Venezuela braces for possible conflict ahead of opposition’s push to deliver humanitarian aid
“This could turn into a dangerous conflict: the armed forces versus the people,” said Laidy Gómez, the opposition governor of Tachira, a Venezuelan state abutting Colombia. She has ordered state hospitals to prepare for casualties on Saturday, when, in defiance of President Nicolás Maduro, an army of volunteers will seek to break the socialist government’s blockade of international relief.
“It would be a crime against humanity to act against thousands of people who are clamoring for food and medicine,” Gómez continued. “But I’m worried that Nicolás Maduro is looking for a fight.”
Maduro on Thursday ordered the closure of the border with Brazil and weighed sealing the border with Colombia, not far from this western metropolis, as his government scrambled to respond to the planned Saturday operation. Venezuela’s National Institute of Civil Airspace issued an order grounding private jet traffic nationwide. Commercial flights were still operational, though Air France said it would cancel flights to Caracas through Monday given heightened tensions.
In an apparent bid to counter international criticism of turning away aid, Maduro’s vice president, Delcy Rodriguez, said the government on Thursday had sent the United Nations a list of medicines the country needed for “humanitarian assistance.” Maduro also announced that 7.5 tons of medical supplies had arrived on Thursday from Russia and the Pan American Health Organization.
Maduro’s orders came as the U.S.-backed effort to topple his government is entering a critical and potentially more dangerous phase.
A month after opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared Maduro a usurper and claimed Venezuela’s rightful mantle of leadership, the government’s enemies were in the midst of a risky gambit. By bus, car, boat, plane, motorbike, and on foot, thousands of Venezuelans, including Guaidó, were already mobilizing as they headed toward the borders. Their plan: to force open Venezuela’s doors through sheer numbers.
With Monday also marking the deadline for the Trump administration and the Maduro government — which last month officially broke diplomatic ties — to reach agreement on keeping a handful of diplomats in their respective capitals, Venezuela was confronting a crisis on multiple fronts. Failure to reach even a temporary deal could escalate tensions at a time when Washington has threatened military intervention and is working with the opposition to coordinate Saturday’s operation.
“This message is for the Venezuelan military: You will ultimately be responsible for your actions,” Adm. Craig Faller, chief of U.S. Southern Command, said this week after a meeting with the head of Colombia’s armed forces. “Do the right thing. Save your people and your country.”
Vice President Pence is scheduled to be in Colombia Monday for a gathering of Latin American countries where, his office said, he would “voice the United States’ unwavering support for interim President Juan Guaidó and highlight the Venezuelan people’s fight for democracy over dictatorship.”
The opposition effort, which involves planned flotillas in the Caribbean and caravans through the Andes and the Amazon, is being hailed as a way to ease spreading hunger and disease in a nation on the verge of becoming a failed state. Yet the government’s enemies also have another, more political purpose: use the humanitarian operation to trigger Maduro’s downfall.
They are calculating that the rank-and-file military and security forces will not fire on unarmed civilians attempting to cart boxes of aid over the border. Should the military disobey direct orders to stop volunteers, they believe, it could rob Maduro of his key source of power: the threat of brute force to keep a nation in line.
Yet should the military, security forces and pro-government militias resort to deadly force, it could turn volunteers into martyrs and spark a more direct confrontation with the Trump administration.
“There will be an international response if the armed forces fire on the people,” said Eduardo Delgado, 37, an opposition leader in this western state who is hoping to marshal as many as 40,000 volunteers to the border. “And the U.S. is leaving no option off the table.”
Guaidó and his team were headed toward San Cristobal in a caravan of 10 vans en route to the border on Friday. Four buses traveling ahead of him with opposition lawmakers, journalists and volunteers were stopped Thursday by national guards throwing tear gas in the state of Carabobo, said Roberto Campos, an opposition lawmaker who was on one of the buses.
Some of the opposition lawmakers struggled with the guards, who, Campos said, sought to take their IDs. A Guaidó spokesman confirmed that his vehicle was still making its way west.
