Humanitarian Aid Stalls, Testing Venezuela’s Opposition

Venezuelan soldiers and militia members stood in formation near the Colombian border on Tuesday for the filming of a state media video.CreditCreditMeridith Kohut for The New York Times

By Nicholas Casey and Anatoly Kurmanaev

CÚCUTA, Colombia — The battle over the legitimate leadership of Venezuela — which has included rallies of thousands, international diplomacy and oil sanctions — is now focused on a single heavily guarded shipment of humanitarian aid.

Venezuela’s opposition, which has relished a month of victories in its effort to challenge President Nicolás Maduro and take over as the country’s legitimate government, brought the donated supplies of food and medical kits to the country’s border with Colombia.

Its goal was to bring the supplies into Venezuela, forcing a confrontation with Mr. Maduro, who has refused the help. This would cast Mr. Maduro in a bad light, opposition leaders said, and display their ability to set up a government-like relief system in a nation where the crumbling economy has left many starving, sick and without access to medicine.

But there was no dramatic confrontation.

Instead, Mr. Maduro’s administration erected a crude, but effective blockade across the border bridge with Colombia. The move brought the relief effort to a halt, and left the opposition and its leader, Juan Guaidó, at a standstill, aware that each passing day dampens its considerable momentum toward winning the trust of Venezuelans and the recognition of other governments. A delay could also mean reverting back to the status quo, in which Mr. Maduro retains control.

“The whole country is waiting to see what Mr. Guaidó does next,” said Carlos Andrés Taborda, an opposition organizer in the small Venezuelan border town of Ureña, as he marched to demand the release of humanitarian aid. “Whether this remains a massive movement depends largely on him.”

The opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, has not discussed details of his plan to get aid over the border.CreditMeridith Kohut for The New York Times

On Wednesday, Mr. Guaidó heightened the stakes, telling supporters that he would open a “humanitarian corridor” to allow aid to flow into the country by Feb. 23.

The pledge increased tensions at the border, raising expectations on both sides and setting a deadline to meet them. But the obstacles ahead were clear.

At the heavily guarded warehouse in Cúcuta, where supplies have sat for nearly a week, workers packed bags with medical kits or with vegetable oil, flour, lentils and rice. More donations were being prepared in Miami and Houston for deployment.

A short drive away, Mr. Maduro’s improvised barrier spread across the bridge’s lanes, blocking passage.

Freddy Bernal, Mr. Maduro’s envoy to the Colombian border region of Táchira, called the aid “trash” that “can’t even feed a small shantytown.”

Surrounded by six bodyguards with bullet-resistant vests, he repeated claims that the aid delivery was a ploy to destabilize Mr. Maduro’s government. Mr. Bernal said that there was no standoff at the border.


Venezuelans marching against the government on Tuesday in Pedro Maria Urena.CreditMeridith Kohut for The New York Times

“There’s complete normality here — there’s peace and folk music,” he said.

Gaby Arellano, an opposition lawmaker in charge of the shipment in Colombia, said one of the goals was to force the military, which has remained loyal to the government, to choose between Mr. Maduro and feeding the Venezuelan people.

“Popular pressure to break the military — this is what we’re working toward,” she said.

In recent days, opposition lawmakers have traveled to the United States, Brazil and a second location in Colombia to talk with local authorities about setting up similar warehouses ahead of the push on Feb. 23. On Wednesday, an official from the government of the Caribbean island of Curacao said he would participate.

In Cúcuta, members of the opposition say they are considering options to physically force the shipment into Venezuela.

Omar Lares, a former opposition mayor in exile in Cúcuta, said organizers want people to surround an aid truck on the Colombian side and accompany it to the bridge. A crowd of thousands would be gathered on the other side to push through a security cordon, move the containers blocking the bridge, and accompany the aid into Venezuela.

“One group over there, one over here, and we’ll make one large human chain,” he said.

Lorena Valero, an activist on the Venezuelan side of the border, staged a protest two years ago to call for the flow of food and supplies. She said she’s willing to participate again should Mr. Guaidó call to storm the bridge.

“We’re not afraid. We are certain that it will enter,” she said.

Still, all the uncertainty has some observers questioning the consequences if the opposition cannot make good on its promises.


Shipping containers blocked the Las Tienditas Bridge connecting Venezuela and Colombia.CreditMeridith Kohut for The New York Times

“The opposition has created immense expectations, and it’s not at all clear they have a plan for actually fulfilling them,” said David Smilde, a Venezuela analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America. “Furthermore, the opposition and the U.S. have not been clear that this aid, even if allowed in, will make a significant dent in Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis.”

Some Venezuelans have even put off buying medication, expecting that the American donations will arrive across the border soon, Mr. Smilde said.

The heightened expectations have managed to bring together what has been a fractured opposition, giving Mr. Maduro the first challenge to his rule in years. Mr. Guaidó — now recognized as Venezuela’s legitimate president by dozens of countries — has emerged as a leader. And the aid corridor has given the opposition a common project to promote.

Still, using a food shipment to challenge Mr. Maduro has concerned the same nongovernmental groups that would normally assist in such an effort. Caritas, the charitable arm of the Catholic Church, and the International Committee of the Red Cross have declined to participate, saying they must remain politically neutral.

Some diplomats and even opposition strategists have questioned the viability of organizing such a complex sea and land operation in 10 days. So far, Mr. Guaidó and his advisers have remained quiet about their plans to get the aid over the border. They have said the help would include $200 million in aid donations from friendly governments and the private sector, in addition to the American shipment.

For those on the border, a sense of urgency prevailed.

At an opposition rally on Tuesday in Ureña, spirits remained high, but protesters were becoming impatient for concrete results.

“We can’t let those containers sit there for so long,” said Linda Acosta, an Ureña resident.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A6 of the New York edition with the headline: Humanitarian Aid to Venezuela Stalls. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe


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