Venezuela’s determination to stop humanitarian aid from entering the country was on full display Wednesday, after the military dumped shipping containers and a tanker truck on a bridge that was supposed to be a thoroughfare for food and medicine pouring into the country.
Starting on Tuesday, Venezuela’s National Guard blocked the three-lane bridge that connects with Colombia, and there were reports Wednesday that the military was actively patrolling the Venezuelan border to keep aid out.
Venezuela’s Interim President Juan Guaidó is trying to bring food and medicine into the country against the will of Nicolás Maduro, who also claims to be president. Maduro insists the humanitarian effort, which has the backing of Washington, Colombia and others, is cover for an invasion that aims to topple his six-year administration.
The “Las Tienditas” international bridge was built in 2016 but never put into use amid growing tensions between Venezuela and Colombia. Now it’s becoming a staging site to receive humanitarian aid — an effort that United States has pledged $20 million to.
Officials expect the first aid convoys to arrive to the compound late Wednesday or early Thursday. But once the goods are there, it’s still far from clear how they’ll be delivered without the active support of Venezuela’s armed forces.
Ismael García, an opposition congressman from Venezuela, acknowledged that getting the goods past the country’s military and other armed actors along the border will be challenging.
“We’re facing a very dangerous enemy,” he said.
“We’ve been fighting for a long time to get humanitarian aid into the country,” García added. “People can’t even find anything to [eat] in the trash anymore.”
For years, Venezuela’s opposition has been asking Maduro to allow a “humanitarian corridor” to import food and medicine for an increasingly desperate population. Even as more than 3.3 million people have fled the country in recent years, Maduro denies there’s a humanitarian crisis and says Washington needs to drop crippling oil and financial sanctions that impede the country’s ability to take care of itself.
Guaidó, who declared himself president on Jan. 23, has made the aid issue one of the central pillars of his fledgling administration — and if he’s successful, it would be proof that he can address the country’s needs despite Maduro’s efforts to handcuff his power.
“The Venezuelan people desperately need humanitarian aid,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote Wednesday on Twitter. “The U.S. and other countries are trying to help, but Venezuela’s military under Maduro’s orders is blocking aid with trucks and shipping tankers. The Maduro regime must let the aid reach the starving people.”
While there’s still no aid on the Colombian border, expectations are running high. Yolanda Ruíz, a 54-year-old mother, traveled for six hours from Tucani, Venezuela, in hopes of getting free food and medicine. She was disappointed to hear that it won’t be distributed in Colombia, but only on the Venezuelan side of the border.
“Mr. President Maduro, please put your hand on your heart and allow the [aid] that so many of us Venezuelans need to come in,” she said. “Please don’t let us suffer any more.”