By Humberto Márquez
CARACAS, Venezuela, Wednesday February 27, 2019 (IPS) – The violent repression that prevented food and medical aid from crossing into Venezuela, which left at least four people dead and 58 with gunshot wounds, has distanced solutions to what is today Latin America’s biggest political crisis, although 10 countries in the hemisphere are stepping up the pressure while at the same time ruling out the use of force.
But for the United States, “all options are on the table,” including the use of military force, according to President Donald Trump, and as his Vice President Mike Pence reminded the 10 governments of the Lima Group that met on Feb. 25 in Bogotá to discuss the situation in Venezuela.
Venezuela’s neighbours “don’t want war but continue to struggle for a political solution that would involve the departure from power of President Nicolás Maduro. By repressing the entry of humanitarian aid trucks, we have an excuse to increase political, economic and diplomatic pressure on the regime,” said Carlos Romero, a postgraduate professor of political science at two public universities in Caracas.
The international aid accumulated in border areas of Colombia, Brazil and the neighbouring Dutch island of Curacao consisted of a few hundred tons of medical supplies, some emergency medicines and food supplements that opposition Juan Guaidó ordered across the border on February 23.
Venezuela, with a population of 32 million people, more than three million of whom have left the country in the last five years, according to United Nations sources, is in the grip of an economic and social crisis marked by hyperinflation measured in millions of percent annually, as well as the collapse of its public health system and of other essential public services.
Figures from a study by the three main universities in Caracas indicate – in the absence of official figures over the past three years – that poverty affects 80 per cent of the population, and GDP has plunged 56 per cent in the last five years.
The Maduro administration militarised and closed the borders, arguing that the aid was a pretext for foreign military intervention supported by the opposition led by Guaidó, the president of the parliament, who declared himself “acting president” on January 23.
Two trucks that made it partly across one of the bridges on the border with Colombia, some 860 kilometres from Caracas, caught fire as Venezuelan security forces repelled young men advancing next to the vehicles, while in the neighbouring cities of Ureña and San Antonio members of the security forces and armed civilians used gunfire to disperse opposition marches aimed at receiving the aid.
In the extreme southeast of the country, where the Pemón indigenous people live, hundreds of native people have been trying since February 22 to keep out military personnel attempting to prevent the entrance of trucks carrying aid from Brazil.
Alfredo Romero, director of the human rights group Foro Penal, said the military shot their way through, according to indigenous leaders, leaving four dead and 25 with bullet wounds.
Indigenous groups seized and held several of the commanding officers for more than 24 hours, but then “some 70 vehicles, including buses full of members of the security forces, secured their release on their way to Santa Elena de Uairén,” a local resident of that city near the border with Brazil, 1,260 km from Caracas, told IPS.
Indigenous leaders are hiding in the countryside and in Santa Elena there is a de facto curfew, according to local residents who provided IPS with harsh photos and videos showing what happened there, while the opposition leadership and the media were focusing on the events on the border with Colombia.
Opposition leaders denounced the murders of at least 15 people in the area and the Foro Penal recorded nine cases of missing persons since February 23.
In Ureña and San Antonio, in southwest Venezuela on the border with Colombia, more than 20 people were wounded by bullets fired by members of the security forces or armed civilians wearing ski masks, according to reports from journalists in the area. Several opposition demonstrations in support of the entry of international aid were also cracked down on heavily in the country’s hinterland.
Meanwhile, at least 326 members of Venezuela’s military and police, including several mid-level officers, have deserted since February 23, fleeing mainly to Colombia.
The Lima Group – ad-hoc, this time made up of Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela-Guaidó- and the United States urged the military to stop supporting Maduro and to recognise and obey Guaidó as their commander.
The Lima Group stated that “the transition to democracy must be conducted by Venezuelans themselves peacefully and within the framework of the Constitution and international law, supported by political and diplomatic means, without the use of force.”
That renunciation for now of the use of force “runs counter to radical people in the Venezuelan opposition who are desperate because they have not found a quick solution,” Romero said.
The call for the use of force “has gained ground, because of the way the government has dug in its heels and refused to consider any alternative path that would involve giving up power, in a kind of existential struggle,” Luis Salamanca, also a postgraduate professor of political science at the Central University, told IPS.
He quoted Maduro’s Vice President Delcy Rodriguez, who said, hours after the violent events at the borders, that the government’s determination “is a small part of what we are willing to do.”
Washington increased the financial and asset blockade against the Venezuelan State, as well as measures on visas and assets of its authorities, while the Lima Group decided to increase international denunciations and tighten the diplomatic and political noose around Maduro.
Romero warned, however, that in the acceleration of the crisis so far in 2019 “no element of moderation has worked: the compromise initiative set forth by Mexico and Uruguay, the European Union contact group and some countries of the Americas died at birth, as did Pope Francis’s insinuation that he would mediate if requested by the parties.”
While the government digs in its heels, the Venezuelan opposition “has to imagine and develop actions that keep people’s hope alive, to fight the discouragement that set in after the goal of bringing trucks in with aid was not achieved,” Félix Seijas, director of the pollster Delphos, told IPS.
The experts who spoke to IPS agreed that the opposition led by Guaidó made a mistake in making the entrance of aid on February 23 a decisive battle, arguing instead that the call for the re-establishment of democracy is a gradual process with many steps.
Salamanca stressed that “the government seems firm, but with each passing hour new pieces are moved, and there is an underground current that is crumbling the bases on which it is sustained. The desertion of the members of the military is a very striking sign in this regard.”
But for now, the leadership of Venezuela’s armed forces remains completely loyal to Maduro.
Meanwhile, on the international stage, the United States, the country with the greatest capacity to exert pressure in the hemisphere, requested a new meeting on Venezuela at the United Nations Security Council, this time with the backing of the Lima Group, which described the crisis in the oil-producing country as “an unprecedented threat to security, peace, freedom and prosperity throughout the region.”