U.S. Military Starts Flying Aid for Venezuela to Colombia

U.S. Military Starts Flying Aid for Venezuela to Colombia

The United States military began flying humanitarian aid to a Colombian city close to the Venezuelan border on Saturday in an effort to turbocharge a relief plan that has become a cornerstone of the quest to oust President Nicolás Maduro.

Military personnel used C-17 cargo planes to transport thousands of nutritional supplements and hygiene kits from a base near Miami to Cúcuta, the main staging ground for hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid that Venezuelan opposition leaders and their international backers hope to get across the border.

Mr. Maduro, who has accused the United States of weaponizing aid, has blocked the main roads that connect the two nations near Cúcuta and put his armed forces on high alert to counter what he called “conspiracies and provocations.”

As the standoff over Venezuela’s future has dragged on for weeks, Mr. Maduro and his foes are vying for the support of the commanders of the armed forces, which so far have remained loyal to the country’s authoritarian leader.

A chief reason is the enormous amount of money the country’s more than 2,000 generals stand to lose in a post-Maduro era, Adm. Craig S. Faller, the head of the United States Southern Command, said in an interview.

The standoff over Venezuela’s future began roughly a month ago when the new leader of the opposition, Juan Guaidó, announced a road map to remove Mr. Maduro from power. It has raised the specter of a military confrontation that could directly draw the United States into its first conflict in the region in decades.

The Trump administration has not ruled out the use of military force in Venezuela as it has staunchly backed Mr. Guaidó’s claim that the Constitution gives him the right to serve as interim leader until a new vote can be held.

Mr. Maduro, meanwhile, has spent much of his time during the past few weeks being photographed and filmed surrounded by his troops, aiming to convey that he is backed by a loyal, well-trained and lethal force.

As the impasse drags on, officials at Southcom, the Miami-based United States regional command that handles operations in Latin America, has been drawing up plans for a series of potential missions in Venezuela, U.S.> officials say.

They include potentially evacuating American diplomats in Caracas, bolstering security at the embassy and turbocharging the plan to deliver humanitarian aid across the country, which Mr. Maduro has so far impeded.

The State Department last month ordered most of its employees in Venezuela and their relatives to return home. It kept a small team in place that may have to be pulled out quickly if the security situation suddenly deteriorates.

“We are prepared to protect U.S. lives and protect the diplomatic facility in Venezuela,” Admiral Faller said in a series of interviews during a trip to Brazil in which he discussed the crisis with senior military officials. “There are a range of options that are on the table.”

Once it became clear to opposition leaders that the military was siding with Mr. Maduro after Mr. Guaidó proclaimed himself the country’s rightful leader on Jan. 23, the opposition mounted a plan to get tens of millions of dollars worth of food and medicine into the country.

But Mr. Maduro and his allies barricaded the road along a major border crossing with Colombia to prevent trucks from entering their country.

Freddy Bernal, a Maduro loyalist who was dispatched to the border recently, acknowledged that the Venezuelan military would be outmatched if the United States were to task its military with delivering aid. But he warned that such a decision had the potential to ignite an armed conflict that would destabilize the region for years.

“Of course they can invade us, they are used to killing millions in Iraq, Libya, Syria and elsewhere,” Mr. Bernal said. “They’ve spent seven years helping Syria already, and look how the country is.”

Mr. Bernal said the Venezuelan government realizes it would lose an armed conflict with the United States. “But are we ready to die defending the fatherland? Yes, we are ready to do it.”

The Trump administration has hinted at the possibility of using force to tip the scales in favor of the opposition. The national security adviser, John R. Bolton, was recently photographed with a notepad in which he had scribbled “5,000 troops to Colombia.” When asked about the phrase, the White House said “all options are on the table.”

Admiral Faller said it would be premature to discuss whether American troops could be tasked with delivering aid on Venezuelan soil, a mission that would entail significant risks in a nation awash in weapons.

But he said the American military has become experienced in getting aid to people under trying circumstances, citing recent natural disasters in Asia as an example.

Rebecca Chavez, who served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Western Hemisphere during the Obama administration, said it was “very likely” that the American military would be drawn into the crisis in Venezuela as the power struggle between Mr. Maduro and Mr. Guaidó escalates.

But, she argued, “any unilateral military intervention in Venezuela would be a huge mistake.” If the American military does end up delivering aid, or takes part in a peacekeeping mission, Ms. Chavez said, it should be done as part of a coalition.

The recent election of conservative leaders in key Latin American nations, including Brazil, Colombia and Chile, makes that prospect more plausible than in past years. But so far, officials in Colombia and Brazil have signaled deep reservations about military missions in Venezuela.

The prospect of an influx of humanitarian aid has raised hopes among Venezuelans who have struggled to put food on the table.

Matilde Sandoval, a 57-year-old merchant from Ureña near the Colombian border, attended a recent rally pressing for the delivery of aid. She held a sign that said “Welcome to my country” in English.

Ms. Sandoval said she dreamed of watching American Marines pour into her country to break the impasse.

“We Venezuelans need help,” she said. We are fed up.”

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