Clashes erupt as aid trick­les into Venezuela

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Insight - BY NI­CHOLAS CASEY, ALBINSON LINARES AND ANATOLY KURMANAEV New York Times

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.

RO­DRIGO ABD AP

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.

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