Humanitarian Aid Caravan Fails in Venezuela, So Now What?

Residents assess the damage where a public bus was burned the previous day when clashes broke out between Bolivarian National Guardsmen and anti-government protesters in Urena, Venezuela, near the border with Colombia, on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019.
Photo: Rodrigo Abd (AP)

An attempt by opposition groups to deliver hundreds of tons of U.S.-backed humanitarian aid to Venezuelans across the border from Colombia and Brazil was blocked by troops loyal to President Nicolás Maduro on Saturday.

In the clashes, two people were killed and hundreds more were injured.

At least one truck carrying food aid and medical supplies was set ablaze on a bridge spanning the border between Colombia and Venezuela. “They burned the aid and fired on their own people,” protester David Hernández told the Associated Press, referring to Venezuela’s National Guardsmen.

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Saturday’s clashes were part of a pre-planned stunt led by opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who heads the Venezuelan National Assembly and is recognized by dozens of countries as Venezuela’s interim president following elections last May that are widely believed to have been rigged by Maduro.

Part of Guaidó’s goal Saturday was to force a confrontation with Venezuelan troops over badly needed aid and convince soldiers to lay down their arms and defect to the opposition. Maduro’s pushback, which was as forceful as it was expected, could then be used to justify further action, including a U.S.-backed invasion, which both Guaidó and the Trump administration have alluded to.

“Yesterday the dictatorship sealed its moral and diplomatic defeat before the eyes of the world,” Colombian President Iván Duque said on Sunday, while assessing the damage, according to the AP.

On Saturday, Maduro’s government broke diplomatic relations with Colombia as some 60 Venezuelan soldiers abandoned their posts and joined the opposition, Colombian authorities said, according to the AP. But large-scale defections among the Venezuelan military, particularly among the higher-ranking members, didn’t appear to immediately occur.

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Meanwhile, Guaidó remained in Colombia, where he is scheduled to meet with Latin American leaders and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Monday.

“Today’s events force me to make a decision: to formally request that the international community keep all options open to liberate this country, which continues to fight and will keep fighting,” Guaidó tweeted on Saturday night.

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He added: “To continue on this path, I will meet on Monday with our allies in the international community and we will continue ordering the next actions inside the country. Internal and external pressure is fundamental for liberation.”

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Top Trump administration officials also tweeted their support for Guaidó and the opposition. “We are with you,” Pence tweeted in Spanish and English. “May God be with you!”

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“Choose the road of democracy,” urged U.S. national security adviser John Bolton, who canceled a scheduled trip to South Korea next week to “focus on events in Venezuela,” according to a spokesman.

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President Donald Trump—or someone using his account—also tweeted about the situation on Saturday, saying that, “The people of Venezuela stand at the threshold of history, ready to reclaim their country – and their future.”

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In a story about Venezuela’s food crisis published on Friday, The New Yorker’s Stephania Taladrid noted:

What makes Venezuela’s food crisis all the more grim is that experts agree it is a result of human decision-making. “It’s not due to droughts, or floods,” Deborah Hines, the World Food Program Representative in Colombia, told me. “The situation is purely political.” Far from alleviating the crisis, Maduro has made basic necessities contingent on political loyalty.

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But like Maduro, the current opposition also has politicized humanitarian assistance, with support from the U.S., Colombia, and other nations.

“We all know that the United States is not a neutral player in this conflict; they have consistently exerted political pressure and, in so doing, have acted against a basic principle of humanitarian aid, which is neutrality,” Venezuelan food emergency specialist Susana Raffalli told The New Yorker. “Humanitarian action is not a means to an end; it is an end in itself.”

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