Merida, February 23, 2019 (venezuelanalysis.com) – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced that Venezuela is breaking diplomatic relations with neighbouring Colombia and gave Colombian diplomats 24 hours to leave the country.
“My patience has run out, we can’t keep allowing Colombian territory to be used for attacks against Venezuela,” he stated to the crowd. “You are the devil himself [Colombian President] Ivan Duque,” he added.
His comments came at a large anti-imperialist rally in Caracas held under the slogan ‘Hands off Venezuela.’
Tensions have reached new heights along the Venezuelan-Colombian border after self-proclaimed “Interim President” Juan Guaido pledged that aid would enter the country on Saturday “no matter what.” The aid, which is being supplied by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and stockpiled in the Colombian border city of Cucuta, the Brazilian border city of Boa Vista, and on the Dutch Caribbean Island of Curacao, consists of basic food products such as lentils and flour, as well as basic personal hygiene products estimated to meet the needs of 5,000 people for roughly 10 days.
Caracas has denounced the move as a precursor for a US-led military intervention into the country and proceeded to shut down the borders with Dutch Caribbean Islands, Brazil and Colombia on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday respectively. This stance has been supported by both the Chinese and Russian governments, with Russian foreign office spokespersons telling reporters Friday that the “aid” scheme “resembled those in Iraq and Libya.” Moscow also accused Washington of arming the Venezuelan opposition.
During his speech at the end of the rally, Maduro declared that the “coup d’état” initiated by Juan Guaido 30 days ago had been “defeated” and told his followers that they are “on the right side of history” before challenging Guaido to compete in elections.
Maduro also promised to apply justice against anyone who violates Venezuelan law, citing a number of right-wing activists who led isolated incidents of violent protests at the Colombo-Venezuelan border towns of Urena and San Antonio in Táchira State Saturday. The violent protests set fire to a public bus and burnt tyres in the streets in an attempt to open the border crossing.
Finally, Maduro reiterated earlier reports that his team are coordinating US $2 billion worth of “technical humanitarian assistance” channeled through the United Nations, as well as receiving 7.5 tonnes of medicine from Russia.
“Of course there are problems in Venezuela,” he told the crowd, “But who is going to solve them? Mr Trump? Or the Venezuelans?”
Saturday’s pro-government mobilisation in Caracas was one of the largest pro-government rallies seen in recent weeks. There were also rallies of pro-government supporters on the Colombian-Venezuelan border during the day and opposition marches in Caracas and other cities.
Skirmishes at the Colombian border
Juan Guaido led efforts to force the entry of the so-called humanitarian aid at the Colombian border along with volunteers. They were – at the time of writing - unsuccessful.
International support from US-aligned governments was also prominent on the border, with Colombian President Ivan Duque and Chilean President Sebastian Pinera both present. US President Donald Trump and former Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton also backed Guaido’s efforts via Twitter.
The International Red Cross, however, voiced further criticism of the border actions taken by Guaido, this time denouncing the illegal use of its symbols by Guaido’s followers on both the Brazilian and Colombian borders. The Red Cross had previously joined the United Nations in describing the aid plan as “politicised.”
The opposition leader fled Venezuela to Colombia early Saturday through non-official border crossings, defying a travel ban applied against him two weeks ago by the Supreme Court.
The tense day saw a handful of skirmishes between right-wing activists left in Colombia after Friday’s “Live Aid” concert and the Venezuelan military. Despite the activists flanking the “aid” trucks as they approached the closed border in Simon Bolivar international bridge, the trucks were able to pass the checkpoints, as tear gas and rubber bullets were used to repel the opposition militants, with witnesses reporting the use of molotov cocktails and other weapons in attempts to try to force entry into Venezuela.
In the early afternoon, an aid truck attempting to cross the border in Urena was burnt mid-bridge some distance away from the Venezuelan border checkpoint, with the Venezuelan government and the opposition trading accusations concerning responsibility. No deaths were reported on the Colombian border, but a number of wounded are receiving medical attention.
Brazilian and Caribbean borders remain closed
At Venezuela’s southern Brazilian border and northern sea border in the Caribbean Sea, efforts at forcing the entrance of the “aid” were equally unsuccessful.
A tense standoff in Pacaraima on the Venezuelan-Brazilian border resulted in trucks coming from Boa Vista being blocked. The region had seen two deaths Friday when indigenous citizens apparently supporting the entry of the “aid” confronted a military convoy en route to the border, and there were unconfirmed reports of four more deaths in the sector Saturday.
In the Dutch overseas territory of Curacao, authorities did not allow the departure of the “aid”-carrying ships without Caracas’ assurances of the safe travel of the ships.
Military remains loyal
Attempts to bring in aid were accompanied by appeals for the Venezuelan armed forces to back Guaido’s efforts. In the early hours of Saturday, three rogue National Guardsmen drove two armoured cars into the barrier on the Venezuelan side of the Simon Bolivar bridge, before fleeing on foot to the Colombian side of the border, only to be joined by another soldier later on. A Venezuelan police officer and an Chilean photo-journalist were wounded in what eyewitnesses described as an deliberate effort to run down civilians near the barrier.
Unconfirmed claims later in the day from Colombian migration offices suggested that 23 Venezuelan soldiers had abandoned their posts during the day, but no more details have been made available.
Venezuelan authorities were quick to dismiss the incident involving the four soldiers as a staged media show by the opposition which looked to sow chaos on the closed border.
Edited and with additional reporting by Ricardo Vaz and Lucas Koerner, both from Caracas.