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Volunteers and opposition leaders said they’ll use vans, trucks and human chains if necessary to bring goods across the Colombia-Venezuela border.

February 23 at 1:00 AM

Politicians from the Venezuelan opposition and their supporters prepared to challenge President Nicolás Maduro’s blockade of U.S. and other foreign aid on Saturday, as fears mounted that the attempt could be stymied by further violence in this collapsing socialist state.

After an attack by the Venezuelan military near the Brazilian border that left two civilians dead and 11 wounded, groups of volunteers and opposition leaders boarded early-morning buses, cars and motorbikes en route to the eastern Colombian border. In addition to vows of bringing in aid by sea and land — and via human chain if necessary — the opposition also planned large-scale rallies in cities nationwide to demand the admittance of international relief.

“I’m very concerned with the information we’ve received about paramilitary groups and other irregular groups already at the border with the intention to spread violence,” said opposition politician Nora Bracho. “We have no doubt that there will be violence, absolutely no doubt.”

Ahead of the planned aid crossing, the Venezuelan government announced late Friday that it was “temporarily” closing three of the border crossings with Colombia.

Saturday’s operation has been billed by the opposition and its allies in the Trump administration as a pivotal moment in their active bid to topple Maduro’s socialists. The plan is to try to bring in stockpiles of humanitarian aid donated by nations including the United States and stored in neighboring countries.

Though meant to relieve mounting hunger and disease in a nation teetering on the verge of becoming a failed state, the move is also meant to test the military’s loyalty to Maduro by encouraging the armed forces to disobey his government’s direct order to keep the aid out.

In defiance of a ban against leaving the country, Juan Guaidó — the opposition leader who claimed the nation’s legitimate mantel of power exactly one month ago — made a secretive trip to Colombia on Friday, where he said he would help bring aid across the border. He suggested the Venezuelan armed forces had helped him spirit across his nation’s western frontier.

His arrival across the border smacked of an embarrassment for Maduro. But it also came in defiance of a travel ban issued by Venezuela’s Supreme Court, and he was running the risk of being barred from reentry or arrested upon return.

Guaidó had left Caracas on Thursday with a caravan of 10 vans and was repeatedly stopped at checkpoints, according to his spokesman, Edward Rodriguez. Asked if Guaidó faced risks returning to Venezuela, Rodriguez said “everything is under control.”

Asked Friday during a news conference at the United Nations in New York about Guaidó’s presence in Colombia and whether he would be allowed to return, Maduro’s foreign minister, Jorge Arreaza, said: “The Venezuelan justice system is autonomous, and many Venezuelans don’t agree with Mr. Guaidó being in freedom. I hope justice will be done. The justice system will do what’s necessary.”

Dimitris Pantoulas, a Caracas-based political analyst, said Guaidó was risking “a lot.”

“Unless he’s sure the international reaction will have a big enough magnitude to leave Maduro with no option other than letting him back in,” Pantoulas said. “But the risk is too high and there’s no guarantee of what will happen. To me, it seems unnecessary.”

The attention on Saturday remained immediately focused on the single largest staging ground for aid in Cucuta, Colombia — where a massive benefit concert hosted by British billionaire Richard Branson drew a crowd of more than 200,000 people Friday.

Organizers in Cucuta have called for “every available Venezuelan” to turn up Saturday morning at 8 a.m. and await further orders as thousands were expected to camp in a field overnight near the concert site.

Venezuelan opposition officials say they’ll be at each border crossing to meet protesters and give further instructions. The opposition leaders assured their supporters that they, and not the volunteers, would walk out front when they confronted Maduro’s border guards.

As thousands of people filed out of the concert grounds late Friday, a Colombian Civil Defense truck drove slowly through the crowd with a stack of speakers in the bed.

“We need your support,” an announcer said through the speakers. “For the future of all of us. Tomorrow, 8 a.m., Tienditas bridge, to pass the humanitarian aid.”

Mari Rivera, 46, a Venezuelan living in Cucuta, said she believes they have enough people to push the shipping containers over. If not, she said, they’ll take the aid under the bridge and through a shallow river.

A group of 12 students from the Venezuelan border state of Tachira were resting in the grass, ahead of a planned departure in the morning to help aid across the border.

“We have no fear. This government has taken away our fear of death, just like they took away our youth,” said Brayan Castro, 27.

“We’ll go peacefully, but if they start conflict then we’ll defend ourselves,” said Valentin Guerrera, 20. “If they shoot at us civilians, they are justifying a war and they will lose.”

Eduardo Espinel, a Venezuelan opposition politician, said the opposition would try to move aid over the border via human chains if truck convoys could not get through.

Across the border in Venezuela, about 100 opposition supporters gathered in the city of Capacho — midway between Cucuta and the Venezuelan city of San Cristobal — to start their way to the border late Friday. Holding Venezuelan flags, at one point, they started shouting insults at soldiers that passed by in buses. National Guard troops tried to clear the way by mediating with the people, and the buses were eventually able to move on after a short confrontation of words.

“We are here fighting for freedom and democracy and I’m sure we will get humanitarian aid in,” said Anaida Rondon, a 47-year-old lawyer. “Tomorrow we will be at the border because our people depend on the aid.”

Besides the threat of military force, volunteers faced perhaps the even more dangerous possibility of violence by unruly pro-government militias, known as colectivos, as well as Colombian guerrilla groups that control large swaths of the border.

Even Maduro’s foreign minister, Arreaza, sounded a note of alarm, though he said the opposition would seek to falsely blame the government for violence that it might start.

“We are worried that a situation to lament will take place tomorrow because there’s many Colombian military groups at the border,” he said. “Never would the armed forces shoot against the people. . . . We hope reason reigns and that this doesn’t end up being a show to open the doors for a military intervention.”

Ahead of Saturday’s operation, opposition leaders who had arrived in the western city from Caracas were re-strategizing their trips to the border to account for higher threat levels.

After receiving information from “internal sources” of possible violence and blockades on the way, they said, they were still weighing the most secure way to proceed.

Alexis Paparoni, an opposition lawmaker, said that “if the buses are blocked, we will have motorbikes following us to continue going.”

Paparoni said there were signs Saturday could be violent, including the killing of two indigenous people and acts of official repression — including the use of tear gas — against opposition politicians on their way to the border from Caracas.

But, he said, “we hope the armed forces will join our side and avoid violence.”

Baddour reported from Cucuta, Colombia. Rachelle Krygier in San Cristobal contributed to this report.

Sorgente: Guaidó and supporters prepare to defy Maduro’s blockade of aid – The Washington Post

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