CUCUTA, Colombia — The usual steady stream of Venezuelan migrants crossed the bridge into Colombia on Wednesday and lined up for free food and aid at soup kitchens and shelters. In the intense heat, women and children waited outside a Red Cross checkpoint, to receive urgent medical attention, seemingly unaware of the larger geopolitical struggle underway.
This border town was already home to a sprawling humanitarian crisis, but in a matter of weeks it’s become the epicenter of the escalating standoff between Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and the country’s U.S.-backed opposition party.
What happens here in the next few days — when the opposition hopes to move tons of stalled U.S. aid over the border — could change the course of history for the beleaguered Andean country.
“We’re nervous,” said Jessica Hernandez, 29, an out-of-business dentist from San Cristobal, just across the Venezuelan border, who was wheeling a suitcase over the Simon Bolivar bridge into Cucuta to buy basic groceries that she can’t back home. “Everyone is talking about the aid.”
Nearly one month since opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself interim president of Venezuela and called on his people and the country’s armed forces to join him against Maduro, humanitarian aid has become the weapon of choice for both sides in this intensifying power struggle. And Cucuta is now the front line.
“Cucuta is kind of a mess. The politicians have misused the term humanitarian intervention to disguise other objectives,” said the head of an international health care organization, who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak candidly. “That is why you don't see the U.N. or humanitarian NGOs engaged in this silly game.”
Maduro has long-denied the crisis engulfing his country, and has rejected the aid, calling it an excuse for a U.S. invasion. So far, the military is sticking by him. And just three days before Guaidó and the U.S. run up against their self-imposed deadline for getting aid into the crisis-stricken country, it remains unclear how they’ll break Maduro’s blockade, or his crucial grip over Venezuela’s armed forces.
“Cucuta is kind of a mess. The politicians have misused the term humanitarian intervention to disguise other objectives.”
“Nobody really knows exactly how the aid will make it across,” said Sergio Guzman, director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consultancy. “We don’t know if ordinary Venezuelan volunteers will force it over or if foreign personnel will collaborate in the efforts.”
Guaidó has risen from relative obscurity to orchestrate the strongest challenge to date to Maduro’s long-beleaguered rule. He’s been recognized as the country’s legitimate president by over 60 Western countries and many of Venezuela's neighbors, including Colombia. But the 35-year-old is missing one crucial backer: his country’s military.
The aid delivery, scheduled for Saturday, is designed to change that. For Guaidó and his powerful U.S. ally, successfully getting aid into the country would mark the first major crack in the military’s thus-far resolute support for Maduro, and could mark the beginning of the end for his rule — whereas keeping it out may ensure his survival.
Trucks with an humanitarian aid for Venezuelan arrive to the International Bridge Tienditas in Cucuta, border with Venezuela, Colombia, Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. The U.S. Air Force has begun flying tons of aid to a Colombian town on the Venezuelan border as part of an effort meant to undermine socialist President Nicolas Maduro. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)
In a bid to ratchet up the pressure, the U.S. has flown one plane after another filled with aid to the border this week and staged high-profile visits from Sen. Marco Rubio, a leading voice on Latin American policy in the Republican Party, and Mark Green, the head of USAID.
On Sunday, Rubio was making the rounds in a carefully staged media show throughout Cucuta. Surrounded by hundreds of journalists, he was ushered onto the main Simon Bolivar border bridge to speak to migrating Venezuelans.
In a press conference soon after, he warned President Maduro not to act against the opposition, and told Venezuelans that the U.S. and the world won’t abandon them.
“It is regrettable that aid has become a pawn in the political chess match between the governments of the United States and Venezuela.”
Rubio appeared to be a primer for President Donald Trump, who in a speech in Miami the next day sought to address Venezuela's armed forces directly, calling on them to allow the safe passage of aid into their country, or risk losing “everything.”
Opposition leaders, meanwhile, are calling on all Venezuelans to go to the border on Saturday to pressure the military to let aid in.
But the strategy has raised alarm among leading aid groups like Mercy Corps, Oxfam and War Child, which have warned that the politicization of humanitarian aid could put those most in need at risk.
“It is regrettable that aid has become a pawn in the political chess match between the governments of the United States and Venezuela,” said Provash Budden, Americas Regional Director at Mercy Corps, in a statement. “Aid should never be used as political bait. Both the people who need it and those who risk their lives to deliver it deserve better.”
Venezuelan migrants said the standoff is causing confrontations inside the country between those who want the aid to enter and Maduro supporters who reject it.
“There is a lot of tension in San Cristobal, and the government is going to do everything possible for [the aid] not to get through,” said Lizbeth Aranguren, a 31-year-old saleswoman.
Workers unload materials for the stage of the 'Concert for the freedom of Venezuela' at the Tienditas International Bridge in the outskirts of Cucuta, Colombia, on the border with Venezuela, Monday, Feb. 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)
The blocked aid isn’t the only thing increasing tensions on the border. On Friday, seemingly out of nowhere, British billionaire Richard Branson announced on Twitter the organization of a “Live Aid”-style humanitarian concert in Cucuta, one day before the opposition’s deadline to deliver aid into the country. His goal: to raise $100 million for more supplies.
Maduro responded on Monday, announcing the details of his own concert to take place on the Venezuelan side of the border on the same day. He’s calling it Hands Off Venezuela.
But the Venezuelan armed forces don’t appear impressed by the border theatrics. On the Tienditas bridge, they continued to carry out drills in a show of strength and support for Maduro.
On the other side of the bridge, under the intense sun, trucks brought in scaffolding and laborers began assembling the main festival stage for Friday’s concert. In the backdrop stood Maduro’s barricade, lined with shipping containers and an orange oil tanker.
“They need to let it in,” said Carlos Perez, a 35-year-old former Venezuelan banker, as he stood beside stacked luggage six miles north in Cucuta. ”There’s no military personnel ready for a war — they’re weak.”
More than a year ago Perez set out to settle in Peru, but said he ended up “working like a slave” on a grape farm. Now, he plans on heading home, with hopes of change, but knows it won’t come easily.
“It’s going to be an interesting week to see what happens,” he said.
Steven Grattan is a reporter based in Colombia.
Cover: A Colombian police officer guards the Simon Bolivar International Bridge which connects Colombia with Venezuela in La Parada, near Cucuta, Colombia, on the border with Venezuela, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019.