Venezuelan volunteers begin preparing for entry of US aid

Trucks loaded with humanitarian aid for Venezuela drive toward the Tienditas Bridge in Cucuta, Colombia, on the border with Tachira, Venezuela, on sunday. Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido on Saturday called for nationwide protests next week to support volunteers planning to travel to the border with Colombia to bring in US humanitarian aid, the latest flashpoint in the country's political crisis. — AFP

CARACAS — Thousands of volunteers in Venezuela began mobilizing on Sunday to bring American aid into their crisis-hit country despite a blockade by President Nicolas Maduro who claims the assistance could be cover for a US invasion.

Once-wealthy Venezuela is gripped by a power struggle between socialist leader Maduro and Juan Guaido, the head of the National Assembly who proclaimed himself interim president last month and now has the backing of more than 50 countries.

But even as the political battle pitting Guaido against Maduro continued to deepen, Caracas confirmed talks had taken place with an envoy for US President Donald Trump’s administration.

The oil-rich country’s economic meltdown under Maduro has left millions in poverty facing shortages of medicine and food, with hyperinflation making purchases impossible.

US aid that has been piling up in the Colombian border town of Cucuta has become the frontline of the confrontation between Guaido and Maduro.

“Venezuela is preparing for the humanitarian avalanche,” Guaido told about 4,000 supporters clad in white T-shirts and green scarves who gathered Saturday to sign up as volunteers.

The throng included doctors, nurses and students.

Six hundred thousand people have registered to help bring aid in through border points, Guaido told the Caracas rally, asking the volunteers to meet in town councils on Sunday to get instructions about the process.

Without revealing details that could jeopardize the operation, Guaido said volunteer brigades will travel in a bus caravan to entry points for the aid which he wants to come in next Saturday.

Coromoto Crespo, 58, told AFP he volunteered because of the urgent need for supplies.

“To find medicines requires a miracle. I need tablets for high blood pressure, and what I find, I can’t pay for,” Crespo said.

“One of my relatives died because of a lack of antibiotics.”

Guaido has targeted Feb. 23 for entry of the aid, more of which arrived for the stockpile on Saturday. Three US military cargo planes delivered several dozen more tons of food assistance to Cucuta.

Another US aircraft is due in the Caribbean island of Curacao from Miami on Tuesday, and a collection center for Brazilian aid will open Monday on the border, Guaido’s team said.

The US shipment Saturday was accompanied by a delegation led by Mark Green, head of the US Agency for International Development.

US assistance has been blocked by containers which Maduro loyalists placed on a border bridge to prevent access.

On another front, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza confirmed having held two meetings with special US envoy Elliott Abrams. Arreaza, who traveled to New York on February 13, said he held the talks with Abrams at the request of the State Department. He declined to comment on the substance of their discussions.

Guaido repeated his call on Venezuela’s military — whose support for Maduro has been crucial — to let the aid pass.

“You have, in your hands, the possibility of fighting alongside the people who are suffering the same shortages you are,” Guaido said in a tweet addressed to soldiers. — AFP