Venezuela Opposition to Face Off With Maduro at Colombian Border


Venezuelan soldiers fired on protesters along Brazil’s border Friday, killing one woman and injuring 15 people, ahead of an expected showdown Saturday with the U.S.-backed opposition, which is preparing to bring tons of medicine and humanitarian aid into the country.

President Nicolás Maduro has vowed to stop the aid, which the opposition is hoping will sow division among the armed forces keeping the autocrat in power. Human rights activists said the soldiers opened fire on indigenous protesters who were demanding that the foreign aid be let into the country.

The embattled president condemns the aid as a thinly veiled, U.S.-backed coup attempt, adding that it would humiliate Venezuelans. He has used container trucks to block one border bridge here and reinforced the Colombian frontier with troops and hundreds of police from a unit with a reputation for deadly crackdowns.

“The most important day in the last 20 years is coming,” Gaby Arellano, a Venezuelan lawmaker exiled in Colombia, said at a news conference Thursday. “I’m not inviting you to another protest march. I’m inviting you to open the doors of Venezuela.”

Adding a dramatic note will be dueling musical concerts on both sides of the border scheduled for Friday. One has been organized by billionaire Richard Branson to raise funds for Venezuelan relief, while the other is counter programming organized by Mr. Maduro’s government.

Humanitarian aid intended for Venezuela sat inside a warehouse in the border city of Cúcuta, Colombia, on Wednesday.
Humanitarian aid intended for Venezuela sat inside a warehouse in the border city of Cúcuta, Colombia, on Wednesday. PHOTO: LUIS ROBAYO/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
Aid has emerged as a key political battleground in Venezuela’s crisis. Mr. Maduro has repeatedly blocked attempts at international aid, saying the country isn’t in crisis and accusing the U.S. and its South American and European allies of using the aid to stir up trouble. His vice president even said the aid was poisoned.

As pressure for Venezuela to accept aid grows, Mr. Maduro this week said the country would receive some 300 tons of aid from Russia.

Friday’s clash with soldiers occurred in a Pemon indigenous community near the border with Brazil, said Olnar Ortiz, a lawyer for Venezuelan rights group Foro Penal. Residents had been demonstrating on a roadway when they were approached by an army caravan, Mr. Ortiz said on Twitter. The Pemon Indians had pledged to open up the border with Brazil, which Mr. Maduro had ordered closed to block the delivery of aid.

Few dispute Venezuelans need the humanitarian help. Poverty has soared to record levels, the economy produces half what it did six years ago, food and medicine are scarce, and annual inflation is an estimated 2 million percent. Some 3.4 million people—a tenth of the population—have fled in recent years, according to the United Nations, a tide that could grow this year.

“You have to work a year to eat for 15 days,” said Eyilson Herrera, a 31-year-old computer technician carrying his personal belongings in a beat-up suitcase as he crossed a busy border bridge to Colombia this week. He is one of an estimated 5,000 Venezuelans who flee the country daily.

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Analysts say the goal of opposition leader Juan Guaidó’s daring gambit isn’t to resolve the country’s humanitarian crisis—the aid is a drop in the bucket of Venezuela’s needs. Rather, it is intended pile pressure on the military, which has largely stood by Mr. Maduro even as the U.S. and other countries have increasingly imposed sanctions on his government.

“It sends a message to the military that they have to choose a side,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank.

So far, however, there are few signs of cracks—at least publicly. “We’ll never surrender to this imperialism,” said Diosdado Cabello, one of the country’s most powerful politicians, who has deep ties to the military, in a speech this week. “It’s the moment to defend the homeland. It’s the moment to decide who you are with.”

Mr. Guaidó did pick up unexpected support Thursday from retired Gen. Hugo Carvajal, who ran the country’s military intelligence. “The way this ends depends on you,” said Mr. Carvajal in a message aimed at his fellow officers. “I have no doubt that this is the right side of history.” Mr. Carvajal, wanted by the U.S. on drug charges, was briefly arrested in Aruba in 2014 but freed when the Dutch island ruled he had diplomatic immunity.

