The Venezuelan-Colombian border erupted in clashes Saturday between anti-regime protesters and pro-regime security forces, as Venezuelan opposition leader and widely recognized interim president Juan Guaidó hoped to help push tons of humanitarian aid from Colombia into Venezuela past military blockades.
In a brazen rebuke to the international community as well as their own desperate citizens, forces loyal to authoritarian Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro reportedly set fire to trucks loaded with aid that were poised to enter Venezuela.
The increasingly violent showdown - coming a day after two people were killed by Venezuelan military trying to bring aid into the country at the border with Brazil - began Saturday morning at the Colombian border city of Cúcuta.
"We're resisting a dictatorship," Guaidó, president of Venezuela's National Assembly, told supporters in Cúcuta Friday night, referring to Maduro's socialist regime, which has wrecked both the country's democracy and economy - leaving millions in want of food, medicine and other basic needs. Maduro has refused to allow international aid into Venezuela.
The U.S. and some 50 other governments in Latin America and around the world no longer recognize Maduro as president; they say Guaidó is now Venezuela's constitutionally legitimate head of state until a new election can be held. Even so, Maduro had barred Guaidó from leaving Venezuela - but the 35-year-old opposition leader said he'd sneaked into Colombia after sympathetic Venezuelan border guards let him through.
Guaidó joined Colombian President Iván Duque, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, Paraguayan President Mario Abdo and Organization of American States Secretary General Luis Almagro, who traveled to Cúcuta in solidarity with the humanitarian aid effort. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to visit Colombia on Monday - days after President Trump warned Maduro in a speech in Miami that a U.S. military intervention option is still "open."
Maduro calls the aid push a disguised U.S.-led coup effort against him.
In what Guaidó and most Venezuelans hope is a harbinger of more military defections, four Venezuelan National Guard members commandeered small armored tanks and drove them through barriers at the Simón Bolívar International Bridge early Saturday morning into Cúcuta. There they presented themselves to Colombian authorities.
Venezuela: no son desertores aquellos guardias y efectivos de las FFAA que decidan sumarse a nuestra lucha.
¡Han decidido ponerse del lado del Pueblo y de la Constitución!
¡Bienvenidos! La llegada de la Libertad y la Democracia a Venezuela ya es indetenible. pic.twitter.com/zojGluqAuo
— Juan Guaidó (@jguaido) February 23, 2019
Earlier Friday, some 300,000 people turned out for a Venezuelan Aid Live concert at the Cúcuta border crossing sponsored by British billionaire Richard Branson. The show featured stars including Juanes, Maluma and Carlos Vives.
At around 10 am Saturday morning, Guaidó along with Duque, Piñera, Abdo and Almagro addressed the media multitudes gathered in Cúcuta. Duque warned the Venezuelan regime that blocking the aid would be "a violation of human rights and a crime against humanity." (Maduro later in the day broke ties with Colombia.) Guaidó again called on the rest of the Venezuelan military to "follow the [National Guard] soldiers who came over to the side of the Venezuelan people" this morning.
He added that those who do allow the aid in "will not be classified as traitors" and will enjoy the amnesty he and his parallel government have laid out for those military leaders and rank-and-file who abandon Maduro.
In all, some 60 Venezuelan National Guardsmen, police officers and border guards were reported to have deserted and defected at Cúcuta. Some even brought their families.
Still, Guaidó and the other Latin American heads of state did not indicate precisely how the Venezuelan opposition planned to move the aid, worth an estimated $60 million, across the bridges into Venezuela - and past the military guards there.
Guaidó did tweet about an hour later, however, that some aid had gotten into Venezuela through the border with Brazil in defiance of Maduro's orders. Guaidó's ambassador in Brazil, María Teresa Belandria, announced the food and other supplies had entered Venezuela from Pacaraima, Brazil. That could not be immedately confirmed by independent media.
At noon, aid volunteers confronted Venezuelan anti-riot police at the Bolívar and Santander border bridge points. The security forces did not let them pass, however, and at the Bolívar bridge they fired tear gas and rubber bullets at the protesters. Rapid-fire gunshots were heard as well.
Here in South Florida - at an event in Weston coinciding with the aid showdown in South America - Guaidó's ambassador to the U.S., Carlos Vecchio, put an optimistic spin on the border stalemate. He called the entry of aid at the Brazilian border and the defections of the Venezuelan soldiers and cops "clear signs that progress is being made in this effort."
An ominous development early Saturday afternoon was the appearance near the Bolívar bridge of colectivos - pro-Maduro paramilitary gangs notorious for violently thuggish intimidation of the opposition - threatening aid volunteers attempting to cross into Venezuela. Univision 23 reported the colectivos were armed and firing at anti-Maduro demonstrators.
When colectivo militants apparently crossed into Colombian territory, Univision 23 reported Colombian security forces confronted them.
Colectivos were also reportedly involved - along with Venezuelan national police - in burning three trucks filled with aid parked at or even past the border near Ureña, Venezuela, Saturday afternoon. (Other sources suggest the fires were started by either police teargas cannisters or protesters' molotov cocktails.) That border city has seen sometimes violent clashes, one involving a burning bus, between anti-Maduro protesters and security forces since early Saturday morning.