Deadly Violence Erupts on Brazil Border in Venezuela Aid Showdown
CARACAS, Venezuela — The political showdown convulsing Venezuela escalated into deadly violence at the border with Brazil on Friday, as security forces fired on a group of indigenous Venezuelans protesting the government’s determination to block aid deliveries from outside the country.
Witnesses and local officials reported the confrontation a day after President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, facing the biggest challenge of his political career, ordered all crossings at the Brazil border closed.
At least two civilians were killed and more than a dozen wounded in the confrontation with security forces in the Gran Sabana area, along Venezuela’s southeast border with Brazil, according to Américo de Grazia, an opposition lawmaker from the state of Bolívar. The Gran Sabana area is inhabited by the Pemón, an indigenous community.
The Venezuelans were protesting the government’s determination to halt all deliveries of emergency food and medical aid into the country, which is suffering increasingly severe shortages. The opposition has vowed to deliver tons of donated humanitarian aid into Venezuela on Saturday, even against Mr. Maduro’s orders.
Ricardo Delgado, a Pemón leader, said the tensions that led to the confrontation began in the predawn hours when a convoy from the Army and the National Guard attempted to reach a checkpoint on the border to help protect it. A group of indigenous protesters blocked their passage, because they want the aid to come in.
Mr. Delgado said he told convoy officers that they could not pass, and they left. But hours later, he said, the convoy returned, this time shooting at the indigenous group blocking the streets.
“I was sleeping and the shooting woke me up,” he said.
In videos posted on Friday from Santa Elena de Uairén, a border crossing town in the Gran Sabana region, dozens of military police holding shields could be seen blocking the roadway. A small crowd of protesters gathered, singing Venezuela’s national anthem and chanting, “They are killing us with hunger.”
The political opposition, led by Juan Guaidó, the head of the National Assembly who declared himself president last month, has vowed to forcibly bring in aid this weekend. He has the backing of foreign allies, led by the United States.
Mr. Maduro has said Venezuela is not a country of “beggars” and does not need the aid, and has called Mr. Guaidó a stooge of the Trump administration.
But once-prosperous Venezuela is reeling from its worst economic crisis ever, with deep-seated hunger, shortages and hyperinflation that Mr. Maduro’s opponents have blamed on corruption and mismanagement. More than three million Venezuelans have fled in recent years.
The biggest potential flash point is the bridge at Cúcuta, Colombia, a major border crossing where the Venezuelan authorities have blocked the lanes with tanker trucks and fencing. The United States and other foreign powers have been stockpiling goods on the Colombian side of the bridge.
International groups have warned that clashes at the border could have wide reaching effects. Jason Marczak, director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based policy research group, called it a “critical moment.”
“Venezuela’s borders are a powder keg with sky-high tensions, meaning that any errant move could unleash a wave of violence,” he said. “The key question is who will blink first.”
Commenting on the reports of fatal shooting at the Brazilian border, Mr. Marczak said: “Any violence against innocent civilians seeking aid should be met by the full force of international law.”