Humanitarian aid still stored as Maduro’s forces in standoff at border bridge

Flashpoint at Colombian river crossing is posing a dilemma for Venezuelan military

The Colombian-Venezuelan border in Cúcuta, Colombia. “There is a lot more military activity now on the Venezuelan side of the border,” says Abel López, who has a ringside view of the standoff from the rice farm he manages.  Photograph:   Marco Bello/Reuters

The Colombian-Venezuelan border in Cúcuta, Colombia. “There is a lot more military activity now on the Venezuelan side of the border,” says Abel López, who has a ringside view of the standoff from the rice farm he manages. Photograph: Marco Bello/Reuters

 

Early on Sunday morning the Tienditas International Bridge does not look like it is at the centre of an international crisis. The few Colombian police guarding its barricaded slip road browse their mobile phones, only occasionally getting up to let through official vehicles or field questions from reporters. Yes, the first shipment of US humanitarian aid destined for Venezuela is being stored in the warehouses visible half a kilometre up the road. No, there are no US military personnel up there. Maybe Tuesday the Venezuelan opposition will try to get the food and medicines across. “That’s what people are saying but no one has told us anything,” says one of the officers on duty.

Misery

The aid, which arrived in Cúcuta last week, is to alleviate some of the misery caused by the deepening humanitarian crisis across the Táchira river, says Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who declared himself president last month and was quickly recognised by most states in the Americas. But for Nicolás Maduro, the populist Chavista strongman he is trying to force from power, it is merely a “show” designed to create a pretext for US military intervention in support of the opposition, which is planning to mobilise supporters in order to try and get the aid over the bridge.

Whatever the motives, the standoff has undoubtedly posed a dilemma for the Venezuelan military, which blockaded the bridge with containers and a fuel tanker last week. Guaidó has hinted that should it prevent the aid coming in, outside intervention in Venezuela’s crisis could be then justified under UN rules. You cannot see the improvised Venezuelan barrier from the slip road, to the frustration of the growing band of international television crews present.

Ringside view

But Abel López has a ringside view of the standoff from the rice farm he manages. It runs right up to the river that marks the frontier, meaning the impressive bridge soars above the fields he tends. Despite the sense of calm above, he has noticed increased activity since the standoff started from his privileged perch on the river.

“There is a lot more military activity now on the Venezuelan side of the border,” he says, just as a group of five Venezuelans in fatigues come up to inspect their improvised barrier on the bridge above. “There is not as much by Colombian forces but I have noticed much more drone activity on this side.”

Crossfire

Still, López is not afraid the rustic farmhouse his family lives in will soon be in the crossfire of a military standoff. This confidence, he says, stems from talking with the Venezuelan soldiers who use his farm to slip across the border, bringing stolen petrol to trade for food for their families back home. “They tell me they no longer believe in the revolution. They live the reality of the ordinary people, which the generals don’t. They get paid in dollars and have their families in Miami and Costa Rica. The soldiers call them criminals who have sold out their country for money.”