Venezuelan opposition leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaido risked arrest to cross the border into Colombia on Friday to appear at a massive benefit concert.
The concert and Guaido’s appearance were part of a campaign to pressure Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to let tons of humanitarian aid into his country. The same day, on Venezuela’s border with Brazil, the aid showdown led to the deaths of two people after Maduro’s troops opened fire on indigenous activists.
Guaido appeared at the end of a Live Aid-style concert that attracted more than 200,000 people. Later he spoke out against Maduro at a news conference with Colombian President Ivan Duque, Chilean President Sebastian Piñera and Paraguayan President Mario Abdo.
The heads of state joined diplomats, musicians and others who streamed into this border city, site of the U.S.-backed effort to undermine Maduro by forcing the entry of massive supplies of food and medicine into the country.
The news conference took place in front of a warehouse, stocked with aid for Venezuela, on the Colombian side of the Tienditas bridge. Guaido said more than 1 million volunteers were ready to distribute aid throughout Venezuela, but did not explain how it would get through, given Maduro’s vow that its “poisonous” contents would never enter the country.
Guaido denounced the “dictatorship” of Maduro and proclaimed that Venezuela was poised for “liberty.”
Guaido’s decision to cross into Colombia could subject him to arrest in Venezuela, where he is under investigation and has been forbidden to leave.
Whether Maduro’s government would risk arresting Guaido remains to be seen. The Trump administration would likely view such a move as a provocation.
U.S. officials, who are backing Guaido and calling for Maduro to step down, have warned the Venezuelan government that it could face serious repercussions should any harm come to Guaido.
Guaido, 35, is the leader of the opposition-dominated National Assembly. He was little known even in Venezuela until he declared himself president on Jan. 23, reportedly with U.S. encouragement.
He denounced Maduro — who won reelection in a disputed vote amid a crumbling economy — as a “usurper.” The Trump administration soon recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s legal president.
Hours before the benefit concert and a dueling one on the other side of the Colombia border, a clash over aid deliveries on Venezuela’s border with Brazil left at least two dead, according to U.S. officials.
Venezuelan troops opened fire on an indigenous group from the village of Kumarakapay that was seeking to get aid into the country a day after Maduro closed the border with Brazil, according to news reports.
Elliott Abrams, the Trump administration’s special representative for Venezuela, said Friday that the two killed near the Brazil border were Venezuelan citizens. Abrams, speaking to reporters near aid stockpiles in Cucuta, called the killings “a crime and a disgrace.”
In his comments at a blockaded bridge to Venezuela, Abrams seemed to recognize that the policy of trying to force aid into Venezuela in the hope of hastening Maduro’s ouster might not succeed.
“What do we do if the … former government of Maduro does not fall tomorrow? We continue.”
The U.S. strategy seems dependent on a possible move by the Venezuelan armed forces to defy Maduro and allow the food and medicine brought by U.S. Air Force cargo jets to enter via the Colombia border.
Guaido recently ordered the military to allow the aid in. But the military top brass has repeatedly affirmed its support for Maduro, despite some recent, limited defections.
In Cucuta, a city of about 800,000 long tied economically and socially to Venezuela, Friday was a day both of spectacle and of mounting uncertainty.
Concertgoers, both Colombian and Venezuelan, began arriving early to the venue, set up alongside the blockaded Tienditas bridge leading to Venezuela. Many carried Venezuela flags or caps with the national colors. Some had painted their faces with the Venezuelan national colors — yellow, blue and red.
The site offered views of both Venezuela and the warehouse complex where the hundreds of tons of U.S.-donated aid was stored.
Many attendees were music lovers, there for more than 30 acts, but this was a clearly political event called for by the opposition and backed by British billionaire Richard Branson.
“This is a message for Maduro,” said Jaime Salas, 43, who said he crossed from Venezuela and was selling Venezuelan flags and other items with the colors of his homeland. “He should listen to the people. It is time for Maduro to go.”
In Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, authorities appeared to cut television transmission of the concert, and internet coverage was spotty.
The Maduro government held its own “hands off Venezuela” concert on its side of the Tienditas bridge. The event did start at 3 p.m. local time, about five hours after it was projected to begin. Local news reports estimated the crowd at about 1,000. Maduro had also vowed that his government would deliver thousands of boxes of foodstuffs for the “poor” of Colombia.
Venezuela has for years suffered from a lack of food and medicines, contributing to an exodus of some 3.4 million people, many of them in recent years, according to the latest United Nations estimates.
His government this week halted air and sea travel to the island nation of Curacao, another hub for international aid, and has threatened to close the border with Colombia.
John Bolton, the U.S. national security advisor, has labeled the left-wing governments of Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua the “troika of tyranny,” leaving no doubt that the Trump administration seeks changes of leadership in all three long-time adversaries.
Piñera and Abdo, who appeared with Guaido, are among the right-leaning heads of state — along with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro — who have emerged in the aftermath of the so-called “pink tide” of center-left leadership that briefly held sway in much of Latin America.
Maduro has accused the Trump administration of seeking to grab Venezula’s oil and reassert U.S. hegemony throughout the region.
The Trump administration, which is openly and aggressively supporting Guaido and advocating the removal of Maduro, is throwing its weight into the border mix by dispatching Abrams to Cucuta.
Abrams has a long, controversial background in covert operations to overthrow leftist governments on behalf of Republican presidents, and his recent appointment to the Venezuela portfolio raised eyebrows.
Vice President Mike Pence is also heading to the region, expected to arrive in the Colombian capital of Bogota on Monday.
Pence on Friday joined fellow evangelical Franklin Graham, son of the late Rev. Billy Graham, in a conference call prayer session “for Venezuela.”
“Let’s be sure to pray, especially in the next few days ... for the people of Venezuela ... people of faith,” Pence said on the call, which organizers said involved the participation of more than 1,300 people.
“Let us pray to God,” Graham said, “to give wisdom to the vice president and in the decisions he is making.
“Let us pray there will be peace in Venezuela and new elections.”
Staff writer McDonnell reported from Cucuta and special correspondent Kraul from Bogota. Staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington and special correspondents Mery Mogollon in Caracas and Liliana Nieto del Rio in Cucuta contributed to this report.