Tensions are rising in Venezuela, as the army reportedly opened fire against a group of civilians on Friday (Feb. 22), killing two people and injuring several others.
The violent encounter happened in Kumarakapay, a small town close to the border with Brazil. Venezuelans are gathering there as they wait for humanitarian aid stationed on the other side.
The aid delivery has become a political flashpoint between Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro and Juan Guaidó, who’s spearheading the opposition’s most ambitious effort yet to overthrow the regime.
Guaidó, who declared himself interim president earlier this year, has been using the prospect of aid—loads of food and medicine provided by the US have been sitting at the border with Colombia for weeks—to court members of the military, which supports the government. Maduro, in turn, has responded by closing the border to block the resources, and organizing his own aid drive, with the help of Russia.
Friday’s violent outburst throws a dark shadow over two competing humanitarian concerts scheduled for today, and could mean more clashes on Saturday, when the opposition will try to get the supplies across the border.
Soon after the blockade was put into place by Maduro, Guaidó started a symbolic march towards the border to collect the aid. His promise of help has proved a politically potent tool, because of the food and medicine shortage that Venezuelans have endured for years.
Bloomberg reports that Venezuelan forces stopped the opposition leader close to the capital, as well as a separate group of legislators headed to the border.
The US backs Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela, along with most Latin American and European nations. Maduro is backed by Russia, China, Turkey, and Cuba.
Guaidó is using Maduro’s blockade to convince the military to switch allegiances. “Decide which side you’re on at this definitive time,” Guaidó wrote on Twitter hours ago. “To the army: Between today and tomorrow, you will determine how you want to be remembered. We know you are with the people, you’ve already made that clear to us. Tomorrow you will be able to demonstrate it.”
First though, both sides will hold competing concerts on opposites sides of the border. Maduro is hosting Hands Off Venezuela, the title being a direct message to the US and its allies in the region, Brazil and Colombia. The government is promising performances by 150 artists (link in Spanish.)
Just 300 meters (980 feet) away, on the Colombian side of the border, the opposition is holding Venezuela Aid Live. The event is being organized by British magnate Richard Branson, at the request of Guaidó, and aims to raise money and inspire the resistance against Maduro. The line up includes Latin American stars Juanes, Rudy Mancuso, and Luis Fonsi.
Tens of thousands of people are expected on both sides. The police is gathering on the Venezuelan border, and shipping containers are blocking crossing points. Venezuela Live Aid organizers are asking people to stay in Colombia overnight instead of returning to Venezuela to avoid any confrontations with police and possibly more violence.
The showdown between Maduro and Guaidó is being billed as a potential catalyst for something bigger. BBC’s Caracas correspondent Katy Watson says there is optimism in the air, “an energy that has not existed in the country for a long time.”