Venezuela: Maduro blocks aid, denounces it as US invasion stunt

Rival for presidency, Guaidó, says 300,000 will die if aid does not reach them ‘urgently’

Venezuela’s opposition leader and self-proclaimed acting president Juan Guaidó (C)  in Caracas. Photograph:  Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images

Venezuela’s opposition leader and self-proclaimed acting president Juan Guaidó (C) in Caracas. Photograph: Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images

 

The imminent arrival in neighbouring countries of humanitarian aid destined for crisis-stricken Venezuela has emerged as the latest flashpoint in the struggle for power between the South American country’s two rival presidents.

Colombian authorities on Tuesday detailed plans for the collection and storage of initial shipments of food and medical aid at its frontier with Venezuela ahead of talks with leaders from the opposition-controlled National Assembly in Caracas about its eventual distribution.

Further shipments to be routed through Brazil and an as-yet unnamed Caribbean island have also been announced.

But embattled Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro has denounced the humanitarian operation as a pretext for a military intervention by the US in support of opposition leader Juan Guaidó. He declared himself president on January 23rd in a bid to force Maduro’s populist Chavista movement from power after 20 years. He has since been recognised as Venezuela’s legitimate president by more than 40 states including most of those in the Americas.

While the humanitarian situation in Venezuela is critical, Guaidó has attempted to use the foreign aid to drive a wedge between Maduro and the Venezuelan military, which has so far remained loyal to the chavista leader during the present crisis despite some high-level defections.

Guaidó renewed his call for the military to defy Maduro’s opposition and allow the humanitarian help in, claiming it was necessary to prevent the deaths of 300,000 people who will die “if this aid does not get in urgently”. The collapse of the Venezuelan economy has led to dire shortages of food and medicines and provoked a breakdown of the public health system.

In a speech on Monday thanking leading members of the EU for their recognition of him as president, Guaidó said the military now had a decision to make: “Whether to continue on the side of someone who is isolated, or on the other side, not only of the constitution, but also of humanity, of those who need this aid to arrive... The moment is now.”

The Venezuelan Catholic bishops’ conference also joined calls for the aid to be let in “in order to mitigate the impact of the crisis on the most vulnerable”.

Though Canada and the EU have committed funds to relief, the initial aid arriving in Colombia is mainly from the US government aid agency USAid. The Maduro regime has sought to portray Guaidó as a puppet of the Trump administration, which it accuses of trying to orchestrate his overthrow.

In a speech on Monday marking the anniversary of a failed coup attempt mounted in 1992 by chavismo’s founder Hugo Chávez, a defiant Maduro again criticised the aid effort and said Venezuelans “were not anyone’s beggars” and accused the country’s “oligarchy” of lacking any dignity “to confront those from the north who treat and mistreat us with orders and counter-orders”.

But while the White House has refused to rule out the possibility of a US military intervention, saying “all options are on the table”, there remains no support for such action in the wider region.

At Monday’s meeting in Ottawa of the Lima Group of Latin American countries and Canada, Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland said all members of the ad-hoc body dedicated to resolving the Venezuelan crisis were against any military solution to the crisis.

Brazil’s vice president Hamilton Mourão, a former general, has also ruled out Brazilian participation in any possible US military intervention, despite the admiration for Donald Trump among senior figures in the new far-right administration of President Jair Bolsonaro.

“Unless some new fact that cannot be foreseen emerges I think it is very difficult to imagine that the US with no support from a coalition of other countries would unilaterally undertake a radical measure like military intervention,” says Rubens Barbosa, Brazil’s former ambassador to Washington.

The diplomatic search for a solution now switches to Montevideo where Uruguay and the EU will jointly chair a meeting of the newly formed International Contact Group on Venezuela on Thursday.

There is concern in the region not only that any administration that replaces Maduro on the back of a US intervention would lack legitimacy but also at how an estimated 20,000 Cuban personnel in Venezuela, many of them military and intelligence operatives, would react.

Cuba has become central to sustaining the Maduro regime as it bids to prop up its closest ally whose financial aid has been crucial in alleviating the communist island’s economic slump following the loss of its last patron, the USSR in 1991. Despite the humanitarian crisis at home, Venezuela shipped 100 tonnes of relief aid to Cuba after the capital Havana was hit by tornadoes last week.

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