Venezuela border skirmishes continue as questions swirl around torched aid bus

A day after aid push, skirmishes on Venezuela-Colombia border continue

The day after Venezuela's opposition tried to push aid into Venezuela from Colombia - leading to clashes and bloodshed - border skirmishes continued, albeit on a much smaller scale. At the Francisco de Paula Santander international bridge.
Up Next
The day after Venezuela's opposition tried to push aid into Venezuela from Colombia - leading to clashes and bloodshed - border skirmishes continued, albeit on a much smaller scale. At the Francisco de Paula Santander international bridge.

Small groups of anti-government protesters threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at heavily armed Venezuelan security forces on Sunday — a day after their attempts to carry humanitarian aid into the country were halted by violence.

At the Francisco de Paula Santander bridge, which connects Colombia to the Venezuelan town of Ureña, two burned-out aid trucks were still smoldering on the two-lane bridge after they were torched on Saturday.

The opposition is blaming the government for burning the food and medicine that was destined for Venezuela’s neediest, and images of the burning trucks are being used as powerful new symbols of the callousness of the Nicolás Maduro administration. But exactly how the fires started remains unclear.

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.

Trump administration officials on Sunday insisted the aid is strictly humanitarian and intended to help Venezuelans suffering through an economic collapse that has led to widespread starvation, disease and an exodus of more than 3 million people, said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during interviews on cable TV news programs.

Maduro’s use of force to repel international aid has raised the stakes, with Maduro vowing to hold on to power and Guaidó calling on the international community to consider “all options to liberate our country”.

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 “further action will be contemplated” against Maduro during a meeting of the Lima Group — a bloc of 14 mostly Latin American countries — on Monday, including more sanctions and additional aid.

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.”

On Monday, Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to be in Bogotá, Colombia, for the meeting of the Lima Group, where he’s expected to ask Maduro to step down. Guaidó, who has the backing of more than 50 nations, including the U.S., said he would attend that meeting, too.

Maduro is likely to face increased international pressure after Saturday’s violence, with the images of burning trucks filled with humanitarian aid serving as a potent visual of a government denying food and medicine to its people.

Eyewitnesses to the event said the trucks were stopped just over the Venezuelan border and then faced a barrage of teargas. One man, his head still bandaged from Saturday’s melee, said he saw one of the gas canisters ignite the tarp stretched over the aid. As the opposition retreated, the truck burst into flames. Three other eyewitnesses provided similar versions.

Even so, videos circulating on the internet suggested that an errant Molotov cocktail thrown by the opposition might have started one of the fires. Another social media theory: the opposition might have staged the incident to make Maduro look like a monster and set the stage for armed intervention.

On Sunday, Edwin Palomera, 47, still had dried blood on his T-shirt and crude stitches in his face where he’d been hit with pellets fired by the military or by pro-government groups known as colectivos.

Palomera said he was on the first truck trying to cross the bridge when there was hope that they could talk their way across the border. But the truck was immediately hit with teargas and as he fled, he saw the aid burst into flames. It was only then, he claims, that protesters began responding by throwing homemade incendiary devices, or Molotov cocktails.

“First they destroyed everything we had in Venezuela and then they destroyed the international aid on the trucks,” he said. “We were indignant, and we forgot about the idea of this being a peaceful protest.”

At least four people have been killed in three days of demonstrations and more than 280 have been injured according to advocacy groups and government figures. Most of the injuries came Saturday — the deadline that Guaidó had set to push the aid into Venezuela against Maduro’s will.

Maduro considers the humanitarian relief effort a hostile attempt to undermine his administration. He argues the United States and others need to drop punishing financial and oil sanctions that cost the country billions and have limited its ability to access imports.

Maduro’s most vocal critic in Congress, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, has repeatedly called for Venezuelan military leaders to defect. 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 office following the U.S. military invasion of Panama in 1989, and Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan president who was captured and killed by opposition militants in 2011.

Rubio posted the photos to social media without comment.

Maduro still seems to have the loyalty of many in the military, even as about 156 military and police officials had defected on Saturday and Sunday, Colombia Immigration officials said.

“What you’re doing is morally correct,” Colombian President Iván Duque told a group of the defectors on Sunday. “Welcome to Colombia.”

The military attaché at the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, Col. José Luis Silva, who broke with Maduro in January, said he sent an email to about 100 Venezuelan military leaders exhorting them to end the bloodshed and defect. Silva said he told the military leaders they had the moral obligation to disobey orders “to massacre our people. Defect, you are within your rights.”

As the aid impasse raises the stakes on Maduro’s power struggle with Guaidó, with both claiming to be the legitimate leader of Venezuela, U.S. officials appeared to be preparing to send more humanitarian relief to South America from an air base in South Florida.

One nearby resident reported increased activity late Saturday at the Homestead Air Reserve Base, including movement of C-130 transport planes. Sources familiar with 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 or the route for relief supplies to enter Venezuela.

Colombia has shut down all of its international borders with Venezuela through Monday as it assesses the damage from the protest. That has left thousands of Venezuelans, who had come here to help with the aid effort, stranded on this side of the border.

At a makeshift camp near the Tienditas international bridge, about a hundred people were lounging in the shade, tending their wounds and waiting for instructions from the man they consider their leader: Guaidó.

“If we don’t hear anything from him soon, maybe I’ll just stay in Colombia,” one young man said.

In the last three years, more than 3.4 million people have left Venezuela amid the deep economic crisis. And many of those fleeing have come on foot over the same bridges that were turned into battlefronts on Saturday.

Near the Ureña bridge, several dozen Venezuelans were trying to cross a river and get back into their country, as Venezuelan security forces kept them at bay with teargas.

Rodolfo Rodriguez, 31, was among a group fighting back, throwing stones and bottles from the river bank at the police on the bridge above. Rodriguez said he was trying to create a distraction so some of his comrades could sneak back into Venezuela, but he said the ultimate goal was to get the aid across.

“We have to take this bridge,” he said. “We can’t give up now. We have to keep moving forward.”

The next step forward may be on the diplomatic front when Guaidó meets with the Lima Group in Bogotá on Monday.

There’s no indication that Maduro will be listening or receptive. Throughout the crisis, which began in earnest on Jan. 23, he has vowed to stay in power until new elections in 2025.

“The people are united on the streets, mobilized and alert in all corners of the country,” he tweeted Sunday. “I call on the men and women of good faith to not let down their guard and stay on a war footing to preserve the peace of Venezuela. Long live this Rebellious Fatherland!”

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 has lived and worked in Latin America for 20+ years but still can’t dance.