A battle over aid in Venezuela – and a border zone primed to explode
Both sides in the confrontation between Venezuela's socialist government, led by Nicolas Maduro, and the opposition led by Juan Guaido know that today — Saturday, Feb. 23 — could be the day that decides who rules Venezuela.
And while the country's opposition has called repeatedly on soldiers to forswear the use of violence against their own people, all the elements are in place for a serious escalation today if a shot is fired at either end of the bridges that cross the Tachira river that divides Venezuela from Colombia.
Watch | Venezuela protests flare up on Saturday, soldiers defect at Colombian border:
Protesters and Venezuelan soldiers cross the border into Colombia on Saturday after President Nicolas Maduro closed the border to stop the opposition bringing U.S. humanitarian aid 0:37
There was bloodshed at another border crossing just yesterday, when indigenous Pemones — who have pledged to bring aid from Brazil into their territory on Venezuela's Grand Savannah — tried to block a convoy of Venezuelan soldiers. Witnesses said the soldiers opened fire, killing two Pemones and wounding 14 others.
The incident was a reminder that while the world is focused on the border between Cucuta, Colombia, and San Cristobal, Venezuela, it's only one of a number of places where Venezuela's opposition has vowed to bring food and medicine into the country — "Si o si," as Guaido put it: "No two ways about it."
Duelling concerts and rolling convoys
British entrepreneur Richard Branson added a musical soundtrack to the drama unfolding near Cucuta when he announced that he would sponsor a Venezuela Live Aid concert on the Colombian side of the border.
The concert kicked off yesterday in the presence of Colombia's President Ivan Duque and his counterparts from Chile and Paraguay.
Some of the biggest names in Latin music — including Juanes and Carlos Vives of Colombia, Venezuela's aging heartthrob Jose Luis "El Puma" Rodriguez and Puerto Rico's Luis Fonsi made the trip to the riverside concert ground.
At the other end of the Tienditas bridge, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela staged its own concert — though on Friday it seemed to be heavier on political speeches than music.
The bridge has been closed since 2016 and is now blocked by shipping containers welded in place yesterday by Venezuelan gendarmes, according to Colombian border authorities.
The opposition says it could use any of the four bridges in the area, or any number of other informal crossings, to get aid across to Venezuela.
On Thursday, Colombian authorities expelled a Venezuelan woman they said was a member of SEBIN — Venezuela's Bolivarian intelligence service — caught with four Venezuelan men at the Hampton Hotel in Cucuta, where they had been taking photos and videos of Venezuelan opposition figures in Cucuta for the concert.
Convoy rolls on
Meanwhile, a convoy of trucks and buses that departed Caracas on Thursday morning continued to roll southwest on a nearly 1,000-kilometre drive to the border. An announcement that Guaido was travelling in one of the buses turned out to be a ruse meant to fool authorities; he later showed up on social media, already in Tachira State near the border, being welcomed as "President Guaido" by a local mayor.
Many of the vehicles in the convoy were provided by and driven by members of Venezuela's truckers' union, which has thrown its support behind the opposition's effort to depose Nicolas Maduro.
<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/20Feb?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#20Feb</a> Desde la Plaza Altamira con los transportistas. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/VamosBien?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#VamosBien</a> <a href="https://t.co/NXcZe4o45C">https://t.co/NXcZe4o45C</a>
The government's reaction to the convoy offered more indications of its confusion and indecision over how to handle the challenge posed by the humanitarian aid effort — which has cast Maduro's PSUV party in the unpopular role of blocking desperately needed food and medicine.
As the truck convoy emerged from the Cabrera tunnel that joins Aragua and Carabobo states, they found National Guard members blocking the road with trucks. Armed guardsmen scuffled with opposition congressmen, who accused them of trying to puncture vehicle tires with knives.
For about half an hour, members of the convoy, including several opposition congressmen, scuffled with the National Guard. Some convoy members engaged in a tug-of-war over metal barriers the gendarmes tried to place across the road.
But although some gendarmes fired tear gas and shots in the air, they appeared reluctant to use more lethal force. Soon enough, the convoy was able to continue towards the border.
In the end, the National Guard's half-hearted action produced no result other than generating more material for the live-streaming smartphones of opposition politicians.
Organizers say a second attack on the convoy in the state of Portuguesa, this time by unidentified assailants, seriously injured one driver, but didn't stop the convoy.
<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Atenci%C3%B3n?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Atención</a> Caravana de diputados que se traslada a la ciudad de San Cristóbal Táchira, fue atacada por dos objetos contundentes a la altura de Guanare, Estado Portuguesa, uno de este hirió de gravedad al chófer de la unidad. <a href="https://t.co/8H8sqE8OYz">https://t.co/8H8sqE8OYz</a> <a href="https://t.co/YPjLebrkTn">pic.twitter.com/YPjLebrkTn</a>
More than 600,000 Venezuelans have signed up as volunteers to help in the distribution effort once the aid enters the country, but most of Venezuela's population centres are far from the border.
In a move that is fraught with potential for violent confrontation, the opposition is calling on Venezuelans to march on military bases and barracks today — the latest in a series of pressure tactics aimed at shaming Venezuela's armed forces into abandoning their support for the Maduro government.
The marches follow on an intense — and sometimes very personal — social media campaign aimed at persuading individual officers to "saltar la talanquera" ("jump the fence") and come over to the side of Juan Guaido and the opposition.
A social media campaign is targeting individual Venezuelan military commanders with this message: "On Feb. 23 you have to choose between serving your country or serving Maduro. Permit the entrance of humanitarian aid." (CBC News)
In a meeting with the military chiefs of staff on Thursday at the Strategic Operations Centre, Maduro referred to the pressure his military backers are feeling.
He said they were suffering "constant harassment".
"It's focused on weakening, dividing and demoralizing Venezuelan soldiers, with a war of constant harassment through social media, with a war of constant harassment through their families," he said.
The opposition also has used social media after the arrests of activists to put individual officers on notice that they will be held responsible in future for the treatment of specific detainees in their custody.
Smartphones are also being used across Venezuela to track and report military movements.
Venezuela's military is fractured and on-edge, under intense pressure from most Venezuelans to let aid in, and under equally intense pressure from the Maduro government to block it at all costs.
And so begins a momentous day for the future of Venezuela — one with a high potential for violence.