When Gustavo Vilorio traveled from Venezuela to Colombia last week, he told his family he’d be back soon, riding on top of a truck packed with humanitarian aid for a country on the brink of change.
A week later, the burned-out hulk of that aid convoy is being used to block his way home, and Vilorio’s not sure when he’ll see his family next.
“I have to tell you that our morale is on the floor,” said Vilorio, a member of the Venezuelan opposition camping along the Colombian border, afraid he’ll be detained or worse if he goes home. “We should have seen this coming, but we didn’t expect it.”
Venezuela’s political crisis is entering a stark new phase that may test the mettle of those who thought change would come as quickly as the meteoric ascent of opposition leader and interim President Juan Guaidó.
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Guaidó, the 35-year-old politician who is trying to unseat Nicolás Maduro, spent this week meeting with South American presidents, shoring up international support before he heads home next week to an uncertain fate.
Guaidó and Maduro are fighting for control of the shattered country, but more than a month into the struggle neither has a clear upper hand. Guiadó has public support and the backing of more than 60 countries, but Maduro still controls government institutions, the upper echelons of the military and roving gangs with guns.
“Nobody who is serious ever thought this would be resolved in the short term,” said Nicmer Evans, a Caracas-based political analyst. “Those who tell you this will end soon are creating false hopes.”
When the week started, Guaidó seemed on the verge of a breakthrough. Defying Maduro, he planned to push tons of food and medical supplies into the country from Colombia, Brazil and Curacao with the help of hundreds of thousands of volunteers. His plans received a huge assist when British billionaire Richard Branson organized a star-studded concert on the Colombian border on the eve of the push.
The event, called Venezuela Aid Live, was broadcast on MTV, aimed to raise $100 million and was expected to help lure masses of volunteers to the frontier. When Guaidó made a surprise appearance at the concert — ignoring a court-ordered travel ban in Venezuela — it seemed like a fitting prelude to his triumphant return home.
But the “avalanche” of people he predicted never materialized. When the trucks tried to make their way across two border bridges early Saturday, only a few thousand people were there to assist. The effort was met with a wall of tear gas and buckshot and was quickly routed.
Vladimir Torres, one of the field coordinators for the aid effort, has been replaying the events in his head trying to figure out what went wrong. He’s come to the conclusion that the concert was a beautiful mistake. Yes, it drew more potential volunteers to the border, but the daylong event also left the crowd physically drained. The following morning, when organizers desperately needed manpower, it wasn’t there. Concert promoters say the event attracted 370,000 spectators, but Torres says less than 1 percent of them — perhaps 3,000 people — stayed around to help the following morning.
Despite the weak turnout, organizers stuck to the plan of trying to push aid across three bridges. One group spent 14 hours outside of an area called Tienditas, waiting for orders that never came. The other two groups tried to escort the aid through only to be confronted by Maduro’s military and armed pro-government gangs, or colectivos.
“The conditions were against us in terms of surviving that day,” Torres said. “Many people saw what we were up against and lost hope.”
More than 400 people were injured and two of the aid trucks were burned on the Francisco de Paula Santander Bridge. A similar attempt along the Brazilian-Venezuelan border left at least four dead.
Both Guaidó and Maduro called the day a success. Maduro said that by stopping the aid he’d interrupted a larger Washington plot to topple his regime. Guaidó said the events had exposed Maduro’s brutality to the world.
But the world didn’t react the way many of the hardcore opposition were hoping. On Monday, the Lima Group, a bloc of 14 largely Latin American nations, condemned Maduro’s behavior but said it wouldn’t consider military force in ousting him.
“That was what disappointed us most,” Torres said of the decision. “It makes me wonder what the intentions of the international community are. ... It’s clear we can’t get rid of Maduro on our own.”
On Friday, Washington sanctioned six Venezuelan officials it said were responsible for stopping the aid and causing the violence.
Guaidó’s next big challenge is one of logistics: How will he get back into the country without getting arrested?
“I didn’t accept this commitment to fulfill it from anywhere other than Venezuela,” Guaidó told followers recently. “We’ll be seeing each other in Caracas soon.”
Colombia says that Guaidó and his family face “credible threats” to their safety when they return. But if Guaidó doesn’t get back soon to continue leading popular protests, he could lose momentum, Evans said.
“For him to get back is not only important, it’s absolutely necessary,” he said.
Guaidó is expected to announce new marches and demonstrations in coming days. Unions and labor groups are also mulling a national strike, which could put further pressure on the military to abandon Maduro. Many are also waiting to see how harsh U.S. oil sanctions, unveiled last month, might start biting Maduro and the population at large.
In recent days, more than 550 members of the security forces have fled into Colombia, but the higher ranks — those giving the orders and calling the shots — still seem to be firmly in the Maduro camp.
It’s also unclear what’s going to happen to Guaidó’s supporters now stranded in Colombia. Venezuela has locked down its borders, blocking bridges with shipping containers, the burned aid trucks and other debris, forcing people to cross along illegal trails.
Guaidó’s Voluntad Popular political party says at least four of its members have “disappeared” as they tried to make their way home along the trails, or “trochas,” and are presumably detained. In the restive Venezuelan border state of Táchira, the homes of some opposition figures — including those camped in Colombia — have been marked with red Xs, a sign they see as a threat.
“We’re being hunted down,” said Ediven Barboza, an opposition city council member from Aragua state in Venezuela. “There’s nobody there who can guarantee our health or our life.”
On a recent weekday, about 100 Venezuelans were playing soccer and swinging in hammocks on a spit of land they were calling “Unity Ranch.” Most of them had been on the front lines of the aid push and some of them were still nursing injuries from the clash. The camp, like the ongoing political crisis, is taking on the look of permanency. A battery of portable toilets have been brought in and residents have adopted a black mutt they call “Venezuela.”
As Vilorio watched a pickup soccer game, he found grim humor in the idea that just a week ago he was dreaming of riding into his hometown, La Guaira, in northern Venezuela, with lifesaving aid.
“That would have been so incredible,” he said. “But we’re still here.”