Juan Guaido, president of the National Assembly, yells during a pro-opposition rally in Caracas, Venezuela. (Photographer: Carlos Becerra/Bloomberg)  

Maduro's Troops Kill 2 as Opposition Tries to Open Borders

(Bloomberg) -- Venezuelan soldiers killed two members of the indigenous Pemon community who were trying to stop a convoy blocking humanitarian aid from crossing the border with Brazil.

Members of the Pemon stopped anti-riot troops and their vehicles about 6 a.m. as they tried to assert control over the remote area around Gran Sabana, about 780 miles (1,260 kilometers) southeast of Caracas. Soldiers opened fire, leaving more than a dozen indigenous people injured, some seriously, said Americo de Grazia, an opposition member of the National Assembly.

Maduro's Troops Kill 2 as Opposition Tries to Open Borders

“The military began to shoot,” he said. “They didn’t use tear gas or pellets. But they had to withdraw because the indigenous community came out to protest in a rage, maintaining control of the area.”

The victims were Zoraida Rodriguez and her husband, Rolando Garcia, according to a news release from Asociacion Civil Kape Kape, an organization that promotes rights for indigenous people in Venezuela’s Bolivar state.

The violence came as Venezuela prepares for a weekend of spectacle and danger as the opposition tries to open the borders of the hungry nation for shipments of food and medicine.

In the border town of Cucuta, Colombia, a concert Friday will raise money and try to inspire opponents of the autocratic socialist regime. Volunteers are preparing to don white garb Saturday morning and walk across international bridges to bring food and medicine to their compatriots.

Maduro's Troops Kill 2 as Opposition Tries to Open Borders

On the Venezuelan side, President Nicolas Maduro says the aid is a pretext for a U.S. intervention and has locked down his nation. Authorities hindered the movements of opposition lawmakers and National Assembly leader Juan Guaido, who is trying to rally the world as he attempts to break Maduro’s grip on the military.

Guaido’s primary weapon is tons of donated food and medicine being stockpiled in Colombia, Brazil and the island of Curacao. Maduro’s government says the ravaged country has no need for help, while 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.

Near Cucuta, Venezuelans streamed across border crossings by foot Friday under a scorching sun. On the international bridge in Urena, concert-goers wore white and tricolor caps. Many said they had come out for the day. Others said they planned to stay in Colombia to support Guaido.

“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.”

Maduro's Troops Kill 2 as Opposition Tries to Open Borders

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.

Branson told the crowd Friday morning he hoped “that the soldiers do the right thing and let much-needed medical help that has been donated from many, many South American countries, food, across the bridges, across the rivers to people who desperately need it.”

Organizers expect tens of thousands on the site, an expansive pasture that they said can contain 300,000 -- almost half the city’s population. The concert opened with 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.

Clearing the Way

Opposition supporters passed out flyers urging people to camp out after the show, before arising to cross the bridge, one of three in that area of the border. It has been blocked for days by trailers the Maduro regime placed there, and Colombian authorities said Friday they had been welded to the ground. 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.

Maduro's Troops Kill 2 as Opposition Tries to Open Borders
Maduro's Troops Kill 2 as Opposition Tries to Open Borders

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.

Question of Momentum

The confrontation caps a month long 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.

Maduro's Troops Kill 2 as Opposition Tries to Open Borders

Christopher Sabatini, who teaches international relations at Columbia University in New York, said the Trump administration is quickly running out of diplomatic options. “They hope each one of the measures produces the result they want -- each time doubling down on the latest step,’’ he said.

The military -- the nation’s crucial force -- has largely stuck by Maduro, with only a scant few of the thousands of top officers abandoning him.

Presidential Power

On Thursday, Hugo Carvajal, a retired army officer who led military intelligence for more than 10 years, published a video on his Twitter account recognizing Guaido. But Maduro demonstrated his remaining power vividly: He announced that Venezuela’s land crossings with Brazil would shut and said he is also weighing “a total closure of the border with Colombia.” He had already sealed off access from Curacao and the islands of Aruba and Bonaire.

Officers stopped three buses carrying lawmakers sympathetic to Guaido in Carabobo state as they headed to San Antonio. Guaido, traveling separately for security reasons, was held up by army trucks blocking a tunnel east of the capital, said Edward Rodriguez, a spokesman.

On Friday morning, Guaido had yet to appear publicly at the border.

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