Juan Guaidó, the man who has been trying to unseat Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro, made a surprise appearance in neighboring Colombia on Friday, saying he was able to leave his country with the help of disaffected military.
Guaidó, 35, joined hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans at a benefit concert in Cúcuta and then accompanied the presidents of Colombia, Chile and Paraguay to tour a site where foreign aid destined for Venezuela is being stored.
The visit — Guaidó’s first foreign excursion since declaring himself president on Jan. 23 — marks the beginning of a crucial few days for Venezuela.
On Saturday, thousands of Guaidó’s followers will risk beatings, detention and, perhaps, even worse as they plan to haul tons of food and medical supplies over the border against the will of Maduro and his military.
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Just how dangerous that enterprise might be came into focus on Friday when the military opened fire on a community in southern Venezuela as they tried to open up a route for aid from Brazil. At least two people died and more than a dozen were injured in that clash.
Speaking to reporters, Guaidó acknowledged that some members of the military might resist Saturday’s aid push, but he said many rank and file soldiers know what’s at stake.
It was those same soldiers, he suggested, that helped him leave Venezuela undetected despite facing a travel ban.
“I’m here [in Colombia] precisely because the armed forces also helped in this process,” he said. “That’s the truth.”
Videos on social media showed Guaidó, dressed in black jeans and a black T-shirt jogging across a pedestrian bridge into Colombia, escorted by a small entourage. When he was asked exactly how he got into Colombia he demurred.
“Maybe I flew into an airport,” he said.
And he called on the military, once more, to defy Maduro’s orders and let the aid come into the country. He said seven people had died this week alone, due to lack of dialysis, and that the lives of 300,000 people were at risk if aid didn’t arrive soon.
“We recognize that we have a crisis that we didn’t generate but we have to deal with it,” he said. “We’re not begging” — as Maduro has referred to the aid — “we’re resisting a dictatorship.”
Along with the aid push, Guaidó has called for peaceful demonstrations nationwide and asked his followers to approach military bases and demand that the army allow aid in.
Aid depots have been established in Colombia, Brazil and Curacao, but the Colombian stockpile, near the city of Cúcuta, is being seen as a test case for the opposition.
Maduro is treating the events as if they were tantamount to war. He’s closed the country’s borders with Brazil and Curacao and sent troops to the Colombian border, heightening the risk of violence. Late Friday, his administration said it was closing all border crossings with Colombia citing “threats” to Venezuela’s “peace and sovereignty.”
Juan Carlos Flores, 35, traveled 10 hours from Merida to participate in Saturday’s aid mobilization effort. Asked if he was worried about potential violence as happened in Brazil, he shrugged.
“There’s nothing to be scared of,” he said. “We’ve already lost everything.”
That the Maduro administration would resort to violence to stop humanitarian aid is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and drive calls for his ouster.
Speaking alongside Guaidó in Cúcuta on Friday, Organization of American States General Secretary Luis Almagro accused Maduro of being the “worst” kind of human rights abuser by “turning hunger and health into a weapon.”
Donald Trump’s Venezuela envoy Elliott Abrams, who was also in Colombia, also blasted Maduro for the clashes along the Brazilian border. Abrams said the two Venezuelans “were killed trying to get food and medicine for their families. It’s a crime and a disgrace.”
While tensions were rising over what kind of reception aid volunteers might expect on Saturday, Friday was largely driven by a party, as hundreds of thousands of people converged on this far-flung Colombian border town for a benefit concert featuring more than 30 artists.
Organized by British billionaire and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, the Venezuela Aid Live concert is aiming to raise $100 million in donations in coming months and goad Maduro into accepting aid.
Speaking to the cheering crowd, Branson said he was skipping a Virgin Galactic test flight in the Mojave Desert Friday to be in Cúcuta.
“If we can take people to space, why is it so hard to take people out of poverty?” he asked. “My friends, we must break the impasse and end the humanitarian crisis. People are dying in Venezuela every day due to lack of basic medicine.”
Maduro has long considered the aid — much of it coming from the United States and brought in on military aircraft — part of a larger plot to topple his administration.
While he denies there’s a humanitarian crisis in the country, he’s also said his administration has plenty of help. On Thursday, he said 7.5 tons of medicine and medical supplies had come in from Russia and that more is on its way.
Desiree Salinas, 31, traveled for five hours from Merida to Cúcuta to attend Friday’s concert, and on Saturday she’ll help take aid from Cúcuta back to Venezuela in defiance of Maduro and his troops.
She said it’s an act of necessary desperation in a country where food and medicine have become increasingly hard to find or out of reach amid hyperinflation.
“We pray every day that one of our kids doesn’t get sick,” she said, “because there’s no way to help them.”
Even so, some remember the 2014 and 2017 opposition marches and demonstrations that appeared poised to oust Maduro but fell short.
As Joanna Navarro, 36, swayed to the music under a scorching sun at the concert, she said this time it felt different.
“Things are changing in Venezuela,” she said, as she watched the surging crowd.. “Look at all these people who are on the right side of history.”
Many in the opposition see Saturday as a make or break day — the day things irrevocably change. But others are more sanguine.
Asked about the international response if Maduro doesn’t step down in coming days amid the crisis, Abrams said the United States would keep turning the screws, imposing more sanctions and hardship until Maduro left.
“Venezuela will be free,” he said in Spanish. “Maybe tomorrow, maybe the day after tomorrow. But it’s clear that Venezuela will eventually end up being a democracy.”