Tuesday 15 October 2019

Border battle begins

Border clashes amid Venezuelan aid bid, writes Luis Andres Henao from Cucuta, Colombia

Opposition supporters unload a truck set on fire at Francisco de Paula Santander bridge on the border between Colombia and Venezuelaago. Photo: Reuters
Opposition supporters unload a truck set on fire at Francisco de Paula Santander bridge on the border between Colombia and Venezuelaago. Photo: Reuters

Luis Andres Henao

Opponents of Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro braved tear gas as they rescued boxes of emergency food and medicine from burning trucks during violent clashes on the Colombian border with security forces blocking the entry of US-supplied humanitarian aid.

The panicked scene yesterday on the bi-national Santander bridge was the dramatic high point of a day that also saw two people killed in unrest near Brazil, at least 23 soldiers switch loyalties to opposition leader Juan Guaido, and Maduro break off diplomatic relations with Colombia amid an increasingly unpredictable and unruly fight for power in the oil-rich South American nation.

For weeks, the opposition has been amassing aid on three of Venezuela's borders with the aim of launching a "humanitarian avalanche" exactly one month after Guaido declared himself interim president at an outdoor rally in a direct challenge to Maduro's rule.

Even as the 35-year-old lawmaker has won the backing of more than 50 governments around the world, he's so far been unable to cause a major rift inside the military - Maduro's last plank of support in a country ravaged by hyperinflation and widespread shortages.

"Our call to the armed forces couldn't be clearer: put yourself on the right side of history," Guaido said in an appeal to troops as he pulled himself onto a truck and shook hands with its driver during a ceremonial send-off of the aid convoy from the Colombian city of Cucuta.

But almost as soon as the aid convoy departed, the limitations of Guaido's high-stakes gamble became clear.

At the Santander bridge, a group of activists led by exiled lawmakers managed to escort three flatbed trucks of aid past the halfway point into Venezuela when they were repelled by security forces firing tear gas and buckshot. In a flash the cargo caught fire and, with a black cloud rising above, the activists - protecting themselves from the fumes with vinegar-soaked cloths - unloaded the boxes by hand in a human chain stretching back to the Colombian side of the bridge.

Amid the aid push, Maduro struck back, breaking diplomatic relations with Colombia, whose government he accused of serving as a staging ground for a US-led effort to depose him.

"My patience has run out," Maduro said, speaking at a massive rally of red-shirted supporters in Caracas and giving Colombian diplomats 24 hours to leave the country.

The clashes started at dawn in the border town of Urena, when residents began removing the yellow metal barricades and barbed wire blocking the Santander bridge. Some protesters were masked youth who threw rocks and later commandeered a city bus and set it afire. At least two dozen people were injured in the disturbances, said local health officials.

"We're tired. There's no work, nothing," Andreina Montanez, 31, said as she sat on a curb recovering from the sting of tear gas used to disperse the crowd.

The single mother said she lost her job as a seamstress in December and had to console her 10-year-old daughter's fears that she would be left orphaned when she decided to join yesterday's protest. "I told her I had to go out on the streets because there's no bread," she said. "But still, these soldiers are scary. It's like they're hunting us."

At the Simon Bolivar bridge, a group of aid volunteers in blue vests calmly walked up to a police line and shook officers' hands, appealing for them to join their fight. But the goodwill was fleeting and a few hours later the volunteers were driven back with tear gas, triggering a chaotic stampede.

At the same post, at least 23 members of the National Guard deserted the force and took refuge in Colombia. A video shows three soldiers wading through a crowd with their assault rifles and pistols held above their heads in a sign of surrender. The young soldiers were then ordered to lie face down as migration officials urged angry onlookers to keep a safe distance.

"I've spent days thinking about this," said one of the soldiers, whose identity was not immediately known. He called on his comrades to join him: "There is a lot of discontent inside the forces, but also lots of fear."

International leaders including UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres are appealing for the sides to avoid violence. But at least two people were killed and another 18 injured in Santa Elena de Uairen, near the border with Brazil, according to local officials. The town was also the site of deadly disturbances a day earlier when members of the indigenous Pemon tribe clashed with security forces.

Venezuela's foreign minister said that the army would "never have orders to fire on the civilian population" and said the aid push was just a media spectacle. "We can only hope that sanity and good sense prevail in Cucuta, in Colombia, and that it will remain as a big show, a big party - and that they don't try to open the doors to a military intervention," he said on Friday at UN headquarters in New York.

The push comes on the heels of a pop concert organised by British billionaire Richard Branson aimed at pressuring Maduro to accept the aid. About 10,000 people gathered in a field beneath a scorching sun close to one end of the bridge to hear South American pop stars sing about freedom. Near the other end of the bridge, a pro-Maduro concert took place, with a lower grade galaxy of stars, also singing about freedom.

Venezuela's military has traditionally served as the arbiter of political disputes, and in recent weeks, top leaders have pledged their unwavering loyalty to Maduro. However, many believe that lower-ranking troops who suffer from the same hardships as many other Venezuelans may be more inclined to now let the aid enter. Opposition leaders are pushing forward in belief that whether Maduro lets the aid in or not, he will come out weakened. They also contend that if the military does allow the food and medical gear to pass, it will signify troops are now loyal to Guaido.

Analysts warn that there may be no clear victor and humanitarian groups have criticised the opposition as using the aid as a political weapon.

Fearful of what they might encounter, some people in Cucuta said they planned to stay away from the border, while others said they'd face the risks and go.

Sunday Independent

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