CARACAS, Venezuela — The international effort to rush food and medicine into this collapsing socialist state was rapidly transforming Thursday into a high-stakes standoff between President Nicolás Maduro and the U.S.-backed opposition, essentially holding hostage lifesaving shipments of humanitarian aid at the border.
Maduro has defiantly vowed to block more than $60 million worth of assistance organized by the opposition and provisioned by the United States, Colombia, Canada and other countries. Even as seven truckloads of aid from the United States began arriving at warehouses in the key border crossing of Cucuta, Colombia, Maduro loyalists pledged to use force if necessary to keep it out.
Elliott Abrams, the State Department special envoy to Venezuela, said at a Thursday news conference that, while determined to deliver the aid to the Venezuelan people, the United States and other opposition supporters would not do so by “force.”
“We will be moving aid to the border of Venezuela in the hope that — and there is some aid there now — in the hope that we will be able to get it in,” Abrams said. “I don’t think that we or the Colombians or the Brazilians or anyone else is planning to try to force it in.”
Maduro, the anointed successor of leftist Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013, is locked in a power struggle with Juan Guaidó — the 35-year-old opposition leader now recognized as Venezuela’s rightful president by 47 nations, including the United States. The opposition’s plan: to test the resolve of Maduro’s linchpin of power — the military — to stop the supplies from coming in.
Venezuelan soldiers “will have an important decision to make,” Guaidó said Thursday in a video message that cuts to images of overturned containers being used by the government to block the aid convoys. “To stand by someone who is isolated and protects no one, or on the side not only of the constitution but of humanity.”
Observers, however, feared the impasse was politicizing humanitarian aid, turning it into a pawn between Maduro and his enemies.
“Between 250,000 to 300,000 Venezuelans are now at risk of dying if the aid doesn’t come in urgently,” Guaidó said in a brief interview Thursday with The Washington Post. He insisted that “some aid would get in very soon” from staging areas in Colombia, Brazil and the Caribbean, but he would not elaborate how.
“It will be,” he said, “a tough fight.”
For the opposition, some level of provocation appears to be precisely the point — a way to potentially force the military to pick sides. If Maduro does not relent, his border troops — including hungry rank-and-file soldiers whose colleagues have deserted en masse — would have to decide whether to follow orders and stop the aid.
“This has become about political pressure,” said Luis Vicente León, director of Datanalisis, a polling and political consultancy in Caracas. “It’s seeking a breaking point that forces the government to accept aid and tests the military’s will to stop it.”
To counter the convoys, the government has sought to ignite a full-scale propaganda war. In videos and social media posts, Maduro’s camp is portraying the opposition as puppets attempting to lead a Trojan horse invasion by the United States. One video released by a pro-government site suggested that lust-filled foreign “peacekeepers” were on their way to rape their way through Venezuela.
“Humanitarian aid from the United States will not help,” concludes the video.
At a pro-government gathering Thursday in central Caracas, Maduro, holding a sign that read #HandsOffVenezuela, said: “I tell the people of the United States, your representatives in Washington want to bring to our borders the same hate they bred in Vietnam. They want to invade and intervene in Venezuela.”
Broken by corruption, mismanagement and failed socialist policies, Venezuela is facing vast need. In the oil-rich nation that was once the region’s richest per capita, nearly 87 percent of people now live in poverty, millions have left, and those who remain have lost weight and gone untreated for illnesses as hyperinflation has broken down supply chains for food and medicine.
The Maduro government has long argued that the humanitarian crisis here has been manufactured by its enemies and the foreign press, and has long declined international assistance. And the opposition-coordinated aid is unlikely to put a major dent in the nation’s suffering.
Yet many Venezuelans on Thursday appeared angered by the government’s refusal to allow it in. Viviana Colmenares, a 26-year-old coffee seller and mother of six, sat in a two-room hut in one of the capital’s worst slums. Two of her children — ages 6 and 7, and both stricken with hepatitis — were languishing on mattresses on the floor.
Colmenares said she had sought treatment for the children at various hospitals but was turned away because there were no available beds. She also could not afford the antibiotics to treat them. Dwindling government rations, meanwhile, have caused her family to subsist on two meals a day of rice and plantains.
“The important thing is to help the kids, for them to have their medicine,” she said. Once a backer of the socialist ideals of Chávez and Maduro, she now rejects them. “The aid has been there for days now; they are not letting it in!”
Other Venezuelans fretted that the aid, even if allowed in, would do little to ease their plight. The opposition has said that, once in the country, the aid would be distributed to nonprofits, targeting mostly children under 3, chronically ill seniors and pregnant women.
“It seems the humanitarian aid will only be aimed at children and elderly, and I don’t think this help will reach me,” said Luis Reina, a 44-year-old Caracas accountant with HIV. He has gone without his antiretroviral drugs for five months because of a national shortage.
Maduro has backed a new European Union-led “contact group” that convened in Montevideo, Uruguay, on Thursday, urging a dialogue that could lead to new elections. But Guaidó and many Latin American nations, with the notable exceptions of Mexico and Uruguay, rejected the talks as fruitless.
Colombia was emerging as the primary staging area for aid.
At the foot of a mountain range, the Tienditas border post — though never opened to vehicle or pedestrian traffic — has three-lane highways in each direction that offer a quick and direct path for aid.
An activist on the Venezuelan side of the border who declined to be named for security reasons said the nearby towns of San Antonio and Ureña are controlled by mayors loyal to Maduro. Officials there, the activist said, had called for the creation of armed civilian militias of government loyalists — called “the border security collectives” — to aid the military in blocking humanitarian aid.
In an interview, Colombian Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo said his government was not considering sending troops to accompany aid.
But if the aid is not allowed in, he said: “They will be committing a crime. A grave crime.”
Andreina Aponte and Mariana Zuñiga in Caracas, John Hudson in Washington, and Laura Dixon and Bram Ebus in Cucuta, Colombia, contributed to this report.