'Everyone is afraid': Venezuela's opposition prepares for aid showdown against Maduro - Southern Business Review


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Thursday, February 21, 2019

'Everyone is afraid': Venezuela's opposition prepares for aid showdown against Maduro

Venezuela's opposition lawmakers are forging ahead with plans to confront a government blockade that has kept tens of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid, mostly supplied by the U.S., from flowing into the country.

It comes at a time when tensions in Venezuela are reaching boiling point, with the South American country in the midst of the Western Hemisphere's worst humanitarian crisis in recent memory.

On Saturday, hundreds of thousands of volunteers are expected to help National Assembly leader Juan Guaido bring in food supplies, hygiene kits and nutritional supplements.

The aid plan is scheduled to take place exactly one month to the day after Guaido took to the streets of Caracas and declared himself as the crisis-stricken country's rightful interim president.

President Nicolas Maduro has refused to cede power, however, and still has the support of the military. He has consistently rejected letting foreign aid into Venezuela, calling it a "political show" and a cover for a U.S. invasion.

"We have managed to build the biggest voluntary movement of our nation and it will be the most important that this continent will see," Carlos Paparoni, an opposition lawmaker and head of the National Assembly's finance committee, told CNBC via telephone.

"This is a country where everyone is afraid of the crisis. This is a country where sick people are scared because they don't have the medicines they need… where kids die from dehydration… (and) where more and more people search in the garbage for food."

"This is what we are afraid of, that this keeps on," Paparoni said.

Venezuela's armed forces have so far managed to block shipments of U.S. aid from coming across the border with Colombia.

Guaido has marked Saturday as the turning point, claiming the aid will enter Venezuela by "one way or another" with the help of more than 600,000 volunteers.

However, there is widespread concern the proposed delivery of humanitarian aid could turn violent.

"We have to be very careful. Our objective is not to fight … We are peaceful people. We don't have guns, we don't have anything," Angel Alvarado, an opposition lawmaker and a deputy in the National Assembly, told CNBC via telephone.

"(Maduro's government) don't care about anyone, they don't care about medicine or people. They only want to stay in power," Alvarado said.

Pressure is building on Maduro to step down. The socialist leader has overseen a long economic meltdown, marked by hyperinflation, mounting U.S. sanctions and collapsing oil production.

As a result, some three million Venezuelans have fled abroad over the past five years to escape worsening living conditions.

More than 50 countries, including the U.S. and most Latin American and European countries, have now recognized Guaido as Venezuela's legitimate leader.

It has thrust the oil-rich, but cash-poor, country into uncharted territory — whereby it now has an internationally-recognized government, with no control over state functions, running parallel to Maduro's regime.

"The death toll in Venezuela is not just counted every day, it is counted every hour. So, that's why we have set in motion the effective opening of a humanitarian channel right now," Alejandro Vivas, a secretary of the National Assembly's special committee to monitor Humanitarian Aid, told CNBC via telephone.

In addition to easing a devastating shortage of basic products in Venezuela, the opposition's proposed move to deliver aid is widely seen as an attempt to undermine Maduro's authority. Maduro has frequently blamed chronic shortages of food and medicine on U.S. sanctions.

Earlier in the week, Venezuela's military reaffirmed its support for the embattled president, saying they were on "alert" for possible border violations.

When asked whether he was worried about the planned delivery of food and medicine, Vivas replied: "We are more than afraid. (But) we are very alert, and we have prepared for several scenarios."

Vivas said Saturday's delivery plan could ultimately go one of two ways.

One scenario is the military "finally" decide to stand down and let the aid flow into Venezuela. This would mark a "total victory" for the opposition, he said.

The other scenario would see the armed forces, police, paramilitary groups and possibly even guerrilla forces prevent the aid from crossing the border. Vivas said this scenario was "very probable."

"If we encounter obstacles, like violence, it doesn't mean we will stop trying to deliver humanitarian aid… As many attempts as necessary will be taken."