On the Venezuela border aid push devolves into bloodshed, chaos

The push to move tons of humanitarian relief into Venezuela on Saturday devolved into bloodshed, teargas and deepening sense of dread, as the Nicolás Maduro administration proved the lengths it would go to keep the aid out.

Although organizers said some food and medical supplies were moved from Brazil into southern Venezuela, high-profile efforts from Colombia seemed to fail amid stiff resistance. And the cost was high: By days end, at least four people were dead and more than 280 had been injured just in Colombia, according Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo, advocacy groups and field medics.

On the international bridge that connects Colombia to the Venezuelan town of Ureña, two trucks packed with aid crossed the border only to catch fire amid intense clashes. Organizers blamed the authorities for the arson. At a second crossing, the Simon Bolivar bridge, efforts to move aid by truck and foot were received with a cloud of tear gas and plastic pellets that left more than 50 injured — at least two seriously — and kept the convoy from advancing.

As the day went on, the crowds in Colombia grew more belligerent hauling rocks and Molotov cocktails to the frontline to battle pro-government gangs, called colectivos and the military.

“It’s rocks versus guns,” one woman said, as she poured vinegar on a T-shirt to ward off the effects of teargas. “This isn’t a fair fight.”

As smoke from the burned out aid truck rose over the horizon, those who thought there might be a peaceful way to deliver aid began losing hope.

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Judy Threos, a 21-year-old mother, had arrived at the border with a bunch of white roses she had planned to offer to Venezuela’s National Guard as a sign of peace. In the end, the hail of rocks and clouds of teargas kept her from getting close enough to even see a member of the Venezuelan military.

“I’m here because I want a better life for my children,” said Threos, who lives in Tachira, just across the border. “There’s no food, medicine, work, vaccines or anything over there.”

The aid initiative had been in the works for weeks but it was always unclear how it would be delivered without the consent of Venezuela’s military. Interim President Juan Guaidó — who mounted a direct challenge to Maduro’s authority on Jan. 23 when he said he was constitutionally bound, as head of congress, to assume the presidency — has made humanitarian aid a core part of his administration. And the United States, Chile, Brazil, Colombia, France, Puerto Rico and others have donated millions of dollars to position food and medical supplies at the borders of Brazil, Colombia and Curacao.

Protesters react on the Colombian side of the border as they get attacked by the Maduro’s military and members of los Colectivos, while attempting to move in several trucks loaded with aid donated for their country through the Simon Bolivar International bridge on the Colombian side as interim President Juan Guaido Guaido and his supporters were hoping to move humanitarian aid into Venezuela Saturday against the wishes of leader Nicolas Maduro on February 23, 2019. PEDRO PORTAL

By all accounts, Venezuela desperately needs the aid, as food and medicine shortages have become commonplace amid a tanking economy and hyperinflation.

But Maduro has argued the help is not needed and unwelcome — and that it is part of a larger Washington plot to topple him. He’s calling on Washington to drop financial and oil sanctions that he says are costing the country billions in lost revenue and hampering his ability to import food and medicine.

Even so, in the days leading up to Saturday he’d sent troops to the border and closed off key bridges. On Saturday, the Venezuelan navy chased off a Puerto Rican ship carrying aid, said the island’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló.

“This is a direct threat against a humanitarian mission being carried out by American citizens. This is unacceptable and shameful,” he said in a statement.

One of Maduro’s more dramatic steps was to block off the Tienditas international bridge with containers and a tanker truck — welding them to the structure. Although Guaidó’s supporters hoped to move cargo over that bridge, that effort appeared to have been canceled — at least for now.

Guaidó kicked off Saturday flanked by the presidents of Colombia, Chile and Paraguay, along with the secretary general of the Organization of American States. As he inspected the 10 trucks that would be carrying relief across the border, he asked the military, once again to be “on the right side of history.”

More than 60 military and police officials defected Saturday, according to Colombian immigration officials. In one instance, soldiers commandeered an armored vehicle and drove it through barricades before its stalled feet from the border and they ran across. One eyewitness watched as two female police officers ran across the international bridge and turned themselves over. But the mass military defection that some hoped for never appeared.

By Saturday afternoon, Guaidó said the international community had “been able to see with their own eyes” how Maduro had violated international law. “The Geneva protocols clearly state that destroying humanitarian aid is a crime against humanity,” he said.

Late Saturday, he made another appeal to the military. “You don’t owe your someone who burns food in front of the hungry,” he said.

It’s unclear how the fires began, but some suggested that the dozens of tear gas canisters launched at the trucks might have played a role. On social media, pro-government voices accused the opposition of torching them to make the government look bad.

Either way, Ismael García, an opposition congressman in exile who has been helping coordinate efforts in Colombia, said Saturday’s events may have irredeemably damaged Maduro’s reputation.

“I think today made it clear for the entire world that there’s a criminal gang in power that has no scruples at all,” he said.

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Anti-government demonstrations were also held in Caracas and other major cities, some of them turning violent. Foro Penal, a human rights group, said clashes late Friday and early Saturday had left at least four dead and more than 20 injured in Santa Elena de Uairén, in southern Venezuela. In addition, at least 50 demonstrators had been injured along the Colombian border.

At one border crossing, CNN recorded while men and women begged a line of female police officers blocking a border crossing to allow food and medicine to pass into Venezuela. Some of the officers, who were later recorded falling back from their position, could be seen crying.

Maduro spent the day at public events — even dancing on stage — and defying those who are asking him to step aside and make way for new elections. Calling Guaidó a Washington puppet and “dummy,” he said it was “time for our people to tell Donald Trump, ‘Donald Trump, Yankee, go home, Donald Trump.’”

He also broke off diplomatic relations with Colombia, giving embassy staff 24 hours to leave the country. But as Colombia doesn’t recognize Maduro as the legitimate president, it’s largely a symbolic move.

What’s clear is that Maduro is likely to face increased international pressure. On Monday, Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to be in Bogotá, Colombia for a meeting of the Lima Group – a bloc of 14 mostly Latin American countries, where he’s expected to ask Maduro to step down. Late Saturday, Guaidó said he would attend that meeting.

Guaidó has broad popular support and the backing of more than 50 nations, but Maduro still seems to have the critical backing of the military.

Valentín Guerrero, a 21-year-old university student, slept outdoors overnight, along with hundreds of others, to help push in the aid on Saturday.

He said many of his colleagues were losing their fear of taking on the military directly.

“If we keep that fear inside of us, the fear to fight our own army that has sworn to protect us, we will never be free,” he said.

Miami Herald reporter David Smiley, el Nuevo reporters Antonio Maria Delgado, Jimena Tavel and Nora Gámez Torrez and McClatchy DC reporters Alex Daugherty and 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.