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Venezuela’s Dictator Nicolas Maduro Uses Military to Repel International Aid From His Own People

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CARACAS – Volunteers prepared sacks of rice, canned tuna and protein-rich biscuits for malnourished children at a warehouse on the Colombian border on Friday as Venezuela’s opposition vowed to deliver humanitarian aid to their troubled nation, even if it means mounting a mass mobilization of their countrymen to carry it in.

As the food and hygiene kits were packed into individual white bags in the city of Cucuta, just across the river from Venezuela, U.S. officials and Venezuelan opposition leaders appealed to the military to the let the aid through.

Lester Toledo, who is representing opposition leader Juan Guaido in the aid mission, issued a message to troops, telling them the aid contains food and medicine their own families need. He recalled how in 2016, a large group of Venezuelan women dressed in white and intent on crossing the closed border with Colombia made their way through a line of national guardsmen in order to buy food on the other side.

“I am convinced that the way we are going to pass this aid is with the Venezuelan people,” Toledo said at a press event unveiling the aid. “People, people and more people bringing in humanitarian aid.”

The emergency supplies have become the focus of Venezuela’s political struggle between President Nicolas Maduro and Guaido, who declared interim presidential powers in late January, accusing Maduro of being illegitimate following an election last year widely viewed as a sham. The Venezuelan military has blocked the bridge where the aid is stationed and Maduro is refusing to allow it in.

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro touches his forehead during a press conference at Miraflore’s Presidential Palace in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, Feb. 8, 2019.

The embattled Venezuelan leader dug in further Friday, contending the aid is part of a coup being orchestrated by the U.S. government.

“There’s an attempt to violate our national sovereignty with this ‘show’ of a humanitarian operation by the government of Donald Trump,” he said.

Venezuelan volunteers, Colombian firefighters and rescue workers prepare USAID humanitarian aid for storage at a warehouse next to the Tienditas International Bridge, near Cucuta, Colombia, on the border with Venezuela, Friday, Feb. 8, 2019.

The goods, including packaged corn flour, lentils and pasta, arrived Thursday in what the opposition is hoping will be the first of many shipments of humanitarian aid from countries around the world. Opposition leaders said three countries in the region will become aid hubs and that some nations, like Colombia, will likely have more than one collection site. The first shipment includes food kits for 5,000 Venezuelans and high-protein nutritional supplements that can treat an estimated 6,700 young children with moderate malnutrition.

Additional aid is being stored in Miami and Houston and “ready to be deployed to the region immediately,” the U.S. said in a statement.

“We expect more to come,” U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whitaker said. “This is a down payment.”

Asked what would happen if the Venezuelan military blocks the aid from going in, Whitaker said any obstacles would be dealt with as they arise and reiterated that Trump has made clear nothing is off the table — though, he added, the priority is to arrange a broad international mission.

Members of the Venezuelan army and National Guard block the main access to the Tienditas International Bridge, which links Colombia and Venezuela, on Thursday near Urena, Venezuela.

Whitaker said the U.S. involvement stops at the Colombian border, where the Guaido-led opposition will be charged with distributing the aid inside Venezuela, a seemingly tall task as Maduro shows no signs of conceding.

Opposition leader Jose Manuel Olivares, who is in Cucuta helping coordinate the aid mission, said the idea floated by Toledo to use a mass mobilization of people to get the aid across the border is one of the strategies being considered.

“The aid is going to be backed by popular support, by hundreds and thousands of people who need it,” he said.

Venezuela’s self-proclaimed president Juan Guaido raises his arm as he leaves a meeting with university students at the Central University of Venezuela, in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, Feb. 8, 2019.

A growing list of nearly 50 countries has thrown their support behind Guaido. On Friday, Romania’s president became the latest world leader to recognize Guaido as interim president almost a week after other European Union countries did so. President Klaus Iohannis said Romania decided to join other EU countries in recognizing Guaido partly because Bucharest currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency.

Speaking at the Central University of Venezuela Friday, Guaido called on Venezuelans to hold popular assemblies in their towns this weekend to organize volunteers to receive the aid and called on the military to let the supplies through.

“If they dare to continue blocking the way, all these volunteers will go open a humanitarian channel,” he said.

Guaido declared himself Venezuela’s interim president Jan. 23, maintaining that the constitution gives him that right as head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly because Maduro’s re-election should be considered legitimate.

On Friday, Supreme Court Justice Juan Mendoza challenged that assertion, saying the constitution does not include language for forming a transitional government as Guaido claims. Steps the lawmaker has taken are therefore void and he is usurping presidential powers, Mendoza said.

The pro-Maduro Supreme Court has already barred Guaido from leaving the country and frozen his bank accounts while prosecutors investigate what they call his anti-government activities.

Oil Workers Flee Venezuela

Venezuela was once one of the world’s top five oil exporters, pumping 3.5 million barrels a day in 1998 when President Hugo Chavez was elected and launched Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution. Today, the state-run oil company PDVSA produces less than a third of that. Critics blame corruption and years of mismanagement by the socialist government.

Even worse, production is about to sink even further due to fresh sanctions by the Trump administration targeting PDVSA that have essentially cut off Venezuela from its Houston-based cash-cow, Citgo, with the aim of depriving Maduro of more than $11 billion in exports this year.

Despite the short-term pain they will bring Venezuela, Guaido said the sanctions are a critical part of stopping Maduro from consolidating power in what he calls a “dictatorship.”

The Venezuelan president, Nicolas Maduro, has threatened the seizure of factories that have stopped production and the jailing of their owners.

Venezuela’s oil workers began flooding out in 2003, shortly after Chavez fired thousands of them — many by name on national television — for launching a strike that paralyzed output. The oil workers accused Chavez of riding roughshod over the nation’s democratic institutions, while Chavez said the picketers were plotting a coup.

Tomas Paez, a professor at Central University of Venezuela who studies the Venezuelan exile community, estimates that 30,000 oil workers fled in the initial wave, many banned from working in the country’s oil industry.

He said it’s difficult to gauge how many more have left as Venezuela’s economic problems have worsened under Maduro, but from the tar sands of northern Canada to the deserts of Kuwait, Venezuelan roughnecks now live in more than 90 oil-producing countries.

“Let’s say, where there is oil, there is a Venezuelan,” Paez said.

Many have made new lives in their adopted countries with no plans to return to a gutted Venezuela. And with each new departure, fewer remain behind with the know-how to pump the world’s most abundant oil reserves, once the economic backbone of a thriving country.

In a recent speech laying out the economic plan for his second six-year term, Nicolas Maduro vowed to catapult Venezuela’s production to 5 million barrels a day. But he provided few details other than promising to take charge personally and root out corruption.

The embattled president retains support from powerful allies, including Russia and China, which are both heavily invested in Venezuela’s oilfields. Maduro’s hand-picked head of the PDVSA, Maj. Gen. Manuel Quevedo, did not respond to requests for comment by The Associated Press.

The Associated Press