Venezuelan protesters brave tear gas in push to deliver aid
Opponents of Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro braved tear gas as they rescued boxes of emergency food and medicine from burning trucks during violent clashes on the Colombian border with security forces blocking the entry of U.S.-supplied humanitarian aid.
The panicked scene on the binational Santander bridge was the dramatic high point of a day that also saw two people killed in unrest near Brazil, at least 23 soldiers switch loyalties to opposition leader Juan Guaido, and Maduro break off diplomatic relations with Colombia amid an increasingly unpredictable and unruly fight for power in the oil-rich South American nation.
For weeks, the opposition has been amassing aid on three of Venezuela’s borders with the aim of launching a “humanitarian avalanche” exactly one month after Guaido declared himself interim president at an outdoor rally in a direct challenge to Maduro’s rule.
Even as the 35-year-old lawmaker has won the backing of more than 50 governments around the world, he’s so far been unable to cause a major rift inside the military — the socialist leader’s last-remaining plank of support in a country ravaged by hyperinflation and widespread shortages.
“Our call to the armed forces couldn’t be clearer: put yourself on the right side of history,” Guaido said in an appeal to troops as he pulled himself onto a truck and shook hands with its driver during a ceremonial send-off of the aid convoy from the Colombian city of Cucuta.
But almost as soon as the aid convoy departed, the limitations of Guaido’s high-stakes gamble became clear.
At the Santander bridge, a group of activists led by exiled lawmakers managed to escort three flatbed trucks of aid past the halfway point into Venezuela when they were repelled by security forces firing tear gas and buckshot. In a flash the cargo caught fire, with some eyewitnesses claiming the National Guardsmen doused a tarp covering the boxes with gas before setting it on fire. With a black cloud rising above, the activists — protecting themselves from the fumes with vinegar-soaked cloths — unloaded the boxes by hand in a human chain stretching back to the Colombian side of the bridge.
“They burned the aid and fired on their own people,” said 39-year-old David Hernandez, who was hit in the forehead with a tear gas canister that left a bloody wound and growing welt. “That’s the definition of dictatorship.”
He said he decided to join Saturday’s protest thinking of his father, who is dying from advanced bone cancer they can’t treat because of Venezuela’s shortages.
Amid the aid push, Maduro struck back, breaking diplomatic relations with Colombia, whose government he accuses of serving as a staging ground for a U.S.-led effort to oust him from power.
“My patience has run out,” Maduro said, speaking at a massive rally of red-shirted supporters in Caracas and giving Colombian diplomats 24 hours to leave the country.
The clashes started at dawn in the Venezuelan border town of Urena, when residents began removing yellow metal barricades and barbed wire blocking the Santander bridge. Some of the protesters were masked youth who threw rocks and later commandeered a city bus and set it afire. At least two dozen people were injured in the disturbances, according to local health officials.
“We’re tired. There’s no work, nothing,” Andreina Montanez, 31, said as she sat on a curb recovering from the sting of tear gas used to disperse the crowd.
Opposition leaders are pushing forward in belief that whether Maduro lets the aid in or not, he will come out weakened. They also contend that if the military does allow the food and medical gear to pass, it will signify troops are now loyal to Guaido.
Analysts warn that there may be no clear victor and humanitarian groups have criticized the opposition as using the aid as a political weapon.
“I don’t know that anyone can give a timeline of when the dam might break, said Eric Farnsworth of the Council of the Americas and Americas Society, a Washington-based think tank.
“And it’s quite possible that it won’t.”
© Nine Digital Pty Ltd 2019