Showdown looms as Venezuela opposition to confront border troops over aid

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Feb
23

CUCUTA, Colombia/URENA, Venezuela (Reuters) – Venezuela’s opposition and activists prepared on Saturday to confront troops stationed along the country’s borders to block their plan to bring in food and medicine that authorities are calling a veiled U.S.-backed invasion.

Opposition volunteers in neighboring Brazil and Colombia plan to arrive at the border to help carry humanitarian aid to a sick and hungry population suffering from an economic meltdown under President Nicolas Maduro.

While the need for basic food and medicines is real, the effort is also meant to embarrass military officers who continue to support Maduro’s increasingly isolated government.

Juan Guaido, recognized by most Western nations as the country’s legitimate head of state, defied court orders not to leave Venezuela by arriving on Friday in the Colombian border city of Cucuta, where aid from the U.S. and Colombian governments is stockpiled in warehouses.

Guaido, 35, head of the opposition-run Congress, has provided few details on the transport plan. Trucks are expected to be driven by Venezuelan volunteers and some opposition figures have suggested forming human chains.

“Today the obstacles that the dictatorship created will tomorrow be rivers of unity, of peace,” Guaido said in a news conference on Friday in Cucuta, where he was received by Colombian President Ivan Duque.

Venezuelan soldiers may bar the way.

Vice President Delcy Rodriguez said in a tweet late on Friday that Venezuela’s government shut the Tachira border that connects it with Cucuta temporarily “due to a series of illegal threats” by Colombia.

A group of frustrated Venezuelans who were seeking to cross into Colombia on Saturday to work morning threw rocks and bottles at National Guard troops, who responded with tear gas.

“We were all going to work, we want to work, the people attempted to force through,” said Viviana Meza, 29, who works in a Cucuta restaurant.

At least four National Guard officers on Saturday at the border disavowed Maduro’s government and requested assistance from the Colombian government, Colombia’s migration agency said on Saturday.

Videos on social media showed crowds first jeering and then cheering the men as they were escorted away by Colombian police.

Maduro blames the country’s dire situation on U.S. sanctions that have blocked the country from obtaining financing and have hobbled the OPEC nation’s oil industry. Rodriguez says the aid is poisoned.

Concerns about the potential for violence flared on Friday when the Venezuelan army opened fire in an village near the Brazilian border after indigenous leaders attempted to prevent them from advancing, killing a woman and her husband.

“I don’t plan to leave my house over the weekend, especially after what happened near Brazil,” said Paulina Sanchez, a 68-year-old grandmother who lives just 300 meters (yards) from the Francisco de Paula Santander bridge, one of the crossings through which aid may pass. “This could turn into a powder keg.”

Slideshow (3 Images)

Nearly 200,000 people attended a benefit concert in Cucuta on Friday featuring Latin pop stars, including Luis Fonsi of “Despacito” fame, many of whom called on Maduro to step down.

A rival concert held by the ruling Socialist Party on the Venezuelan side was sparsely attended.

Guaido in January invoked articles of the constitution to assume interim presidency and denounced Maduro as a usurper, arguing his 2018 re-election was illegitimate.

Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Additional reporting by Helen Murphy and Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall

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