Venezuela’s opposition will attempt to bring international aid into the crisis-stricken country in the “coming days” setting up a showdown with the embattled regime of President Nicolás Maduro.
Speaking on Sunday after attending Mass in the capital, Caracas, Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader who declared himself interim president last month, said aid from the US stored in the Colombian border city of Cúcuta would be the "first advance" of a humanitarian effort that promises to eventually include relief coming from Brazil and the Caribbean.
The implosion of the Venezuelan economy after 20 years of increasingly disastrous mismanagement under populist Chavista rule has left millions hungry and provoked a breakdown in the public health system. Guaidó has said up to 300,000 people could die if the Maduro regime carries out its threat to prevent the supplies already in Cúcuta from entering the country.
But over the weekend the Maduro regime hardened its language against the relief operation, which it has sought to portray as a national humiliation and a pretext for US military intervention.
Vice-president Delcy Rodríguezz called on Guaidó "to reflect and position himself on the right side of history. Give up this madness." She also denied there was any humanitarian crisis despite the United Nations estimating three million people have fled the country in recent years.
Meanwhile, Remigio Ceballos, an admiral who is the strategic operational commander of the country’s armed forces, said the military would not take orders from “individuals who seek to foment disunion among us”, referring to Guaidó’s calls for the army to disobey commands from Maduro to block the arrival of aid.
Seeking to counter claims of growing tensions within the military, evidenced by isolated efforts at uprisings by junior officers that have been quickly snuffed out, Ceballos said the armed forces were “highly united around the people, constitution and our commander in chief Nicolás Maduro”.
Last week Venezuelan security forces blockaded the bridge on the Cúcuta frontier over which the opposition plans to bring the aid into the country and despite some defections their upper ranks have remained loyal so far to Chavismo.
On Sunday, Guaidó also condemned the harassment of his 83-year-old mother-in-law by Chavista paramilitaries amid signs of the regime ratcheting up repression in response to the current crisis. Recognised as interim president by more than 40 countries, he has refused to participate in dialogue with the Maduro regime, instead demanding that he step aside and allow for new presidential elections under the watch of international observers.
Maduro, whose victory in last year’s presidential poll was widely condemned as illegitimate, has refused and instead threatened to bring forward elections for the country’s national assembly, the last institution still controlled by the opposition.
On Sunday, he participated in a “civic-military operation” during which he was photographed giving a clenched fist salute from a tank during exercises a senior official said were to demonstrate “the doctrinal, operational and technological capacity” of the armed forces.