The border between Venezuela and Colombia is set to become the stage of a showdown Saturday between Nicolás Maduro’s authoritarian government and the opposition.
Juan Guaidó, the Venezuelan parliament leader who many countries now recognize as the country’s interim president, has worked with the U.S. government to bring millions of dollars worth of aid to the country, where a humanitarian crisis has driven millions to the edge of starvation and forced more than 3 million people – one tenth of the population – to flee. Trucks and warehouses filled with food, medicine and other supplies now sit at several locations just outside the country – in the Colombian border city of Cúcuta, at points along the southern border with Brazil and on the nearby island of Curaçao.
But Maduro, who has refused to abandon the presidency and retains the support of Venezuela’s powerful military, is refusing to let the aid in. He says it is an attempt “to humiliate the Venezuelan people” and has labelled the food “carcinogenic.” On Wednesday he banned all travel to Curaçao and on Thursday closed the border with Brazil. There, soldiers opened fire on civilians who tried to reopen it to get the aid in, killing two indigenous people.
Despite all that, Guaidó has promised the aid will get into Venezuela “one way or another” by Saturday. As aid amasses on the border and Maduro’s military prepares to face-off with Guaidó supporters, here’s what to know about the stand-off:
Why do Venezuelans need humanitarian aid?
Venezuela’s current crisis dates back to its Socialist Revolution in 1998, led by Maduro’s predecessor and mentor Hugo Chávez, who was elected on a platform of eliminating poverty. For years he used Venezuela’s vast oil wealth (the country has the largest proven reserves in the world) to fund expansive social programs, such as subsidized utilities and free health care and education.
But both Chávez and Maduro also presided over widespread corruption and economic mismanagement. The government structured Venezuela’s economy to focus on oil revenues and importing food in order to benefit the military and political elite, which controls both sectors, says Diego Moya-Ocampos, a Venezuela expert at risk analysts IHS Markit.
“They started to generate a crisis, where the country was producing less and less,” he says, adding that the country produces only around 20% of the food it needs. “These shortages have been common in Venezuela for many years now.”
Things got dramatically worse in 2014, when a drop in global oil prices meant the government had less cash to import food. At the same time, falling investor confidence in the country sent the value of Venezuela’s currency, the Bolívar, into free fall. Since then acute shortages of food and other imported goods have lead to widespread hunger, with the average Venezuelan losing 24 pounds in 2017. The lack of basic medicine has crippled the health system. People with chronic illnesses can’t access treatment, and diseases like measles and malaria, previously wiped out, have surged.
Determined to maintain his grip on power, Maduro has grown increasingly authoritarian, sidelining the opposition-held parliament, replacing judges on the supreme court, repressing protests with violence, and imprisoning political opponents.
Who is trying to bring aid into Venezuela?
Guaidó, the 35 year-old leader of an opposition party, claims that Maduro won his second term in May 2018 in rigged elections. Because of this, Guaidó says, the constitution mandates that he, as the head of parliament, take charge to call new elections.
The U.S., along with most other Western democracies, quickly recognized Guaidó as interim president after his inauguration ceremony on Jan. 23 and the Trump Administration has vowed to help him take power. They also answered his call for humanitarian assistance, with National Security Adviser John Bolton pledging $20 million of aid. Canada, Germany and others have also contributed.
Colombia, which has dealt with an influx of over a million desperate Venezuelan refugees, is helping to coordinate efforts to get the aid in. Meanwhile, British billionaire Richard Branson has helped to organize a massive pop concert at the Tienditas bridge near Cúcuta on Friday and Saturday, featuring some of Latin America’s most famous acts, to raise money for more supplies. Maduro has organized his own rival concert on the other side of the border.
U.N. agencies, along with the Red Cross and Catholic charity Cáritas, have refused to help bring aid in, saying that it is too political a move for neutral aid groups to join in. “The action of the Red Cross is based on two principles: humanity and neutrality. Neutrality is the most important one in situations like this,” Francesco Rocca, president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies told CNN.
Will the aid get in?
Though Guaidó has pledged to get the supplies into Venezuela by Saturday, it is far from clear that he will be able to do so, because the military is enforcing Maduro’s blockade.
The military used oil tankards to close off the main road bridge to Cúcuta in Colombia. On Thursday night, the Venezuelan national guard blocked the path of a convoy of buses transporting opposition members of parliament participating in the aid efforts. Many fear the next few days will see more violent clashes between the armed forces and Guaidó supporters, like the one at the Brazilian border.
The military’s continued support for the regime in the face of the humanitarian and political crisis can be explained by the comfortable life top generals have enjoyed under him. The regime has given the military control over imports, oil and other industries, and also allowed them to take part in a widespread corruption and organized crime.
“Corruption has corroded the entire institution, all along chain of command, and the counterintelligence agency has kept track of who is involved in what,” Raul Gallegos, a political analyst based in Bogotá, told TIME last month. “We cannot readily expect the security forces to respond the way any other institution would under similar pressure.”
Will the aid help topple Maduro?
Whatever happens, though, the stand-off will undermine Maduro’s grip on power, Moya-Ocampos says. “If he manages to block the aid, it will be clear he is out of touch with the population’s need,” he says. “If it enters, it will show he no longer controls the security apparatus – either way he looks weaker and weaker.”
The international community is hoping that the spectacle of badly-needed aid piled up on the border will prompt the lower ranks of the military to rebel against the high command, either by allowing the supplies in, or even by abandoning their support for Maduro entirely.
Moya-Ocampos says the showdown over aid will be the start, not the end, of fundamental change in Venezuela. “It might not happen immediately, but this episode is going to start off a process of division inside the armed forces, which I do think is irreversible.”