Venezuela aid organizers imagine a ‘river of people’ overwhelming Maduro’s blockade

U.S. aid at a loading dock in Cucuta, Colombia, awaits to be delivered in Venezuela. Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro has said he won’t let the food and medicine enter the country, fearing that it’s a pretext for a coup or armed invasion.
U.S. aid at a loading dock in Cucuta, Colombia, awaits to be delivered in Venezuela. Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro has said he won’t let the food and medicine enter the country, fearing that it’s a pretext for a coup or armed invasion. Miami Herald

A call goes out and thousands of Venezuelans rush into Colombia, ignoring threats from their own military. Soon, they’re swarming back across the border carrying bags full of life-saving food and medicine.

That’s one of the scenarios being floated as Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro continues to reject international aid — going so far as to blockade a road that might have been used for its delivery.

On Friday, Lester Toledo, who represents Venezuela’s interim President Juan Guaidó and is in charge of the international aid effort, hinted that a “river of people” might be summoned to move goods that are being collected near the Colombian border town of Cúcuta.

Recalling an incident in 2016, when white-clad Venezuelan women pushed through police barricades to go shopping in Colombia, Toledo suggested it might happen again.

“We know how we’re going to get it across and we know when we’re going to get it across and we know who’s going to support us in getting it across,” Toledo said Friday of the aid delivery efforts. “The immense majority of people are going to accompany us — it will be a river of people — to make sure it gets there.”

Toledo said that Guaidó might let his supporters know “in coming days and hours” if they should concentrate along the Colombian border to create a “humanitarian corridor.” While Toledo wouldn’t provide details, Guaidó himself has hinted that some sort of protest, demonstration or event will take place on Tuesday.

What’s clear is that organizers will need stealth and creativity on their side to overcome Maduro’s obstacles. As news emerged this week that the Tiendita international bridge in Cúcuta would be a staging site for aid, Venezuelan military forces blocked a three-lane bridge with shipping containers and a tanker truck.

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Maduro has repeatedly said the aid is cover for a military invasion and has ordered his armed forces not to let it in, even as food and medicine shortages sweep the country.

With mass transport looking unlikely, delivery may have to be made in smaller increments, a person familiar with the thinking of the Trump administration said. Among the plans, experts are evaluating the feasibility of small groups of Venezuelan volunteers carrying part of the aid overland at various points along the porous 1,300-mile border.

Venezuela has been mired in a political crisis since Jan. 23, when Guaidó, the head of congress, said it was his constitutional duty to assume the presidency and call new elections. The United States, Canada, Brazil, Colombia and others were quick to recognize Guaidó as head of state.

Maduro, however, says that he has the right to rule through 2025 and that Guaidó is part of a Washington plot to illegally topple his administration.

In this context, the aid impasse has become politically crucial for both men. Guaidó needs to prove he can solve the country’s problems even if he doesn’t wield real power, and Maduro needs to prove he can still command the loyalty of his military.

On Friday, U.S., Colombian and Venezuelan officials gave reporters a first look at the 150,000-square-meter complex near Cúcuta that is being used as a collection site for aid.

On Thursday, several trucks dropped off the first part of $20 million in U.S. government aid, including food and medicine.

“What you have here is the first shipment of what we hope will be a great flood of humanitarian relief for the people of Venezuela,” U.S. Ambassador Kevin Whitaker said. “It’s an effort to respond to 20 years of mismanagement, of corruption, of criminality and of inefficiency that will take time to address. There is great will in the international community to respond.”

President Donald Trump has repeatedly said that nothing is “off the table” when dealing with enforcing regime change in Venezuela, but Whitaker downplayed the threat of military clashes.

“Our goal here is to get as much assistance into Colombia in as many different places as it makes sense and get it to the border,” he said. But once the goods cross the border into Venezuela, it will be the responsibility of the Juan Guaidó administration to distribute them, he said.

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Speaking in Washington, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kimberly Breier also denied that there were any plans for U.S. military action along the border. But she called Maduro’s decision to reject aid “inhuman” and said it represented “a politics of hunger, a politics of disease [and] a politics of tyranny.”

Caracas insists that there is no humanitarian crisis, but that one is being created by Washington’s oil and financial sanctions, which have cost the country more than $30 billion in lost revenue.

And while Guaidó has broad public support, he still needs the help of the Venezuelan military, which has failed to defect in considerable numbers.

On Friday, Toledo once again urged the armed forces to help deliver the aid.

“This help is for you, too,” he said. “We have food for your kids and medicine for the people that are suffering. … Your job is not to condemn them but to help them.”

El Nuevo Herald Reporter Antonio María Delgado and McClatchy Reporter Franco Ordoñez contributed to this report.
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Jim Wyss covers Latin America for the Miami Herald and was part of the team that won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for its work on the “Panama Papers.” He and his Herald colleagues were also named Pulitzer finalists in 2019 for the series “Dirty Gold, Clean Cash.” He joined the Herald in 2005.