Clashes erupt as aid trickles into Venezuela
An ambitious plan by Venezuela’s opposition to peacefully import foreign aid in truck convoys degenerated into deadly skirmishes Saturday along the impoverished country’s borders, with a smattering of supplies getting through but most of it blocked by armed loyalists of President Nicolás Maduro.
The aid deliveries, promised by the opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, have been viewed as a major test of his credibility in the month since he declared himself president and promised an end to Venezuela’s economic free-fall.
“The humanitarian aid is definitely on its way to Venezuela, in a peaceful manner, to save lives right now,” Guaidó said in front of the warehouse on the Colombian side of the main border crossing where the supplies have been stored for days.
As the day progressed, some of the humanitarian aid pierced Maduro’s blockade, but most of it did not. And although a few members of the security forces defected, Guaidó’s hope that the armed forces would step aside and even join his flagwaving supporters did not come to pass.
A day that was billed by the opposition as decisive in the struggle with Maduro over the country’s leadership turned chaotic and inconclusive. Madu- ro, furious that Colombia had helped the opposition, broke relations with its government and gave its diplomats 24 hours to get out.
There also was no guarantee that the 35-year-old opposition leader, who has emerged as the biggest political threat to Maduro, would even be allowed back into Venezuela by the authorities, who had barred him from traveling abroad.
Maduro, who has called Guaidó a Trump administration stooge, said the promises of emergency aid masked a U.S. plot to invade Venezuela, and he vowed to thwart it.
As protesters clashed with security forces at various points along the border with Brazil in the south and Colombia in the west, a defiant Maduro took to a stage in the capital, Caracas, dancing the salsa with his wife and addressing supporters in an event carried on national television.
“I am stronger than ever,” he said, before asking, “Why am I here? Because you are the ones who decide, not Donald Trump.”
He also called Guaidó a “puppet of imperialism,” and explained the break with Colombia.
“We can’t keep putting up with the Colombian territory being used for attacks against Venezuela,” Maduro said. “For that reason, I have decided to break all political and diplomatic relations with Colombia’s fascist government.”
Earlier that day, on the borders with Colombia and Brazil, opposition protesters waved banners and chanted anti-government slogans as they waited to escort trucks full of humanitarian aid across several bridges into Venezuela.
A pickup truck of aid crossed into Venezuela from the Brazilian town of Pacairama in the country’s north, in what opposition figures said was a small but symbolic puncture of Maduro’s pledge to keep unauthorized assistance out.
“We did it,” said María Teresa Belandria, who is Guaidó’s Brazil envoy. “This is a major victory.”
Still by late afternoon, there were no signs of major breaches elsewhere in the blockade. Trouble erupted as a march near a footbridge to Colombia degenerated into running battles between young protesters and security forces, underscoring the risks Maduro’s adversaries are taking in their campaign against him.
That march, in the Venezuelan border town of Ureña, was meant to clear a path for aid to be delivered via a footbridge blocked by Maduro’s forces. Local residents defied the government’s orders and tried to storm the bridge, but Venezuelan security forces fired tear gas to disperse them, and clashes left a trail of damage and burning vehicles.
Officials at a clinic there said 30 people were wounded in the confrontation.
“I just couldn’t keep quiet anymore,” said Edilson Cisneros, who was hit with buckshot as he walked with opposition lawmakers in Ureña. “Too many people are having a hard time here. This can’t go on like that anymore.”
Protesters in Ureña also stormed a school where 100 government militia members – many of them retirees – were staying. Some joined the protesters.
Guaidó said from the Colombian side of the border that he hoped the Venezuelan security forces would stand aside and allow the aid in.
“Anyone who is not on the side of the people and who prevents the entry of humanitarian aid is a deserter who betrays our people,” he said in a Twitter post. “Those who accompany us to save the lives of Venezuelans are true patriots.”
Early Saturday, when three members of the national guard assigned to the Simón Bolívar International Bridge that connects Venezuela and Colombia gave up their arms and joined the opposition, Guaidó welcomed them.
“They have decided to stand on the side of the people and the Constitution!” he wrote in a message. “Welcome! The arrival of freedom and democracy to Venezuela is already unstoppable.”
Near the border with Brazil, Venezuelan forces opened fire on a crowd blocking access to a road Friday, killing two people and injuring a dozen.
As evening fell Friday, Maduro’s government added three bridges along the Colombian border to a growing list of port of entry closures that included the borders with Brazil and three Caribbean islands, effectively sealing off most of Venezuela’s main entry points.
Officers of the Bolivarian National Guard run Saturday during clashes in Ureña, Venezuela, near the border with Colombia, where Venezuela’s National Guard fired tear gas on residents clearing a barricaded border bridge.