Venezuelans desperate for aid

People, some with small children and babies, cross the Simon Bolivar International Bridge on the border between Tachira in Venezuela and Cucuta in Colombia
People, some with small children and babies, cross the Simon Bolivar International Bridge on the border between Tachira in Venezuela and Cucuta in Colombia
Image: AFP

Yajaira Gonzalez cries as she gathers with hundreds of other Venezuelans across the Colombian border from her neighbouring homeland.

The 64-year-old used to back the socialist regime in Venezuela – until its economic meltdown forced her to flee.

Now she is begging Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro to let through foreign humanitarian aid – food, medicine and personal hygiene gear – to her desperate compatriots back home.

“It is not like you say – that we are doing OK,” Gonzalez said, referring to Maduro. “Mr President, we are not OK. “We are suffering.”

The issue of US and other foreign aid has become the latest focus in a struggle between Maduro and national assembly speaker Juan Guaido.

Guaido has declared himself interim president and is now recognised as such by about 40 countries, led by the US.

Guaido is in favour of accepting aid. But Maduro says it would be the first step towards a military invasion by the US – which the socialist leader blames for the economic crisis.

The United Nations says the crisis has prompted 2.3-million Venezuelans to flee since 2015.

When it was announced that any aid that arrives will be only for Venezuelans living inside their country, ones who had migrated into Colombia gathered at the border to see what they could get.

Metres away from where Gonzalez stands are warehouses that the Colombian government has set up to collect medicine, non-perishable food and hygiene kits financed by the US government.

More such aid has been pledged from Brazil and an unidentified Caribbean island.

Maduro has refused to let in the aid. His military has blocked the Tienditas border bridge which connects Cucuta in Colombia with Urena in Venezuela.

About 35,000 people a day continue to use an alternative crossing – an old bridge named after South American liberator Simon Bolivar.

On that ageing span, an engineer named Dajelys Lopez trudges along pushing a pram with her newborn baby, hoping to find in Cucuta what she cannot get in Venezuela.

“Yesterday a friend died because he suffered a seizure and did not have medication to deal with it,” Lopez said.

Colombian foreign minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo has said that planes carrying aid for Venezuela are in Colombia.

Washington has pledged $20m (R272.3m) in aid, Canada has pledged $40m (R544m) and the EU $7.5m (R102.1m).

Colombia and Venezuela have had practically no diplomatic relations since mid-2017.

Colombian President Ivan Duque is one of the most outspoken leaders against the Maduro dictatorship.

Guaido has appealed to the Venezuelan military – a critical source of support for Maduro – to let in the aid.

The standoff will be a key test for the unity of the Venezuelan military high command, which so far has maintained its public backing for Maduro.

Venezuela’s army has to choose between “a dictatorship that does not have an iota of humanity, or to side with the constitution”, Guaido said in a Colombian radio interview.

Amid the war of words, life went on as usual at the border, with police on both sides carrying out routine patrols.

Maduro has repeatedly blamed Venezuela’s crisis on what he calls an “economic war” against his oil-rich country by the United States.

The US has declined to rule out a military intervention.

Meanwhile, EU and Latin American leaders were due to gather on Thursday in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo to discuss a plan to solve the deepening crisis in Venezuela, but will steer clear of direct intervention.

The EU-backed group, known as the International Contact Group on Venezuela, was to hold its inaugural meeting on Thursday, laying out a more hands-off approach that is at odds with calls by the US and Latin American powers for more intervention.

It comes on the heels of a meeting of the harder-line Lima Group in Canada, which called on pressure for Maduro to step down.