The day after military, police and civilian gangs loyal to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro inflicted a brutal crackdown on Venezuelans trying to reach international shipments of food, medicine and other supplies in Colombia, U.S. officials appeared to be preparing to send more humanitarian aid to South America from an air base in South Florida.
Eyewitnesses reported activity at the Homestead Air Reserve Base, including C-130 transport planes. Sources with knowledge of the situation said the Trump administration may send another shipment of humanitarian aid down to South America. But there was no word on the timing.
Following Saturday’s bloody clash on the international bridge that connects Colombia to the Venezuelan town of Ureña, Colombian government officials said they would close the passage to evaluate damage.
Venezuelan security forces shot teargas and rubber bullets at people trying to reach the shipments Saturday and about 120 members of the Venezuelan military have abandoned their posts and defected to neighboring countries, Colombian immigration officials reported.
International aid has been shipped to Venezuela at the request of Juan Guaidó, the interim president, who has challenged Maduro’s rule and called for new elections as the country has continued to suffer with severe shortages of food, medicine and other basic necessities. Maduro has denied that a humanitarian crisis exists and has called the international aid part of a U.S. plot to stage a coup.
On Saturday, Maduro called Guaidó a “puppet” of the U.S. and a “dummy” and he has accused the United States in the past of wanting to exploit Venezuela’s oil — a sentiment echoed in comments last month by National Security Advisor John Bolton, who said the U.S. economy could benefit if American oil companies were allowed to invest in Venezuelan oil production.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addressed the situation in Venezuela on Sunday as he made the rounds on cable TV news shows, speaking on CNN and Fox News.
Pompeo told Fox News host Chris Wallace that “every option is on the table” when asked about the possibility of a U.S. military intervention.
And he stressed to CNN host Jake Tapper that the aid sent by the United States is “just humanitarian,” noting that other nations, including Canada and members of the European Union, had also contributed. Pompeo also accused Venezuela’s closest international allies of pushing the country to the brink of collapse.
“We’re aimed at a singular mission,” Pompeo said, “ensuring that the Venezuelan people get the democracy that they so richly deserve and that the Cubans and Russians, who have been driving this country into the ground for years and years and years, no longer hold sway.”
The standoff for Venezuela’s presidency has put the U.S. and many of its allies on the side of Guaidó, leader of the country’s National Assembly, against those that support Maduro or a status quo. That includes Russia, China and other nations that blocked a U.S. push in January for a United Nations Security Council statement expressing support for the National Assembly as Venezuela’s only democratically elected body.
Early Sunday, the European Union and the government of Brazil issued statements condemning Maduro for blocking the international aid. The Brazilian government “vehemently condemned” the violent acts perpetrated by what it called “the illegitimate regime of the dictator Nicolás Maduro.”
Federica Mogherini, an Italian politician and High Representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy, called on Venezuelan security forces to “show moderation, avoid the use of force and allow the aid to enter.”
Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri took to Twitter and also denounced the Maduro regime’s bloody crackdown on Venezuelans trying to reach the shipments of food and medicine on Saturday.
Maduro is likely to face increased international pressure after Saturday’s chaotic events. 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 and posted a message on Twitter that he will ask the international community to consider “all options to liberate our country”.
Although organizers said some food and medical supplies had been moved from Brazil into southern Venezuela Saturday, high-profile efforts from Colombia seemed to fail amid stiff resistance.
And the cost was high. By day’s end, at least four people were dead and more than 280 had been injured in Colombia alone, 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 front line 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 a burned-out aid truck rose over the horizon, those who thought there might be a peaceful way to deliver aid began losing hope.
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 in Venezuela. “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. 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 central to his push. 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.
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 the U.S. 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.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, has been Congress’s most vocal critic of Maduro, and over the weekend Rubio’s Twitter feed included provocative posts with photographs of past dictators who have fallen from power including former Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega, who was removed from power following the U.S. military invasion of Panama in 1989, and Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader who was captured and killed by opposition militants in 2011.
Rubio posted the photos to social media without comment.
Maduro has vowed to dig in and hold on to power. In the days leading up to Saturday, he 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,” Rosselló said.
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 thwarted — 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 sent to carry relief across the border, he asked the military, once again to be “on the right side of history.”
In one instance, soldiers commandeered an armored vehicle and drove it through barricades before it 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 to the opposition. 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 loyalty...to 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.
Anti-government demonstrations were also held in Caracas and other major cities, some 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.
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 and el Nuevo reporters Antonio Maria Delgado, Jimena Tavel and Nora Gámez Torrez and McClatchy DC reporter Alex Daugherty contributed to this report.