CUCUTA, Colombia — A few dozen palettes of American humanitarian aid sit warehoused and waiting on the Colombian side of a deserted international bridge that connects the country to Venezuela, where millions of people are hungry.
On the other side, barricades made from shipping containers and a bright orange oil tanker block the road into Venezuela. On Tuesday, Venezuelan soldiers added to the front, standing shoulder to shoulder in a show of force against the passage of aid.
The Tienditas International Bridge has never been open for use — before last week, the Colombian side had been closed with a metal fence for years. But in the span of a few days it has become the symbolic front of an escalating standoff between Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and the country’s young opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, who has declared himself interim president and brought U.S. backing to the doorstep of his crisis-stricken country.
“Our families need food now. They’re suffering,” said 22-year-old Jose Mendoza, a Venezuelan immigrant who protested the blockage of aid in front of the hundreds of journalists who turned up here last week on the usually empty bridge. “Let the humanitarian aid pass.”
Maduro has long barred most foreign aid from his country, even as he’s presided over a devastating economic collapse that’s led to widespread hunger. But Venezuela's opposition, bolstered by huge protests last month that won them international recognition, asked the U.S. to bring this aid. They say they’ll take it to Venezuela in defiance of Maduro.
Guaidó spent Tuesday doing what he's done twice before: addressing massive protests in the streets of Caracas, while others followed along in cities throughout the country, urging Maduro or the armed forces to allow entry of the aid. And at a press conference on the bridge last week, U.S. ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whitaker said the small aid convoy of seven trucks was only the first of what he hoped would be “a great flood of relief for the Venezuelan people.”
“Its impact is more political and symbolic than economic. It’s about optics.”
But there have been few signs of a growing campaign, and it remains unclear how organizers plan to proceed. Meanwhile, large humanitarian organizations at the border, including the U.N. and the Red Cross have distanced themselves from the operation, wary of politicizing aid.
The food remains locked in the gated compound at the border, while thousands of hungry Venezuelans continued to stream over other bridges and paths daily through Cucuta, where every charity kitchen is stretched and every shelter is full.
Most of the Venezuelans living here on the street are barely aware of the quiet standoff that’s attracted the world’s attention.
“We’ve just been walking. We don’t have any idea about that,” said Areblei Tolello, 23, as she hiked with six fellow Venezuelans up the highway that led out of Cucuta, over the high Andes and on to Ecuador, her destination, about 1,000 miles away.
The shipment has only enough food for a few thousand people, in a country where millions have gone hungry for years. The groceries can feed 5,000 people for 10 days, and additional nutritional supplements can treat malnutrition in children for two months. There is toothpaste, toilet paper, pads, soap and toothbrushes.
But this small load carries political implications that could forever change the shape of power there.
“Its impact is more political and symbolic than economic. It’s about optics,” said Adam Isacson, a director at the Washington Office on Latin America.
“The ‘humanitarian aid’ is a show to humiliate us, and it’s meant to justify military aggression,” Maduro tweeted Friday.
If the border guards heed Maduro and turn back the aid, they’ll affirm the embattled president's enduring grip on power over the armed forces, even after 40 nations, including the U.S. and Venezuela’s neighbors Colombia and Brazil, recognized Guaidó’s interim presidency and his call for free and fair elections.
“I hope this doesn’t end in tragedy.”
But if the guards allow the aid to pass, as Guaidó and the Americans hope they will, it will mark the first such public mass defection of armed forces from Maduro’s command, a signal of turning tides in Venezuela.
Anti-Maduro protesters like Mendoza have watched millions of their countrymen flee hunger in Venezuela, just like they did. They’re hoping the Venezuelan border guards disavow Maduro and accept the aid shipments when they are pushed across the border.
“If the guards here put themselves on the side of the people and against Maduro, I think many will follow them across the whole country,” said Omaira Perez, a 44-year-old Venezuelan working in Cucuta.
Planners here downplay the chance of a confrontation. American officials say they’ll only move forward after safety is guaranteed, and the opposition says it is in talks with authorities across the border to organize a peaceful reception. But many remain worried that threats from both sides could escalate into violence.
“I hope this doesn’t end in tragedy,” said Wilfredo Cañizares, a human rights activist in Cucuta, who tracks organized crime in the border zone.
Lester Toledo, an opposition leader, came to Cucuta with about a dozen other Venezuelan politicians on behalf of Guaido to coordinate the shipment. At the press conference on the empty bridge, he told hundreds of news cameras that similar staging points for aid would be set up around Venezuela and other donor nations would join the campaign.
“One gift of aid isn’t going to change the suffering of the Venezuelan people. There are millions of people who need food.”
He called on the Venezuelan military to join their side and accept the donations. “This help is for you, too,” he said, attempting to speak to the soldiers. “Here is food for your children.”
Like the U.S. ambassador, Toledo invoked forces of nature for his movement, promising a “river of people” would accompany the shipment to peacefully overwhelm the guards. There is little evidence here that such a river is being assembled.
Beyond getting the aid over the border, leaders must make plans for orderly and transparent distribution.
Francisco Bortignon, an Italian-born priest who has worked for 25 years with the neediest populations on both sides of the border, worried fighting could erupt if food trucks were brought to a hungry community without a distribution plan.
"If it gets in, I wouldn't want to be there," he told VICE News. "The first thing you must do is maintain order, and who has authority over there? No one."
Others said the aid package will only disappoint those desperately in need.
“One gift of aid isn’t going to change the suffering of the Venezuelan people,” said 32-year-old Junior Olivero, a Venezuelan migrant starting his journey to Ecuador by foot. “There are millions of people who need food.”
Dylan Baddour is a freelance journalist based in Colombia.
Cover: Bolivarian Army soldiers stand guard on the Tienditas International Bridge that links Colombia and Venezuela, near Urena, Venezuela, Friday, Feb. 8, 2019. As individual humanitarian aid kits were being assembled in the city of Cucuta, just across the river from Venezuela, U.S. officials and Venezuelan opposition leaders appealed to the military to the let the aid through. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)