Venezuela Security Forces Fire on Protesters Near Brazil Border
CARACAS, Venezuela — The political showdown convulsing Venezuela escalated into deadly violence near the border with Brazil on Friday, as security forces fired on a group of indigenous Venezuelans protesting the government’s vow 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.
Mr. de Grazia and another opposition lawmaker, Olivia Lozano, said that the head of the Bolívar state’s National Guard force, Gen. José Miguel Montoya Ramirez, along with a handful of his deputies, were seized by indigenous leaders after the confrontation.
The lawmakers said in interviews that it was unclear how long the indigenous leaders intended to detain the general and his deputies.
There was no confirmation of the detentions from Venezuela’s military authorities. But if confirmed, they would constitute a major complication in what already is a tense situation.
Ms. Lozano said indigenous members and security forces clashed in several areas in the state as civilians sought to impede the troops from erecting road checkpoints and blockades. The troops responded with live ammunition and volleys of tear gas, said Ms. Lozano, who was monitoring the situation from Bolivar, which she represents. “We’re in an epic battle,” she said.
“The indigenous people have rocks, sticks, arrows,” Ms. Lozano said. “It’s all they have.”
The Venezuelans were protesting the government’s decision to halt all unauthorized imports of emergency food and medical aid into Venezuela, which is suffering increasingly severe shortages. The opposition has vowed to deliver tons of donated humanitarian aid 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.
Attempting to portray his government as benevolent and generous, Mr. Maduro posted a video on his Twitter account Friday with scenes of ample medical supplies and earnest health care workers intently listening to his instructions.
“We are making every effort to make the national public health system not stop and rise to the highest level in the world,” Mr. Maduro wrote.
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.
The run-up to a potential confrontation on the bridge, on Saturday, has been punctuated with theatrics. Richard Branson, the billionaire entrepreneur, helped organize a concert held on Friday in Cúcuta, called Venezuela Aid Live, aimed at helping raise $100 million to “bring global attention to this unacceptable and preventable crisis.”
Mr. Maduro’s government has plans to stage rival concerts over the weekend on the Venezuelan side of a different border 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.”
Venezuelan opposition leaders and their allies in Brazil were scrambling on Friday to find trucks and drivers to transport 500 kits of food and medicine that they hope to get across the border on Saturday.
María Teresa Belandria, an opposition leader who serves as Mr. Guaidó’s envoy to Brazil, said in an interview that some of the drivers that they hoped to enlist for the plan had been held back by the armed forces in Venezuela. Others, who are already in Brazil, have been threatened by allies of Mr. Maduro with arrest, she said.
“It’s been very hard to line up the trucks,” said Ms. Belandria. “We’re coming up with a contingency plan.”
Ms. Belandria said she still planned to lead a convoy of trucks carrying aid that would leave early Saturday from the Brazilian city of Boa Vista, in northern Brazil, to Pacaraima, a border town roughly 130 miles north.
Brazilian police officials planned to escort the convoy until the border, where truck drivers would presumably attempt to cross. Ms. Belandria said that Venezuelan military vehicles had been positioned across the road to block the passage of vehicles and that security forces are forming a human shield.
“It is a very tense situation,” she said.
If the trucks managed to get across, the opposition planned to offload the cargo on the Venezuelan side so aid packages can reach nearby communities.
The amount of aid on hand would support the basic needs of about 2,000 people for a couple of months, Ms. Belandria said.
While that might seem small, even successfully transporting a token amount across the border is seen by opposition activists as a powerful symbol that could lead to a more robust aid effort by land, sea and air.
“If we manage to get aid through it will mean the armed forces have agreed to put themselves on the side of the Constitution,” Ms. Belandria said.