Bridges at center of battle over food aid on Venezuela-Colombia border
The three bridges over the Tachira River are at the center of the battle over food shipments being waged on the Colombia-Venezuela border.
On one side is Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro , who claimed victory on Saturday in his campaign to prevent food, medicine and other essentials from entering his country, where the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates 3.7 million people are suffering from hunger.
Facing off against the government is Venezuelan National Assembly speaker Juan Guaido, who proclaimed himself interim president on Jan. 23 and had declared Saturday the day that humanitarian aid would enter the country “one way or another.”
Around 50 countries, including Brazil, Colombia and the United States, recognize Guaido as the interim president of Venezuela, an oil-rich country that is facing severe shortages of basic goods and is racked by hyperinflation.
The fight over the aid shipment was waged on the Tienditas bridge, also known as the La Unidad (Unity) bridge, which links the Colombian city of Cucuta with the Venezuelan town of Ureña.
On the Colombian side, some 600 tons of humanitarian aid from several donors, including the United States, Puerto Rico and Chile, was moved to a staging area near the bridge so that trucks could transport the badly needed supplies into Venezuela.
A large crowd that included hundreds of reporters from around the world, members of the clergy, famous singers, such as Venezuela’s Nacho, and young people carrying white flowers for Venezuelan security forces personnel on the bridge, gathered near the staging area.
No one, however, crossed the bridge from the staging area, which became an operations center for the anti-Maduro forces in Cucuta.
Guaido, Colombian President Ivan Duque, Chilean President Sebastian Piñera, Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benitez and Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary-General Luis Almagro met at the staging area.
The leaders followed the effort to transport supplies into Venezuela from an immigration service office near the Tienditas border crossing.
Guaido met with Venezuelan soldiers who deserted during the course of the day and sought asylum in Colombia, with officials putting the number at 60.
A Colombian official periodically informed the leaders of the situation on the other side of the border after crossing the bridge and speaking with Venezuelan security forces personnel.
In the early morning hours, the five leaders had given the green light to the trucks, all of which had Venezuelan drivers and tags, to cross the border with their cargo of 20 tons of humanitarian aid.
Guaido urged the Venezuelan armed forces to let the supplies in, telling them that deserters would be granted amnesty by his government.
The eight trucks carrying supplies set off, sounding their horns, prompting the crowd to cheer.
The trucks did not attempt to cross into Venezuela via the Tienditas bridge, which was finished in 2016 but never opened to traffic.
Instead, four trucks headed to the Simon Bolivar bridge, which links Cucuta with San Antonio, Venezuela, while the other four drove toward the Francisco de Paula Santander bridge, which connects Colombia to Ureña, Venezuela.
Bolivarian National Guard members and police blocked the road, preventing the trucks, which were escorted by large crowds, from passing.
Of the four trucks heading to Ureña, three made it into Venezuela. Two of the trucks were torched and a third was emptied of its cargo to prevent it from being burned.
The fourth truck returned to Colombia.
Three of the four trucks that headed to San Antonio ended up returning to Colombia and officials expected the fourth vehicle to also return.
Nearly 300 people were injured in the clashes with Venezuelan security forces.
Six trucks were kept in Tienditas, with officials hoping they could be sent into Venezuela if the humanitarian operation was successful.
Things did not turn out that way and Colombian officials closed all the border crossings after the trucks returned so damage assessments could be conducted.
“The struggle continues,” Piñera said at the end of the day, while Guaido told the press that he would ask the international community to put “all the options” on the table to liberate Venezuela.
The Lima Group plans to meet on Monday in Bogota to discuss what the strategy should be going forward. Guaido will attend the meeting in the Colombian capital.