This bustling city on the border with Venezuela — full of arepa and candy vendors — doesn’t look like much of a frontline. But it’s set to become ground zero for an international effort to push food and medicine across the border into Venezuela, even as embattled leader Nicolás Maduro says that help is tantamount to a military invasion.
Interim President Juan Guaidó, who has been assuming executive powers since Jan. 23, says the international aid is key to saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who are going hungry and sick amid a tanking economy.
Maduro — who also considers himself president — says the aid plans are part of a larger plot to topple his administration. Instead, he argues, the United States needs to lift crippling oil and financial sanctions and let the country take care of itself.
Cúcuta, a city of about 800,000 within eyeshot of Venezuela’s mountains, will be home to one of the first staging sites to collect humanitarian aid, said Miguel Pizarro, an opposition congressman in Venezuela coordinating the effort. Other sites will be designated in Brazil and the Caribbean.
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But getting the aid across the border without the help of the Venezuelan military, which largely remains loyal to Maduro, will be challenging, he acknowledged.
“Our logistical capacity remains limited,” he said. “We are telling the armed forces that they have a huge responsibility to let the aid in. They need the aid also — in their barracks for their families…We want them to know this aid will benefit everyone.”
The United States has pledged $20 million to the effort and over the weekend the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development posted pictures of boxes of food, emblazoned with the American flag, that he said were destined for Venezuela.
Social media has been awash in images and messages that purportedly show Colombian and U.S. troops amassing on the border to deliver the help, but both nations have denied it and there are no signs on the ground that’s happening.
Mariana Latuff, a 30-year-old baker, rode a bus for 10 hours from Maracaibo to the international bridge in Ureña, Colombia, on the outskirts of Cúcuta, where there were no signs of aid convoys or heightened military presence. Sitting on a curb and surrounded by empty suitcases, Latuff said she’s planning to take home flour, oil and anything else she could get her hands on. But her principle motive for the trip was to look for anti-seizure medication for husband.
“We can’t find the medicine anymore, and when we do we can’t afford it,” she said.
A package of ten pills costs about 20,000 bolivares, or $8 dollars, an impossible sum in a country where the monthly minimum wage is the equivalent of $7.50.
Asked if Venezuela needs international help, she said “A lot of it, and put that in capital letters.”
Maduro disagrees. On Monday, he announced he would start a signature drive to reject the aid, which he insists is part of a U.S. invasion plan.
“We don’t want a gringo intervention,” he said. “We want peace.”
Pizarro won’t rule out that Colombian or U.S. security forces might help protect shipments going into Venezuela, particularly along the lawless border areas. But the Guaidó camp is hoping that’s not necessary. Instead, they envision an army of civil society members, religious groups, doctors, nonprofits, forming a “humanitarian corridor” to funnel food and medicine to the most needy.
“It’s not going to be an invasion or occupying force,” Pizarro said. “This is about saving lives.”
In a sense, an aid corridor already exists between the two nations. Every day, some 80,000 Venezuelans walk across the border into Colombia to buy food, medicine and other items that are no longer available back home. While the vast majority go home, about 5,000 people a day stay in Colombia or make their way to other parts of Latin America. In the last few years, more than 3.3 million people have left Venezuela — the largest migratory wave in Latin America’s recent history.
Rey Peña, a 23-year-old man from Caracas, was standing on the international bridge selling hypertension medication and birth control pills to his countrymen on their way out of Colombia. He said basic medicine was so hard to come by in Venezuela that the country needs all the outside help it can get. And he wasn’t worried that a large international effort might put him out of business.
“They can take aid in and cover people’s needs for a day or two but what about after that?” he asked. “They’ll have to come back and buy from me eventually.”
Pizarro is aware that international aid isn’t a long-term solution. The only thing that will save the country is new leadership and restoring the economy, he said.
Guaidó — with the backing of the United States, Canada, Brazil, Colombia and dozens of other nations — is asking Maduro to step down and make way for new elections. Maduro says he has the right to rule through 2025.
But the aid impasse is seen as a key test for both men. Guaidó needs to prove his administration can address the needs of the people even if it doesn’t have any real power. Maduro needs to prove he still has control over the military and his international borders.
Pizarro said the first wave of aid will come from the U.S. and Colombian governments, along with Venezuelan businesses that have operations in Colombia. Once supplies reach a certain level they will push them across the border, he said.
“We don’t want to use the Venezuelan tragedy as a propaganda tool. [The aid] must be effective,” he said. “It needs to be enough to change and save lives.”
Margarita de Urea, a 70-year-old evangelical pastor from Venezuela, said she felt divine intervention at work in the meteoric rise of Guaidó and the prospects of international aid flowing across the border.
“The hand of God is reaching down and pulling Venezuela out of this mess,” she said. “I can feel it.”