BY ABOUT 11AM on February 23rd, four lorries, each loaded with 20 tonnes 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, used by thousands of people on a normal day, Colombian police opened a metal barricade they had erected. Venezuelans gathered on the Colombian side poured through, hoping to clear a passage for the vital supplies to enter Venezuela. Chanting “liberty”, they headed towards Venezuelan riot police, who had arrayed themselves behind clear plastic shields. Minutes later, the first tear-gas grenade fell. The crowds fled. Many were hurt in the stampede.
This was the first skirmish in a day of pain and frustration for Venezuelans who are trying to relieve their country’s humanitarian crisis and topple the dictatorship that caused it. By the end of it nearly 300 people had been injured on the Colombian border by tear gas and rubber bullets fired by Venezuelan security forces and by live ammunition from paramilitary colectivos. On the border with Brazil, where more aid awaits entry into Venezuela, four people were killed over two days. Almost no supplies got through.
Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s president, hailed this success in repelling an incursion of powdered milk, surgical gloves and other necessities as a “victory”. He celebrated by dancing salsa with his wife at a rally in Caracas. For Juan Guaidó, whose claim to be the real (interim) president of Venezuela is recognised by the opposition-controlled legislature and by 52 democracies, it was a setback. February 23rd, he had promised, would be a day of deliverance “by air, sea and land”.
Watched by the world’s media, Mr Guaidó’s operation should have shamed Mr Maduro’s regime. But the despot and his massively corrupt cronies blame everyone but themselves for Venezuela’s plight. And although footage of food and medical supplies turned away cannot have improved Mr Maduro’s dismal reputation at home, there is not yet much sign that the armed forces or paramilitaries are abandoning him. Venezuelans yearning for an end to his rule are gloomy. “Maybe I am impatient,” mused Alexandra Flores, a lawyer in Caracas, “but I fear this [attempt to overthrow the regime] could fizzle out.”
Mr Guaidó and his international backers are striving to ensure that does not happen. Their first response to the setback was a startling one. On the evening of February 23rd Mr Guaidó tweeted that he would “formally propose to the international community that we must keep all options open to liberate the homeland”. This echoes President Donald Trump’s warnings that the United States could use armed force against Mr Maduro’s regime. Marco Rubio, an American senator, tweeted that the Venezuelan regime’s brutality towards the aid carriers “opened the door to various potential multilateral actions not on the table just 24 hours ago”. He accompanied this with images of 20th- and 21st-century dictators who thought they were invulnerable but were toppled and killed or jailed.
An American military intervention is highly unlikely, unless the Maduro regime does something insane like attacking the US embassy (see article). The Trump administration is not seriously preparing for one. On February 25th Mr Guaidó joined a meeting in Bogotá, Colombia’s capital, of the 14-member Lima group, countries that are seeking a solution to Venezuela’s crisis. All except a few (including Mexico, which did not attend) recognise him as Venezuela’s interim president. They condemned the regime’s thuggery and asked the International Criminal Court to investigate whether it constitutes a breach of human rights. But they ruled out military action.
That leaves open the question of just what Mr Guaidó’s backers are prepared to do to end Venezuela’s suffering. The plan, said Mike Pence, Mr Trump’s vice-president, who was at the meeting in Bogotá, is “to continue to isolate Maduro economically and diplomatically until democracy is restored”. The United States Treasury widened sanctions on members of the regime to four more people, all state governors. They include Rafael Lacava, governor of Carabobo. He speaks fluent English and played a role in the release of Joshua Holt, an American, from a Venezuelan prison last year. During that negotiation he spoke to Mr Trump by telephone. The sanctions against Mr Lacava suggest that the United States has no further interest in talking to the regime.
On the sidelines of a UN Security Council meeting to discuss the crisis, Elliott Abrams, the Trump administration’s point man for Venezuela, promised more sanctions. These could bar non-American companies from trading with Venezuela. But Mr Trump has already imposed the toughest sanction at his disposal, denying the Maduro regime and PDVSA, the state oil company, access to revenue from sales to the United States of hydrocarbons, Venezuela’s most important export by far. Venezuela is trying to sell its oil to other countries, such as India. Tankers holding 10m barrels of it, worth about $500m, are waiting for customers off Venezuela’s coast, according to Kpler, an energy-research firm.
Mr Guaidó and his allies hope such pressure will cause enough defections from the armed forces to topple the regime, or to force some of its leaders to break with Mr Maduro and negotiate with the opposition a transition back to democracy.
More than 400 members of the Venezuelan armed forces and police have deserted in recent days and crossed into Colombia, according to Colombia’s immigration agency. Many crossed the bridges they had been patrolling and pledged their loyalty to Mr Guaidó’s government. One brought his baby daughter, another his drug-sniffer dog. “It’s repress, repress, repress, I can’t do it anymore,” said one exhausted national-guard sergeant who had just sprinted across the dried-up Táchira river.
But most of the men in uniform remain at their posts. The families of deserters have reportedly been tortured or raped—a powerful deterrent. The sergeant said that members of the paramilitary colectivos were issuing the orders in towns along the border. They stopped a protest by inhabitants of San Antonio de Táchira by forcing them to stay in their homes. “You have just seen a little taste of what we are ready to do,” crowed Venezuela’s vice-president, Delcy Rodríguez.
Mr Guaidó’s immediate challenge is to return to Venezuela, after leaving the country in defiance of a travel ban. (He sneaked out via back roads, with help from sympathisers in the army, he says.) Presidents in exile “achieve little”, Mr Guaidó notes. Mr Maduro has threatened to jail him. If any harm comes to him, “it would be the last decision Mr Maduro would make”, a senior American official told journalists.