“A National Guard convoy stopped us, and they’re not letting us off the bus right now,” Campos said. “They’re giving us no information, and we don’t know what’s going to happen.
Maduro’s government deems the aid operation a Trojan horse invasion by the United States, and has ordered the severing of sea and air links with three Caribbean islands being used as staging grounds for aid, dispatched military reinforcements and warned of “cadavers” on the borders. The bulk of the aid is piling up in the Colombian border city of Cucuta — where the opposition’s allies, including billionaire Richard Branson — were hosting a star-studded benefit concert for Venezuela on Friday.
“We have the armed forces deployed across the nation,” Maduro said Thursday in a televised meeting with his top brass.
Colombian officials countered that they were considering taking down border fences to allow Venezuelan volunteers — who were being encouraged to dress in white — to freely enter. Either way, Venezuelan opposition officials said they would start their attempt to move aid across the Colombian border at 9 a.m. Saturday — and would form human chains and carry out illegal crossings if the Maduro government blocked their way.
“We know what we are confronting,” said Gaby Arellano, a Venezuelan opposition deputy speaking Thursday at a newsnnference in Cucuta.
As the opposition sought to put its plan into action, San Cristobal, Venezuela’s largest metropolis near the Colombian border, was poised to be one of the first hard-hit urban centers to receive humanitarian aid.
A once wealthy hub of agribusiness, the city of nearly 300,000 now stands as a text book case of Venezuelan need.
Inside grocery stores selling at regulated prices, shelves this week were bare of chicken, beef and flour. Those offering goods at free market rates are well-stocked with food, but at rates so exorbitant that locals — like Judith Rico, a 60-year-old house cleaner — are simply unable to afford them.
A single mother whose 23-year old son has cerebral palsy says both of them have lost weight in recent months from a lack of food. With private pharmacies going out of business at an alarming rate, and hospitals facing medical shortages, she said her son has gone days at a time without the pills he need to calm him down.
Without them, he chews his hands and gnaws his lips bloody.
“My son needs humanitarian aid,” she said. “We all need humanitarian aid. The government should not block it because the people are suffering. I cry every night because I’m worried I won’t be able to pay for the pills.”
Yet, the humanitarian aid operation is unlikely to offer the kind of assistance the region’s largest hospital needs most. The hospital’s director, Dr. Renny Cardenas, said he would welcome fresh stocks of medicines and vaccines.
ut the bigger challenge, he said, is an exodus of staff fleeing the humanitarian crisis. In 2017, the hospital had 3,000 employees; now it is down to half that. It’s forced the 567-bed facility to operati with only 280.
Due to a lack of spare parts and gas, only three of eight ambulances and two of eight elevators are functioning. Its radiation therapy machine for treating cancer broke a year ago.
In the second-floor dialysis ward, large parts of the ceiling were leaking or caving in. There is no working air conditioning, and only four of 14 dialysis machines were in functioning order.
“Humanitarian aid is wonderful, but it’s not going to solve our biggest problems,” Cardenas said.
In a country resting on the world’s largest oil reserves, but where the oil industry itself is in tatters. gasoline shortages are so bad here that lines at stations can stretch for more than a mile. Locals say they are sleeping in their cars for up to four days to get gas.
The shortages are partly a product of worsening contraband rings smuggling virtually-free gas out of Venezuela into Colombia. But it is a problem that is set to worsen not only here, but nationwide, due to oil sanctions imposed by the United States. Venezuela used to export oil to the U.S., and import refined gasoline — a system that the Trump administration effectively banned last month.
“The sanctions are a measure to pressure the government and, of course, we all know it’s going to be hard,” said Alfredo Ramirez, 31, speaking from his red pickup, after 24 hours in a gas line. “But we want the government to hand away power. This country is lost right now.”
Mariana Zuñiga in San Cristobal and Andreina Aponte in Caracas contributed to this report.