Desperation at the border as Venezuelans await aid

Desperation at the border as Venezuelans await aid

María Eugenia Calderón steps off the Simón Bolívar bridge that separates Venezuela from Colombia and pushes through a crowd of migrants and street hawkers, clutching a plastic bag full of long, dark hair.

She heads to a group of women, lounging on chairs in the shade of squat, parched trees and sells her shorn locks for 20,000 Colombian pesos ($6.50). They will be used to make wigs and braids.

“It’s not much but it’s better than nothing,” she said, stuffing a crumpled bank note into the pocket of her jeans. “In Venezuela we need everything we can get.”

Such is the desperation of many Venezuelans as they await the arrival of humanitarian aid, promised by the US as part of its campaign to dislodge President Nicolás Maduro and replace him with opposition leader Juan Guaidó.

Washington has recognised Mr Guaidó as interim president. So have some 40 other countries covering most of the Americas and Europe. Taking aid to Venezuela’s impoverished people is the next step in their plan. In the longer term, the US and its allies say Mr Maduro must go, allowing Mr Guaidó to take power temporarily and oversee fresh elections.

Cúcuta, the largest Colombian border city, is the latest flashpoint in this fast-moving battle for Venezuela’s future. On Thursday, a convoy of trucks arrived, claxons blaring, after an 18-hour drive over the Andes from Bogotá, carrying food and medicine destined for Venezuela.

The question is how to get it there.

In Caracas, Mr Maduro says any attempt to cross the River Táchira that divides Cúcuta from Venezuela would amount to an invasion. “No one’s going to enter, not one invading soldier,” he stated this week.

A trader on the Colombian-Venezuelan border shows off hair bought from Venezuelans desperate for cash © Gideon Long

Before the aid had even reached Cúcuta, his armed forces had hauled an orange truck and two blue freight containers on to the Tienditas bridge, blocking a nine-lane highway across the river. There are other routes into the country but Mr Maduro says his troops will defend them all, with their lives if necessary.

“He should let the aid in,” said Ana Dolores Rolón, a 52-year-old from the Venezuelan state of Mérida, as she gazed at the warehouse where the food has been stored. “I have sisters back in Mérida who are dying of hunger. Their livestock has died. Let the aid in!”

At the Simón Bolívar crossing — the main transit point for the thousands of migrants, smugglers and traders who ebb and flow between Venezuela and Colombia each day — 58-year-old taxi driver José Zapata disagreed.

“Why take it to Venezuela? It will only cause problems,” he said, as families of migrants filed past into Colombia dragging toddlers and suitcases behind them. “It would be better to distribute it here on the border to avoid a bloodbath.”

But the Colombian government has ruled that out. This week it urged Venezuelans not to come to Cúcuta in search of aid. It will only be distributed in Venezuela, it said.

And yet it remains unclear who will deliver it and how. The International Committee of the Red Cross and other aid organisations have questioned the project. The Catholic federation Caritas said this week aid “must not serve political interests” and warned it would only co-operate if conditions allowed.

The loyalty of Mr Maduro’s soldiers will be crucial. The hope is that if convoys cross the Táchira, the Venezuelan military will back down and let them through.

Miguel Pizzaro, an opposition Congressman in Caracas, made an impassioned plea this week to the rank and file of the armed forces — “not those who are part of the corrupt group of generals, not those who live like kings, but those whose uniforms and boots are worn out”.

Let the trucks through, he said. “This aid is for your relatives too.”

The US and Mr Guaidó hope the Venezuelan people will also play their part.

Luis Almagro, the pugnacious head of the Organization of American States, said he wanted people “to make it impossible for the army or the Bolivarian guard to resist. That’s the best option, and I think the only peaceful way ahead in order to implement this,” he told the FT.

A demonstrator holds a sign that reads: ‘The best humanitarian aid you can give us is the end to the cancer called Nicolas Maduro’ © Bloomberg

Brazil and the Caribbean coast are the other planned entry points for aid. On Tuesday, US national security adviser John Bolton met Brazilian foreign minister Ernesto Araujo at the White House and discussed Venezuela, “including logistics for providing humanitarian assistance”.

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo used capital letters to get his message across, tweeting: “LET THE AID REACH THE STARVING PEOPLE”. Donald Trump addressed the crisis in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, saying Mr Maduro’s policies have turned Venezuela “from being the wealthiest in South America into a state of abject poverty and despair”.

On Thursday the White House ratcheted up the pressure, releasing a video in Spanish comparing Mr Maduro to Stalin, Mussolini and Saddam Hussein.

Meanwhile, in an interview with a Uruguayan newspaper, Mr Guaidó said that if Venezuelan troops refused to allow the delivery of aid, outside intervention would be justified under the UN’s “responsibility to protect” doctrine.

With the world starkly divided on the claims to the Venezuelan presidency, there is, perhaps, a third way forward — one being explored by the European Union, Mexico and a handful of other Latin American nations. They met in Uruguay on Thursday to chart a path towards “free, transparent and credible presidential elections”.

But for the Venezuelan refugees in Cúcuta, victims of the biggest economic meltdown in modern Latin American history and one of the worst humanitarian crises on the planet, that seems a distant goal.

“Our priority right now is food and medicine,” said 49-year-old Albertina Aduey Hernández, as she waited to greet the Bogotá convoy.

“Maduro has to go,” she added, holding aloft a placard reading “Humanitarian Aid Now Now”. “How can one man cause so much misery in one country? We need change. And quickly.”

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