BY ABOUT 11am on February 23rd, four lorries, each loaded with 20 tons of food, medical supplies and toiletries, had arrived at the Simón Bolívar and Francisco de Paula Santander bridges, which link the Colombian border town of Cúcuta with Venezuela. At the Simón Bolívar crossing south of the city, used by thousands of people on a normal day, Colombian police opened a metal barricade they had erected and thousands of Venezuelans poured through, hoping to clear a passage for the supplies to enter Venezuela. Chanting “liberty”, they headed towards riot police, who had arrayed themselves behind transparent shields on the Venezuelan side of the bridge. Minutes later, the first tear-gas grenade fell on the advancing Venezuelans. They fled. Many were hurt in the stampede.
The attempt to deliver humanitarian aid to Venezuela, orchestrated by Juan Guaidó, who is recognised as the country’s interim president by its opposition-controlled legislature and by most western and Latin American democracies, had three objectives. The first was publicly to shame the dictatorial regime of Nicolás Maduro. Its corruption and incompetence have inflicted years of hardship on Venezuelans. The second was to relieve that hardship by delivering some 600 tons of aid, most of it provided by the United States. The third and most important was to bring the regime down by driving a wedge between its leaders and the various armed forces that keep it in power. The operation succeeded in its first objective, but has so far failed to achieve the other two.
It began the day before with a Live-Aid style concert in Cúcuta, staged by Richard Branson, a British entrepreneur. Mr Maduro countered with his own sparsely attended show just across the border. People in the audience say they were bussed there and rewarded with rice and beans for showing up. On the aid-delivery day itself Mr Guaidó, who is formally barred from leaving Venezuela, was joined in Cúcuta by the presidents of Colombia, Chile and Paraguay. (The bigwigs spent the day monitoring events from a building near the unused Tienditas bridge, between the two other crossings.) Hundreds of journalists came to watch events unfold. A month after assuming office as Venezuela’s interim president at a rally in Caracas, Mr Guaidó had again seized the world’s attention.
But little, if any, aid got through. There were reports that some supplies reached Venezuela across its southern border with Brazil, where aid has also been stockpiled. Most has not advanced past a customs checkpoint on the Venezuelan side. On the Colombian border, Venezuelan forces repelled the deliveries. Two lorries managed to enter Venezuela across the Francisco de Paula Santander bridge but were stopped at the Venezuelan end. Something, perhaps a tear-gas grenade, set them ablaze. Government supporters claim that the protesters were responsible.
After the first tear-gas canisters were fired by the national guardsmen on the border, some protesters rushed towards the Tachira river, which has largely dried up, and hurled stones at them. More tear gas landed. Most of the protesters retreated, but a few hundred continued to throw stones at the Venezuelan guards, who were later replaced by national police (pictured).
Soon after the protesters’ retreat Venezuelan forces started firing tear gas into Colombian territory, gassing protesters, journalists and observers from the Organisation of American States who had thought they were safe. Protesters who had advanced closer to Venezuela were met with rubber bullets and live ammunition. They say these were fired by colectivos, paramilitary groups loyal to the regime, rather than by the riot police, who did not carry guns. Colombian police, paramedics and doctors tended to the victims on the Simón Bolívar bridge and at medical tents set up well behind it. Doctors confirmed that some had been shot with live ammunition. The most seriously wounded were transferred to hospitals. In all, nearly 300 people were injured at the Cúcuta crossings. Four people were reportedly killed on Venezuela’s border with Brazil.
The Economist saw four members of the Venezuelan armed forces crossing the Simón Bolívar bridge and the river itself to join Mr Guaidó’s interim government. They were greeted as heroes and hurried to safety by police. By the end of the day more than 60 members of the armed forces and police had defected, according to Colombia’s migration service.
But they were exceptions. Most remained loyal to the Maduro regime. The colectivos seem to be the most committed, and the most dangerous. Victor Navas, a protester, said that when protesters challenged the riot police, colectivos stationed on the Venezuelan side of the river fired back tear gas and live ammunition. A defector crossing the Francisco de Paula Santander bridge said that the government had ordered the colectivos “to massacre the people”. Inhabitants of San Antonio de Tachira, on the Venezuelan side of the river, say that colectivos attacked protesters there and broke into apartments. There are unconfirmed reports that they have taken hostage the families of some defectors.
In Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, Mr Maduro was giving no sign of yielding. At a pro-regime rally on February 23rd he salsa-ed with his wife, Cilia Flores, and insisted repeatedly that he remains Venezuela’s “legitimate” president. Most independent observers think his re-election last May was fraudulent. The only clue that he might be worried was the bulletproof vest he appeared to be wearing under his cavernous red shirt.
Venezuela has now broken off diplomatic relations with Colombia. It has closed its borders with Colombia and Brazil and its sea border with three Caribbean islands, including Curaçao, where another stockpile of aid is located. Venezuela has thus severed its main surface-transport links with its neighbours.
Mr Guaidó and the opposition say they will continue to look for ways to get the aid through. It will be needed all the more as sanctions imposed by the United States on Venezuela’s oil, its chief source of foreign exchange, begin to bite. Mr Guaidó backs the sanctions as a way of forcing out the regime. So far, they have had little visible effect. But they are expected to make an already desperate situation worse. “If these sanctions are implemented in their current form, we’re looking at starvation,” Francisco Rodríguez of Torino Capital, an investment bank, told the New York Times.
With little sign that the regime is prepared to yield, speculation is mounting that Venezuela’s opposition and the United States will take more drastic action. Mr Guaidó tweeted that, after the events of February 23rd, he will “formally propose to the international community that we must keep all options open” to liberate Venezuela. Marco Rubio, an American senator who is influential in shaping the United States’ policy towards Venezuela, tweeted in response that “the grave crimes committed today by the Maduro regime have opened the door to various potential multilateral actions not on the table just 24 hours ago.”
These sound like threats to back some sort of military intervention in Venezuela, an option that President Donald Trump has repeatedly refused to rule out. The hashtag IntervencionMilitarYA (“military intervention now”) is trending on Twitter. That would be a highly risky measure. Many Venezuelans might view as liberators foreign soldiers bearing aid and the promise of a restored democracy. But many others would surely regard their arrival as confirmation of Mr Maduro’s claim that the offer of help is cover for an “imperialist” plot against the country. Venezuela’s crisis is far from over.