By Steven Grattan
CUCUTA, Colombia (Reuters) – A U.S. military transport plane carrying humanitarian aid meant for Venezuelans landed in the Colombian border city of Cucuta on Saturday, where food and medicine is being stored amidst uncertainty over how and where aid will be distributed.
The shipment will be the second arrival of large-scale U.S. and international aid for Venezuelans, many of whom have scant access to food and medicine, since opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself interim president in defiance of socialist President Nicolas Maduro.
Guaido, who invoked constitutional provisions to declare himself the country’s leader last month, arguing Maduro’s 2018 re-election was a sham, has said aid will enter Venezuela on Feb. 23.
But it remains unclear whether Maduro, who has called the aid a U.S.-orchestrated show and denies any crisis, will allow the supplies to cross into Venezuela.
Speaking in Caracas to supporters who had volunteered to help with the aid effort, Guaido said he would announce further details on Monday about how he planned to get aid into the country from Colombia, Brazil and Curacao despite Maduro’s opposition.
“We will organize ourselves into brigades,” Guaido said, calling on the military to allow the aid through. “The message we have to get through to the armed forces is that they have one week to do the right thing. Will you be on the side of your family and your people, or of the usurper who keeps lying?”
Millions of Venezuelans will be traveling to the border to safeguard arriving aid, Lester Toledo, a Guaido representative, said at a press conference in Cucuta.
“We are seven days from this being a reality, we are going to have the accompaniment of people, of hundreds of thousands, of millions of Venezuelans that our president Juan Guaido has called upon, who we have asked to go to the border dressed in white as a sign of peace,” said Toledo.
A U.S. official told Reuters the aid delivered on Saturday amounted to more than 200 tonnes, but a U.S. embassy representative said they had no measurements of the shipment. Toledo said three planes would eventually arrive.
Most Western countries and many of Venezuela’s neighbors have recognized Guaido as the legitimate head of state, while Maduro retains the backing of Russia and China and control of Venezuelan state institutions including the military.
The supplies, including hygiene kits and special products meant for children suffering malnutrition, are arriving from an air force base in Florida aboard C-17 military cargo planes, the U.S. embassy said in a statement.
Additional aid flights will take place over the coming days, the statement added, and medical supplies and pharmaceuticals meant for use in hospitals will arrive early next week.
The first aid shipment, which included basic foodstuffs and medical supplies, arrived Feb. 8 and is being stored in a Cucuta warehouse.
Two bridges outside Cucuta which mark the border between the two countries were open as normal on Saturday. A road bridge outside Tienditas, Venezuela, which has never been used, remains blocked on the Venezuelan side by shipping containers.
Medical patients were expected hold a protest in Tienditas calling for aid to be allowed in, while Venezuela government supporters nearby were planning a “hug-a-thon” in protest of “American interventionism”.
British billionaire Richard Branson is organizing a Feb. 22 concert to raise funds for more aid.
(Reporting by Steven Grattan in Cucuta and Fabian Cambero in Caracas, additional reporting by Nelson Bocanegra in Bogota; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb and Luc Cohen; Editing by James Dalgleish and Marguerita Choy)