Venezuela’s political foes prepare for high stakes ‘battle of the bands’

Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Group, is organizing an international concert on the border with Venezuela in hopes of raising $100 million in donations and forcing leader Nicolas Maduro to accept foreign aid.
Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Group, is organizing an international concert on the border with Venezuela in hopes of raising $100 million in donations and forcing leader Nicolas Maduro to accept foreign aid. AP

It’s a battle of the bands with global implications.

On Friday, some of Latin America’s hottest artists will be playing a benefit concert in Cúcuta, Colombia, in hopes of pressuring Venezuela’s military to allow tons of humanitarian aid into the country. The initiative, called Venezuela Aid Live, hopes to raise more than $100 million and is being organized by British billionaire Richard Branson.

But that same day, just a few miles over the dusty border, the Nicolás Maduro administration is planning its own concert. He’s vowing to block the international aid and, in turn, send Venezuelan food and doctors into Colombia.

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The dueling events are the latest power play by Maduro and internationally recognized interim President Juan Guaidó, who are both fighting for leadership over the troubled South American nation. And the outcome of the weekend concerts could determine how soon — if ever — a political transition in the country might occur.

On a recent weekday, Bruno Ocampo was rushing around the Colombian town of Cúcuta helping organize the last-minute concert that is expected to attract as many as 150,000 people. Ocampo said that about eight weeks ago Branson, the charismatic founder of the Virgin Group, started asking how he could assist with the Venezuelan crisis. But the idea of a border concert only gelled about three weeks ago when Branson got on the phone with Guaidó and jailed Venezuelan politician Leopoldo López.

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Bruno Ocampo (foreground) and Richard Branson on a hike in France. Ocampo is helping organize an aid concert for Venezuela that Branson — the billionaire founder of the Virgin Group — is backing. Courtesy

Since then, Ocampo said more than 200 people have been working around the clock to produce the spectacle, which is slated to include Carlos Vives, Juanes, Juan Luis Guerra, Luis Fonsi (of Despacito fame) and Alejandro Sanz, among others. Colombian President Iván Duque and other regional leaders are also expected at the event.

“This is going to be a historic event with all of these international artists who are donating their time for the love of music and the love of Venezuela,” Ocampo said.

But the concert also has a potent political message. Organizers, and Branson himself, have said the event is intended to goad Maduro into allowing tons of international aid into the country that’s sitting at a warehouse on the outskirts of Cúcuta. On Saturday, the day after the concert, Guaidó has said an “avalanche” of his supporters might turn up at the border to shuttle the food and medical supplies over the porous frontier.

Maduro says there’s no humanitarian crisis in his country and that the aid — some of which was brought to Cúcuta on U.S. military flights — is little more than a “show” to make his administration look bad and, perhaps, provide cover for a coup attempt against him. He’s blocked the international bridge closest to the aid warehouse and sent troops to the border to keep it from entering.

It’s high stakes for both men. Guaidó needs to prove that he can be effective even if he has no real power. And Maduro needs to show that he still commands the loyalty of his troops.

But Maduro is also fighting back in the propaganda war. Earlier this week, the administration said it would be holding its own “Concert for Peace” just across the border to warn Washington to “keep its hands off Venezuela.”

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“There are so many artists from Venezuela and around the world who want to participate in this message of love, in this message of rejection of imperial aggression,” Communications Minister Jorge Rodríguez said. He also announced that 20,000 boxes of subsidized food, or CLAP boxes, would be delivered in the Colombian town of Cúcuta and that health brigades would provide free medical care there as a show of “solidarity” for the “Colombian people who are suffering the consequences of savage neo-liberalism.”

That Maduro would try to flip the script is aggravating to many.

Aneida Gómez, a 63-year-old housewife, had traveled for 18 hours from eastern Venezuela to Cúcuta in hope of selling enough candy to buy “real food” — fruits and vegetables — to take home. She called Maduro a “liar” for downplaying the crisis back home.

Aneida Gómez, 63, from eastern Venezuela, sells candy on the streets of Cúcuta, Colombia, in hope of making enough money to buy “real food” — fruit and vegetables — to take home. She said that Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro was either blind or a liar for denying there was a humanitarian crisis in that country. Jim Wyss jwyss@miamiherald

“People are leaving because they don’t want to starve to death,” she said, as she watched people swarm over an international bridge close to where the concert will be held. “That’s the pure and simple truth.”

Some also wondered about the caliber of musicians that Maduro’s concert might attract, as his government finds itself increasingly isolated internationally.

“I don’t know what artists might be at that concert,” Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio quipped on Monday.

Ocampo called the rival concert a “burla” — a bad joke — but invited Venezuelans to cross the border and catch the acts.

“We hope that both sides will enjoy the music peacefully,” he said, “and that Maduro understands that his country needs democracy.”

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.