The opposition says Mr. Maduro loses no matter what he does in his mano- a-mano with Mr. Guaidó, a previously obscure 35-year-old legislator who is now recognized as Venezuela’s rightful president by more than 40 nations.

Exiled Venezuelan lawmaker Gaby Arellano, right, spoke during a news conference in Cúcuta on Thursday.
Exiled Venezuelan lawmaker Gaby Arellano, right, spoke during a news conference in Cúcuta on Thursday. PHOTO: FERNANDO VERGARA/ASSOCIATED PRESS
If Mr. Maduro allows the aid to enter the country, he loses face and Mr. Guaidó extends his authority. If his soldiers halt the aid or if there is violence, he will come across to a worldwide audience as a cold-blooded tyrant stopping badly needed relief from reaching his impoverished countrymen.

The opposition, too, faces risks. If Mr. Maduro succeeds at blocking aid, and the crisis seems set to drag on indefinitely, some opposition supporters could lose heart.

Mr. Guaidó, who is head of the country’s national assembly, upped the ante this week by saying the opposition will mobilize supporters to all the country’s military bases on Saturday to demand the aid be allowed in. “Gentlemen of the armed forces, you have three days to obey the order of the president and get on the side of the constitution,” he said in a tweet, addressing 10 generals and an admiral by name in individual tweets.

U.S. prosecutors and officials have charged and sanctioned a score of Venezuelan generals for corruption, human-rights violations and drug trafficking, making them unlikely to pull support for Mr. Maduro, whose leadership protects them.

“The majority of the military are fearful,” said Sgt. Harry Solano, who helped organize a short-lived uprising last month, escaped, and is now exiled in Colombia. “Their communications are constantly tapped.”

Mr. Solano said soldiers also fear for their family’s safety if they are discovered to be conspiring against Mr. Maduro. Since the failed uprising, Mr. Solano said his mother and stepmother were detained and tortured, a niece was raped, and a cousin was seized by the military.

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It’s unclear how events will unfold Saturday. “There’s no script for this one,” said a senior U.S. official involved in the aid effort.

So far, the U.S. has airlifted about 250 metric tons of aid to Cúcuta. Chile has also joined the aid effort, and is sending a cargo plane full of food and medicine that is expected to land in Cúcuta on Friday. Brazil said it would send aid to the border city of Pacaraima.

In a remarkable show of support for Mr. Guaidó, the presidents of Chile, Paraguay and Colombia are expected to visit the border. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to discuss Venezuela with regional leaders in Bogotá, Colombia, on Monday.

Opposition figures are vague about their plans. They appear to hope for a mass mobilization of Venezuelans on both sides of the border that will descend on the soldiers manning the bridges and overwhelming them with patriotism and the rightness of their cause, leading the soldiers to give way.

Among the opposition leaders at this Colombian border town, there is an almost religious feeling to the enterprise, a sense that Saturday’s maneuver may be Venezuela’s last best shot to avoid becoming a Cuban-styled dictatorship. None will publicly acknowledge the possibility of failure. “It will go because it will go,” said Sonia Medina, an exiled member of Venezuela’s Congress, echoing Mr. Guaidó.

Adding a dash of show-business flair to the aid drama, Mr. Branson has organized a Live-Aid-style concert with the goal of raising $100 million for Venezuelan relief. Many of Latin America’s most popular musicians such as Juan Luis Guerra, Luis Fonsi, Carlos Vives and Juanes have signed up. Some 250,000 people are expected to attend.

Not to be outdone, Mr. Maduro has scheduled a competing two-day concert —dubbed “Hands Off Venezuela”—starting on the same day as Mr. Branson’s concert. So far, Mr. Maduro’s production hasn’t signed up any marquee performers.