The crisis in Venezuela devolved over the weekend, as embattled president Nicolás Maduro’s military blocked help and humanitarian aid from entering the country — occasionally with deadly force.
Starting Friday, violent clashes erupted at several points along Venezuela’s border with Colombia as armed government forces tried to block shipments of aid from entering the country. By the end of Saturday, at least four people had reportedly been killed in the area and along the country’s border with Brazil; hundreds more were injured. Maduro has insisted that the humanitarian supplies are unnecessary and spent the weekend celebrating his continued rule with his supporters — even as the United States and other international leaders ramped up calls for him to step down.
The conditions inside Venezuela, however, paint a dramatically different picture than Maduro’s salsa-dancing rally Saturday did. The country has been consumed by political turmoil and an economic free-fall that has pushed Venezuela beyond the brink of a humanitarian crisis. Vox’s Alex Ward has a run-down of just how dire the situation has become:
Inflation in the country now hovers above a million percent, and could reach 10 million percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. Food and medicine are too expensive for many to purchase. And since 2015, more than 3 million Venezuelans have left the country in search of better opportunities elsewhere, primarily in Colombia. (It’s expected that another 2 million will become refugees in 2019 alone.)
Despite the declining conditions, Maduro has vowed to block any humanitarian aid from crossing the border into Venezuela. He denies that a humanitarian crisis even exists in his country and he’s called the international shipments a potential “trojan horse” that would lead to military intervention.
The situation remained fraught and fast-moving throughout the weekend. If you haven’t been keeping up with what was happening, we’ve got you covered.
The Venezuelan government shuttered key border crossings to block deliveries of humanitarian aid supplied by the US and neighboring countries. Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader and self-declared interim president, crossed into Colombia to help shepherd the aid convoy back across the border — despite being under a travel ban.
That was just one friction point in the tense standoffs between armed Maduro loyalists and opposition protesters, which at times gave way to violence, with tear gas and rubber bullets being used to disperse the crowds. Here’s what else we know:
- Colombia’s foreign minister says 285 people were injured and 37 hospitalized on their side of the border.
- According to the Guardian, at least four people had been killed along Venezuela’s borders by Saturday evening.
- A Venezuelan Navy vessel threatened to open fire on a ship carrying humanitarian aid, Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said in a statement Saturday.
- Guaidó is asking that the international community keep “all options open” in efforts to oust Maduro. His tweets from late Saturday suggest he may want to take a more aggressive approach toward forcibly removing the dictator, though he was reportedly still in Colombia that night.
- Some of Venezuela’s military and security forces started abandoning their posts on Saturday after being tasked with denying aid to their fellow citizens. By some estimates, as many as 60 soldiers defected to the opposition amid the skirmishes at the border.
- So far, only two trucks delivering humanitarian aid were able to successfully cross the border between Brazil and Venezuela, The New York Times reports. Several more came close, but were ultimately blocked by government forces.
- Colombian President Ivan Duque on Sunday toured the damage along the two main border crossings where the skirmishes took place a day earlier. He is tightening security and has closed two international bridges for a 48-hour clean-up period. “Yesterday the dictatorship sealed its moral and diplomatic defeat before the eyes of the world,” Duque said, according to the AP.
Maduro, who initially came into power riding on the popularity of his mentor and predecessor Hugo Chávez, has been clinging to it even as his popularity has tanked. He won a widely disputed re-election last spring and has resisted growing calls from the international community to either step down or hold new presidential elections — instead, he’s made an empty gesture of promising to hold parliamentary elections early.
Throughout the weekend, Maduro remained defiant in his refusal to give up power. Surrounded by a crowd of thousands of loyal supporters in Caracas, he took the stage and began salsa dancing with his wife. The event was televised nationally.
Maduro dances on national TV as national guards fire tear gas and plastic pellets at crowds trying to move humanitarian aid into the country along the Colombian border pic.twitter.com/4u4zEHDixi
— Patricia Laya (@PattyLaya) February 23, 2019
Maduro also said he was severing all diplomatic ties with Colombia, which has been aligned with the US and played an active role in helping opposition leaders try to bring humanitarian aid into Venezuela. He ordered all diplomats to leave the country within 24 hours.
But Maduro’s position wasn’t completely assured, even in the capital. Top military brass, one of his key bastions of support, are defecting. On Saturday, Maj. Hugo Parra Martinez became the fifth military leader to abandon Maduro and throw their support behind the opposition.
The US, along with 50 some other countries, formally recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president. (The 35-year-old former engineer declared himself such under an obscure constitutional provision that would allow the head of the national assembly to take over leadership if the country’s without a legitimate head-of-state.)
The Trump administration has already issued harsh sanctions on Venezuela and publicly advocated for a peaceful transition of power. That pressure only mounted over the weekend as the deadly clashes continued:
- Vice President Mike Pence plans to meet Guaidó face-to-face for the first time on Monday. The two are scheduled to meet in Bogota, on the sidelines of the Lima Group meeting.
- US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday criticized Maduro’s “armed gangs,” and called on security forces to allow the humanitarian aid to reach the Venezuelan people. “Now is the time to act in support of democracy, and respond to the needs of the desperate Venezuelan people.” The following day, he told CNN that Maduro’s “days are numbered.”
- US National Security adviser John Bolton called Maduro’s forces “masked thugs,” and hinted that more sanctions may soon be on their way.
Masked thugs, civilians killed by live rounds, and the burning of trucks carrying badly-needed food and medicine. This has been Maduro’s response to peaceful efforts to help Venezuelans. Countries that still recognize Maduro should take note of what they are endorsing. pic.twitter.com/KlSebd2M5a
— John Bolton (@AmbJohnBolton) February 23, 2019
- 2020 hopefuls are calling for restraint from Maduro. Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) both tweeted on Saturday condemning the violence from the Venezuelan military and security forces. Harris said Saturday she doesn’t condone US military action in the region — yet. (Both Sanders and fellow 2020 hopeful Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) have previously said the same.) Sanders, who identifies as a democratic socialist, is catching criticism from Florida Democrats for not outright labeling Maduro a dictator.
- President Donald Trump, along with his administration, has said he wants to see a peaceful transition of power — but hasn’t taken military intervention off the table.