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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 February 2019

Venezuela’s dueling leaders row as aid sits blocked at border

President Nicolas Maduro denounced the presence of trailers of humanitarian aid brought to the Colombian border

Policewomen walk past boxes with US humanitarian aid goods in Cucuta, on Colombia's border with Venezuela. AFP
Policewomen walk past boxes with US humanitarian aid goods in Cucuta, on Colombia's border with Venezuela. AFP

The only thing Venezuela had in abundance Friday was angry words as its main political players attacked each other in simultaneous news conferences while the nation teeters on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe.

In Caracas, president Nicolas Maduro denounced the presence of trailers of humanitarian aid brought to the Colombian border, calling them part of a plan cooked up in Washington to destabilize his government. His nationwide address went off air twice, due to power blackouts.

“The humanitarian aid has become a show to justify an invasion of the country,” Mr Maduro said. “Venezuela isn’t going to allow a false show of humanitarian aid, because we’re not beggars.”

At the same time, Juan Guaido, the Venezuelan National Assembly leader recognised as the country’s rightful leader by more than 30 governments, was attacking Mr Maduro for refusing to admit the supplies and called for street protests Tuesday.

“If they dare to keep blocking the routes, and creating obstacles to the lives of Venezuelans, we’ll go to open them, with the people, the security forces,” Mr Guaido said.

Under Mr Maduro’s rule, Venezuela has endured one of the deepest economic collapses in recent history, with hyperinflation and ever-worsening shortages. The aid assembled at the behest of Mr Guaido has become the focal point of the effort to unseat the president.

In the Colombian border town of Cucuta, where the first US aid arrived Thursday, the American ambassador called on the Venezuelan security forces to allow the aid in. It includes staples such as vegetable oil, flour and rice, as well as nutritional supplements for children.

“Help is on the way,” Kevin Whitaker said. “This is just the start.”

The effort is mainly symbolic, and has been shunned by aid groups leery of the standoff’s fraught politics. The first trucks of food to arrive at the distribution point on the border are enough to feed only 5,000 people for 10 days, according to the US Embassy in Colombia, equivalent to less than 0.02 percent of the population.

Mr Maduro’s security forces used freight containers and a tanker trailer to block the international bridge near where the aid is arriving.

More shipments are on their way, but the needs in the nation of 30 million are likely to dwarf them.

“You don’t feed a country with humanitarian aid,” Francisco Rodriguez, chief economist at Torino Economics in New York, said in an interview this week. “Humanitarian aid does not substitute for the economy of a country.”

Venezuela is already experiencing mass hunger, and is likely to experience even greater difficulty importing food thanks to stepped-up US sanctions. The country won’t easily be able to find alternative markets for its oil exports, now that its access to the U.S. payment system has been cut off, and risks famine in the near future, Mr Rodriguez said.

On Friday, international charities in Colombia distanced themselves from Mr Guaido’s aid distribution, sending a letter to governments and United Nations agencies in which they expressed “concerns about the methods through which humanitarian aid is planned to be sent from Colombia to Venezuela.”

“Any potential political use of humanitarian aid can generate risks, in particular for those the aid is intended to support,” said the letter, signed by 15 non-governmental organizations, including Oxfam, Mercy Corps and Save the Children.

Updated: February 9, 2019 12:57 AM

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