pow­der keg with sky-high ten­sions, mean­ing that any er­rant move could un­leash a wave of vi­o­lence,” he said. “The key ques­tion is who will blink first.”

Venezue­lan op­po­si­tion lead­ers and their al­lies in Brazil were scram­bling on Fri­day to find trucks and driv­ers to trans­port 500 kits of food and medicine that they hope to get across the bor­der to­day.

If the trucks man­age to get across, the op­po­si­tion plans to off­load the cargo on the Venezue­lan side so aid pack­ages can reach nearby com­mu­ni­ties.

The amount of aid on hand would sup­port the ba­sic needs of about 2,000 peo­ple for a cou­ple of months, ac­cord­ing to Maria Teresa Be­landria, an op­po­si­tion leader who serves as Guaido’s en­voy to Brazil.

The trans­port of even a to­ken amount of aid across the bor­der is seen by op­po­si­tion ac­tivists as a pow­er­ful sym­bol that could lead to a more ro­bust aid ef­fort by land, sea and air.

“If we man­age to get aid through, it will mean the armed forces have agreed to put them­selves on the side of the con­sti­tu­tion,” Be­landria said in an in­ter­view.

AP/EDMAR BAR­ROS

AP/RO­DRIGO ABD

A sup­porter of the Venezue­lan govern­ment waves a national flag Fri­day as peo­ple be­gin ar­riv­ing for the three-day Hands Off Venezuela mu­sic fes­ti­val at the Tien­di­tas In­ter­na­tional Bridge on the bor­der with Colom­bia.

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