Venezuela aid organizers imagine a 'river of people' overwhelming blockade

VENEZUELAN VOLUNTEERS, Colombian firefighters and rescue workers prepare USAID humanitarian aid for storage at a warehouse next to the Tienditas International Bridge, near Cucuta, Colombia, on the border with Venezuela, on Friday.

CUCUTA, Colombia — A call goes out and thousands of Venezuelans rush into Colombia, ignoring threats from their own military. Soon, they're swarming back across the border carrying bags full of lifesaving food and medicine.

That's one of the scenarios being floated as Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro continues to reject international aid — going so far as to blockade a road that might have been used for its delivery.

On Friday, Lester Toledo, a representative of Venezuela's Interim President Juan Guaido, and who's in charge of the international aid effort, hinted that a "river of people" might be summoned to move goods that are being collected near the Colombian border town of Cucuta.

Recalling an incident in 2016, when white-clad Venezuelan women pushed through police barricades to go shopping in Colombia, Toledo suggested it might happen again.

"We know how we're going to get it across and we know when we're going to get it across and we know who's going to support us in getting it across," Toledo said Friday of the aid delivery efforts. "The immense majority of people are going to accompany us — it will be a river of people — to make sure it gets there."

Toledo said that Guaido might let his supporters know "in coming days and hours" if they should concentrate along the Colombian border to create a "humanitarian corridor." While Toledo wouldn't provide details, Guaido himself has hinted that some sort of protest, demonstration or event will take place on Tuesday.

What's clear that organizers will need stealth and creativity on their side to overcome Maduro's obstacles. As news emerged this week that the Tiendita international bridge in Cucuta would be a staging site for aid, Venezuelan military forces blocked a three-lane bridge with shipping containers and a tanker truck.

Maduro has repeatedly said the aid is cover for a military invasion and has ordered his armed forces to not let it in, even as food and medicine shortages sweep the country.

With mass transport looking unlikely, delivery may have to be done in smaller increments, a person familiar with the thinking of the Trump administration said. Among the plans, experts are evaluating the feasibility of small groups of Venezuelan volunteers carrying part of the aid overland at various points along the porous 1,300-mile border.

Venezuela has been mired in a political crisis since Jan. 23, when Guaido, the head of congress, said it was his constitutional duty to assume the presidency and call new elections. Washington, Canada, Brazil, Colombia and others were quick to recognize Guaido as head of state.

Maduro, however, says he has the right to rule through 2025 and that Guaido is part of a Washington plot to illegally topple his administration.

In this context, the aid impasse has become politically crucial for both men. Guaido needs to prove he can solve the country's problems even if he doesn't wield real power, and Maduro needs to prove he can still command the loyalty of his military.

On Friday, U.S., Colombian and Venezuelan officials gave reporters a first look at the 150,000-square-meter complex near Cucuta that is being used as a collection site for aid.

On Thursday, several trucks dropped off the first part of $20 million in U.S. government aid, including food and medicine.

"What you have here is the first shipment of what we hope will be a great flood of humanitarian relief for the people of Venezuela," U.S. Ambassador Kevin Whitaker said. "It's an effort to respond to 20 years of mismanagement, of corruption, of criminality and of inefficiency that will take time to address. There is great will in the international community to respond."

President Donald Trump has repeatedly said that nothing is "off the table" when dealing with enforcing regime change in Venezuela, but Whitaker downplayed the threat of military clashes.

"Our goal here is to get as much assistance into Colombia in as many different places as it makes sense and get it to the border," he said. But once the goods cross the border into Venezuela, it will be the responsibility of the Juan Guaido administration to distribute them, he said.

Speaking in Washington, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kimberly Breier also denied that there were any plans for U.S. military action along the border. But she called Maduro's decision to reject aid "inhuman" and said it represented "a politics of hunger, a politics of disease (and) a politics of tyranny."

Caracas insists that there is no humanitarian crisis, but that one is being created by Washington's oil and financial sanctions, which have cost the country more than $30 billion in lost revenue.

And while Guaido has broad public support, he still needs the help of the Venezuelan military, which has failed to defect in considerable numbers.

On Friday, Toledo, once again urged the armed forces to help deliver the aid.

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