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At Venezuela's Border, a Strange and Deadly Showdown Over Aid
The political showdown over the delivery of aid to Venezuela turned deadly Friday when its security forces fired on protesters near the country's Brazilian border, killing two and wounding a dozen in a confrontation that could signal a more violent and destabilizing struggle over who can claim to be the country's legitimate leader.
A critical moment loomed on Saturday, when Venezuela's opposition, led by Juan Guaidó, vowed to deliver tons of donated humanitarian aid from abroad, against the orders of President Nicolás Maduro.
The protesters killed on Friday, members of the Pemón indigenous group, opposed Mr. Maduro's decision, saying the population needs the food and medication. They were shot after closing a road to prevent security forces from passing. Outraged fellow protesters were reported to have seized a Venezuela National Guard commander and his deputies in retaliation.
The bloodshed came as the presidents of Chile, Colombia and Paraguay flew to the Colombian border town of Cúcuta in a display of anti-Maduro resolve -- and were joined by Mr. Guaidó, who defied a travel ban. Crowds converged in the town, where tons of aid have been stockpiled, cheering Latino pop stars in a pro-Guaidó show arranged by Richard Branson, the billionaire entrepreneur.
By Friday night Venezuela's government said it was temporarily closing the three main border bridges between Cúcuta and Venezuela.
In the history of border standoffs, the one shaping up on the edges of Venezuela has turned into a particularly combustible mix of political theatrics and deadly risks.
"We are going to see if they will attack people in a peaceful protest, or if they will open the door to this aid," said Darío Ramírez, a Venezuelan city councilman who fled to Panama five years ago and came to Cúcuta with other opposition activists. They intended to accompany the aid shipment into Venezuela over the Tienditas Bridge, which Mr. Maduro's forces have blocked with tanker trucks.
In recent weeks, it has become clear that the standoff at the border is about much more than food and medicine.
The opposition sees a chance to break through Mr. Maduro's blockade of the shipments, establishing Mr. Guaidó, who they and more than 50 other countries call Venezuela's legitimate president, as the one who can provide the country food.
President Trump said he views this moment as the "the twilight hour of socialism" in the hemisphere, a turning point where the Venezuelan military would abandon its president and hand Mr. Trump a foreign policy victory.
Mr. Maduro sees the pretext for a foreign invasion, which led him to shut the borders to Brazil and the Caribbean island of Curacao while calling the aid shipment a Trojan horse meant to destabilize him.
And Venezuelans, who have suffered from years of deadly shortages of food and medicine, wonder if this is the end of the crisis that has engulfed their country -- or the start of a bigger, perhaps more violent, struggle that would begin on the border.
"We are tired," said Jesús Sánchez, a 26-year-old who left the Venezuelan port town of Puerto Cabello and said he would march with the aid on Saturday against Mr. Maduro. "If he goes against us, who are coming disarmed, it is going to get ugly."
The morning began with C-17 military planes revving up in the United States to complete a last airlift of supplies to the border, followed by the arrival of Mr. Trump's special envoy to Venezuela, Elliott Abrams. As the day progressed, a string of Latin American leaders landed at Cúcuta's airport as well.
"They must put themselves on the right side of history, for the good of the people," said President Iván Duque of Colombia, referring to the Venezuelan soldiers blocking the aid on the other side of the bridge. "To get in the way of aid is a crime against humanity."
Yet the international pressure only left Mr. Maduro digging in and laying blame on Mr. Trump. "The people of Venezuela are saying: 'Trump, hands off Venezuela!'" he wrote on Twitter.
Near the Tienditas Bridge, which links Colombia and Venezuela and where much of the aid sat in a warehouse, a crowd of many thousands came to the concert organized by Mr. Branson. Part Latin pop spectacle, part political protest, the event quickly became a stage where artists and concertgoers took the microphone to air their grievances against Mr. Maduro.
"I came because they've destroyed my country," said María Alejandra Machado Méndez, a 29-year-old teacher from Venezuela, as she stood listening to the singers, which included Maluma and Luis Fonsi. "There's nothing left for us because they've robbed it all. I want to tell my students in the future that I came out to fight."
