Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro Closes Country's Brazilian Border

Feb 21, 2019
Originally published on February 21, 2019 5:35 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We begin this hour in Venezuela, where the opposition and the government are heading towards what could be a violent showdown on Saturday over U.S. humanitarian aid.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Thousands of volunteers have gathered at Venezuela's border with Colombia to help ferry tons of food and medicine into their country. The president has increased border security to block the aid, claiming it is a pretext for a U.S. invasion.

CORNISH: Opposition politicians left the capital today to travel to the border by caravan, but security forces blocked the highway with shipping containers, preventing their movement. NPR's Eyder Peralta was with the convoy. He joins us now. And Eyder, this sounds, frankly, like a dramatic showdown on this highway. Can you tell us what happened?

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: It was. It was super dramatic. The convoy left in the morning from Caracas with a few dozen members of the National Assembly. And as one of them told me, this is a highly choreographed confrontation, and they really believed - they really thought that the government would let them travel freely.

But a little more than an hour into their trip, this huge military vehicle blocked the tunnel they were trying to get through. There was a tussle in negotiations, and eventually the buses sort of surprised everybody, and they reversed and used the opposite side of the tunnel. They were going against traffic. But then the soldiers blocked them again, and they blocked traffic completely. And this is perhaps the most important highway in Venezuela. Traffic built up. People who got caught in this turned on the military.

I spoke to one man who only gave me his name as Jose (ph) because he fears retribution from the government. And he was angry. He had little kids who were really hot inside the car. Let's listen.

JOSE: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: He says he wasn't part of the caravan, but this shows the government's lack of respect that they would trap him, jail his family in this way, as he puts it. And eventually things did get even more heated, and the military shot tear gas into the crowd. Right now there are still thousands of vehicles stranded on the highway.

CORNISH: Can the convoy continue, then, or is - are they giving up the effort to get to the border?

PERALTA: It's unclear. Some lawmakers left days earlier, and they are there now. We turned around with one of the buses, and they're trying to take a whole other route to the border. The opposition has threatened to paralyze the country if this continues. But I think today we got a peek at the opposition plan, and that's to put the military in the position to make a tough choice. Stick with President Maduro, or reject him.

It's worth noting that Maduro has remained firm, saying that this aid at the border will not come in. He views it as a foreign invasion, and he has asked his military to act accordingly. In fact, today he closed the border with Brazil, and he threatened to close all the borders if he has to. And in speech after speech, he has promised that the military will respond with all its might.

CORNISH: Opposition leader Juan Guaido made Saturday the deadline for moving aid into Venezuela. Where is he at this point?

PERALTA: We have conflicting information. Some outlets are reporting that he's already at the border, others that he left separately from the lawmaker convoy and that he's on his way. I have personally not laid eyes on him today.

CORNISH: We've also been hearing about dueling aid concerts that are happening on the Venezuelan-Colombian border. What more have you learned?

PERALTA: It'll be a prelude of the kind of confrontation we might see. On the Colombian side, you have a huge number of artists, and you'll have a lot of opposition people there. And on the - the Venezuelan government is planning its own concert, and they are bussing lots of people out there. So it means you'll have a concentration of opposition supporters in Colombia and a concentration of pro-government supporters in Venezuela. And it sets the stage for yet more confrontation and maybe things to come.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Eyder Peralta in Maracay, Venezuela. Thanks so much.

PERALTA: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.