Maduro's Troops Kill 1; Guaido Defies Travel Ban at Border
(Bloomberg) -- Venezuelan soldiers on Friday opened fire on members of an indigenous Pemon community that was trying to stop a convoy from blocking the delivery of humanitarian aid in the crisis-torn country, killing one woman and wounding more than a dozen.
The tribe retaliated by taking soldiers prisoner in the clash in the remote Gran Sabana region near the Brazilian border.
The violence began a weekend in which Venezuela’s opposition plans to confront autocratic President Nicolas Maduro by attempting to bring food and medicine through heavily guarded international crossings around the nation. Supporters of National Assembly leader Juan Guaido were spurring on volunteers with a music festival in the western border town of Cucuta, Colombia, and he defied Maduro’s order not to leave to country to appear there. Maduro, meanwhile, mounted a smaller competing event in Las Tienditas on the Venezuela side.
Far from the dueling concerts, the Pemon stopped anti-riot troops trying to assert control over a remote area near the village of Kumarakapay, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of the Brazilian border. The soldiers tried to breach barricades set up by residents about 6 a.m., said Jorge Perez, mayor of the Gran Sabana municipality.
Marcel Perez, a 30-year-old Pemon, said in an interview in Pacaraima, Brazil, that he and others had gathered at dawn for a peaceful protest to prevent the military from reaching the border.
“We made a blockade, without any weapon but our traditional bows and arrows,” he said. “They had tanks, buses and a lot of soldiers. And so they decided to shoot at us with live bullets.”
Five armored vehicles passed by, spewing tear gas that set fire to a small shack, the mayor said.
Those wounded more seriously were allowed to cross on ambulances into Brazil so they could be treated in the regional center of Boa Vista. Marcel Perez said he was beaten with sticks a few hours later by members of a pro-Maduro gang while taking other wounded people to a hospital in Santa Elena de Uairen, on the Venezuelan side.
Police said Zoraida Rodriguez, 45, was killed and 15 people were wounded. (An area lawmaker reported a second death, but later retracted the statement.) The Pemons captured three lieutenants and a sergeant, police said. A general was negotiating with the community for their return, according to their statement.
Venezuela’s defense ministry didn’t respond to a call and email requests seeking information about the skirmish.
Maduro says the aid shipments are a pretext for a U.S. intervention and has locked down his nation. U.S. President Donald Trump has said all options are open if Venezuela continues to block the supplies. Traditional aid groups have shunned the effort, saying basic human needs shouldn’t be tied to politics.
Volunteers are preparing to don white clothing Saturday morning and walk across international bridges to bring food and medicine to their compatriots. Near Cucuta, Venezuelans streamed across border crossings on foot Friday under a scorching sun.
“The concert is only the beginning,” said Katerine Vega, a 31-year-old nurse from the Andean town of Colon. Vega said she volunteered to help distribute food and medicine on Saturday. “We don’t know how yet, but one way or another the aid is getting in.”
Cucuta’s Aid Live concert was organized by Virgin Atlantic founder Sir Richard Branson and promises a bill of Latin superstars such as Luis Fonsi, Juanes and J Balvin. The show, which organizers said drew 300,000, opened with a song by Reymar Perdomo, who fled Venezuela to become a busker on Lima’s buses. She became famous when her song “Me Fui” -- “I Left” -- became an anthem for the diaspora.
Guaido himself appeared in the crowd late Friday, gladhanding spectators. Colombian TV broadcast images of him jogging across a bridge connecting the two countries surrounded by aides taking selfies. In January, Venezuela’s Supreme Court, packed with Maduro supporters, ordered him not to leave the country and froze his accounts and assets.
“I have news for the world: we resisted. Venezuela survived. The values of the Republic are present here today in Colombia.” Guaido said at an event in the Colombian border town of Cucuta alongside Presidents Ivan Duque and Sebastian Pinera of Colombia and Chile, respectively.
In New York, Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said at a news conference that Guaido would face consequences.
“A lot of people disagree with Guaido being in Cucuta and justice will play its part," Arreaza said at the United Nations.
Clearing the Way
In Cucuta, opposition supporters passed out flyers urging people to camp out after the show, before crossing the Tienditas Bridge, one of three in that area of the border. It has been blocked for days by trailers the Maduro regime placed there, and they have been welded to the ground, Colombian authorities said Friday. Opposition officials said they would bring in heavy equipment to move them aside.
Colombia’s migration authority said late Thursday that traffic on the international spans Saturday will be restricted to people mobilizing aid.
The marchers will face a formidable force. On the Venezuelan side, there is a heavy police presence. Patrols on motorcycles and in Toyota trucks crisscrossed towns and cities near the border. Guardsmen set up checkpoints on major roads and hundreds of soldiers were deployed to the Tienditas Bridge. Armored vehicles and personnel carriers rolled throughout the area.
Maduro’s concert in Las Tienditas was slow starting. By midafternoon about 2,000 people had amassed on the Venezuela side of the bridge before the bands began to play. Hundreds of members of the militia, many elderly and thin, conducted exercises under a punishing sun, while others sought shade under under tents or loud speakers. By early evening, the crowd was drifting away after getting handouts of sandwiches and juice boxes.
Passerbys in Venezuelan border towns huddled around TVs and old computer monitors playing streams of Aid Live in Cucuta. National guardsmen and police popped into a liquor store along the Santander International Bridge to watch the broadcast as they patrolled the crossing.
“We’re so close. I wish I could have gone, but I couldn’t afford to skip work,” said Richard Carillo, 22, as he manned the liquor store till. “It’s incredible, and every person there adds to the cause.”
Question of Momentum
The confrontations cap a monthlong run of protests and sanctions aimed at unseating Maduro, the 56-year-old hand-picked heir of the late President Hugo Chavez. After Guaido invoked Venezuela’s charter Jan. 23 to declare himself the rightful head of state, the U.S. urged other nations to recognize the 35-year-old as president. It also levied crippling sanctions on Venezuela’s all-important oil industry.
On Monday, Trump railed against the dangers of socialism in a speech in Miami and called on the military to stop supporting the embattled president. The European Union is sending a team to push for new elections. Russia, China and Turkey have maintained their alliance with Maduro. The president is holding onto power longer than many expected, and allies worry that efforts to oust him could backfire.
On Friday, Elliott Abrams, the U.S. special representative for Venezuela, told reporters in Cucuta that Maduro’s days in power are numbered.
“Venezuela will be free, maybe tomorrow, maybe the day after, we don’t know,” he said. “But we do know very well that Venezuela is going to end with a democracy.”
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