By Matthew Brostow and Andrew Rosati | Bloomberg News
A border-town bridge over a near-dry riverbed has become the scene of a showdown between the Venezuelan government of President Nicolas Maduro and his U.S.-backed rival.
At the Colombian end in Cucuta is the logistics hub from which the Venezuelan opposition wants to organize food and medical shipments to alleviate suffering and undermine Maduro. On the Venezuelan side, freight containers and a tanker trailer have been dragged into the road to block vehicles. Security forces patrol the riverbed nearby.
About 10 trucks of aid will arrive in Cucuta on Thursday, but won’t be sent into Venezuela until next week, opposition lawmaker Gaby Arellano said in a phone interview. The U.S. Embassy said in a release the shipments would roll into the city about 1:30 p.m.
Juan Guaido, the Venezuelan National Assembly leader recognized as the country’s rightful leader by more than 30 governments, needs to deliver the aid to maintain pressure on Maduro’s authoritarian regime and demonstrate his ability to help the masses. But Maduro has said international aid convoys are a pretext for invasion, and there’s no sign that his armed forces will heed Guaido’s call to let the shipments through.
Under Maduro’s failed socialist policies, Venezuela has sunk into a humanitarian crisis, and hunger is common in the once-wealthy petrostate. Children beg for scraps and adults pick through garbage hoping to feed their families.
U.S. sanctions on the oil industry, the only real source of hard currency for the government, threaten further suffering. Those sanctions, which were rolled out last week, form part of what would appear to be a two-pronged approach by Guaido and his U.S. backers — strip Maduro of the cash he needs to buy even the small amounts of food he’s been handing out to Venezuelans, and then ride to the rescue with critical supplies of their own.
It’s unclear whether the Guaido camp can achieve this daunting task, but the political significance is clear: On Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted a picture of the blocked bridge, saying, “The Maduro regime must LET THE AID REACH THE STARVING PEOPLE.”
The U.S., Canada and European Union have pledged $100 million in aid at Guaido’s behest. That represents only about two weeks of food and medical imports, said Francisco Rodriguez, chief economist at Torino Economics in New York.
Guaido held a planning meeting in Caracas on Wednesday with a handful of opposition mayors to discuss its distribution. He has said supplies will come through Colombia, Brazil and a Caribbean island, but the initial flash point is at the Cucuta bridge.
The opposition will find a way to bring aid in, roadblocks or not, said Congresswoman Manuela Bolivar, a member of Guaido’s Popular Will party who is helping coordinate the plan.
“Venezuela is not an island. There are trails, and thousands of kilometers of territory that the aid could enter through, and we’re also looking at maritime options,” she said in an interview. “You have to generate pressure.”
Colombian Foreign Affairs Minister Carlos Trujillo said some plane loads have arrived in the country and will be shipped to Cucuta. And Mark Green, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said Wednesday on Twitter that truckloads are being prepositioned to deliver as soon as possible.
The effort’s politicization may reduce its chances of success. Freddy Bernal, a Maduro ally who now runs a government food program, rejected the idea that the regime would let its enemies care for the people.
“The only sustenance we need is that sanctions be lifted,” he told Colombia’s Blu Radio this week.
Humanitarian agencies have also been wary, because they say relief should be without any agenda. United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Wednesday that help should arrive without strings.
“When we see the present standoff, it becomes even more clear that serious political negotiations between the parties are necessary,” he said. “Humanitarian action needs to be independent of political, military or other objectives.”
On Thursday morning, hundreds of Venezuelan families flowed over Cucuta’s bridges across the Tachira River.
Some dragged empty suitcases, planning to stock up on staples such as rice and chicken in Cucuta’s supermarkets. Others were leaving Venezuela for good. At the end of the Simon Bolivar bridge, some get straight onto buses to make the 900-mile trip to Ecuador. Street hawkers offer packets of ibuprofen, acetaminophen and generic Viagra, all difficult to obtain back home.
It isn’t clear how aid deliveries will cross the border in the other direction. While Cucuta has two bridges open to foot traffic, the now-blocked Las Tienditas highway bridge is empty: By the time it was finished, relations between Colombia and Venezuela had deteriorated so much that it isn’t used. The aid shipments seem unlikely to inaugurate traffic.
The Red Cross’s Venezuela chapter said this week it is willing to distribute aid but wouldn’t bring food and medicines into the country in defiance of Maduro. Mario Villarroel, the organization’s president, spoke to reporters in Caracas about the group’s “fundamental principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence.”
Cucuta has been swamped by Venezuelan migrants, but Colombia’s National Emergency Management Agency said in a statement that the aid wouldn’t be distributed there.
The situation presents a particular challenge to international actors, said John Hoddinott, a Cornell University economics professor and nutritional scientist who has helped with humanitarian-aid programs in Ethiopia and Bangladesh.
“They say, ‘We are here to assist people in need,’ but we can only do so with the cooperation of all sides in this dispute. If the government of Venezuela says it’s not going to permit aid, there’s not a lot they can do.”
Success would buoy Guaido’s chances of unseating Maduro. “If this process stalls, and the aid just sits there, then the opposition starts to lose credibility,” said Phil Gunson, a Caracas-based analyst at the International Crisis group.
Meanwhile, time is of the essence. As the U.S. oil sanctions imposed Jan. 28 start to bite, the country will face grave difficulties importing food and the gasoline with which to distribute it, Torino’s Rodriguez said.
Venezuela faces “a very serious risk of famine in the near term,” he said.
Bloomberg’s Alex Vasquez, Fabiola Zerpa, Ezra Fieser and Oscar Medina contributed.
Maduro deploys security forces to keep aid out of Venezuela