Despite an international travel ban imposed on Mr. Guaidó by the Venezuelan authorities after he proclaimed himself president last month, he attended the concert and was photographed standing with the presidents of Colombia, Chile and Paraguay as fans cheered.
It was unclear whether Mr. Maduro would order border authorities to prevent Mr. Guaidó from re-entering Venezuela or have him arrested if he sought to return.
Activists said that they were asking concert goers to remain at the bridge to pack supplies through the night in preparation for the attempted crossing on Saturday. A priest would be on hand to pray with the activists for a safe journey, said Víctor Julio Barboza, who coordinated aid at a small camp set up beside the bridge.
"The idea is people will stay till the early morning hours and walk with the humanitarian aid," said Mr. Barboza.
Yet the confrontation in Brazil had already cast a shadow over the upcoming events.
Ricardo Delgado, a leader of the Pemón indigenous group near the Brazilian border, said the tensions began in the predawn hours when a convoy from the Army and the National Guard tried to reach a checkpoint on the border. A group of indigenous protesters blocked their passage, because they want the aid to come in.
Mr. Delgado said he told convoy officers that they could not pass, and they left. But hours later, he said, the convoy returned, this time shooting at the indigenous group blocking the streets.
"I was sleeping and the shooting woke me up," he said.
After the deadly confrontation Friday morning, indigenous leaders seized Gen. José Miguel Montoya Ramirez, the head of Bolívar state's National Guard force, and some of his subordinates, two opposition lawmakers from the area said in interviews.
The lawmakers, Olivia Lozano and Américo de Grazia, said it was unclear how long the indigenous leaders intended to hold the captives. The lawmakers said the indigenous leaders were trying to ensure security forces would not block the entry of aid.
Military officials did not confirm reports of the detention.
The White House condemned the shooting and urged the military to let aid into Venezuela. "Egregious violation of human rights by Maduro and those who are following his orders will not go unpunished," read a statement issued Friday night by the White House press secretary.
Whether events would proceed more peacefully or erupt into more violence on Saturday was anyone's guess.
Opposition leaders said they planned to take on Mr. Maduro's forces directly rather than smuggle in the aid through border routes used by contraband traffickers.
The main point of entry would be the Tienditas Bridge, where a shipment would pass surrounded by protesters who would join them from the Venezuelan side. Others would take smaller packages over pedestrian foot bridges.
"We've faced tear gas before," said Laurence Castro, an opposition lawmaker from Caracas.
In Venezuela, several thousand government supporters, mostly public workers, militias and pensioners, gathered on their side of the Tienditas bridge for a counter concert.
Organizers divided into groups and filed in lines facing the stage, a strategy used in the past by the ruling party to create the appearance of a continuous sea of people when seen from a particular angle.
"What aid are they talking about when they rob us of billions of dollars in sanctions?" said Gonzalo Ceballos, a retired schoolteacher and ruling party activist who came by bus from the city of San Cristóbal. "We're congregating here to prevent an aggression that seeks to take control of Venezuela's strategic resources."
Some said they came to the event in search of free food, traveling from as far as Caracas. One young couple with a child was reduced to begging on the outskirts of the event when they realized no food was being distributed.
Among those who had traveled to the Colombian side of the border were a number of former Venezuelan military officers who have repudiated loyalty to Mr. Maduro. Some spoke openly about armed rebellion against Mr. Maduro.
"The eyes of the world are here," said Carlos Guillén Martínez, an army lieutenant who fled the country last year and who has vowed to take up arms against Mr. Maduro.
Others Venezuelans had come to Cúcuta hoping to take advantage of the activity around the concert to try to make ends meet. Mileidi Ramírez, 42, had come from Venezuela's Merida state to sell candy at the concert in order to buy food back at home.
"I left my kids in Venezuela, I have nothing to eat," she said.
[Source: By Nicholas Casey, Anatoly Kurmanaev and Ernesto Londoño, The New York Times, Cúcuta, 22Feb19]
DDHH en Venezuela
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