Venezuelan soldiers opened fire on indigenous people near the border with Brazil on Friday, killing two, as President Nicolas Maduro sought to block US-backed efforts to bring aid into his economically devastated nation.
The United States, which is among dozens of nations to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president, has been stockpiling aid in the Colombian frontier town of Cucuta to ship across the border this weekend.
With tensions running high after Guaido invoked the constitution to declare an interim presidency last month, Maduro has denied there is a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela despite widespread shortages of food and medicine and hyperinflation.
He says the opposition efforts are a US-backed “cheap show”.
The socialist president, who took power in 2013 and was re-elected in an election last year widely viewed as fraudulent, has declared Venezuela’s southern border with Brazil closed ahead of the opposition’s plan to bring in the aid on Saturday
Late on Friday the government shuttered the Tachira frontier that connects with Cucuta.
Some political analysts say the looming showdown is less about solving Venezuela’s needs and more about testing the military’s loyalty to Maduro by daring it to turn the aid away.
With inflation running at more than 2 million percent a year and currency controls restricting imports of basic goods, a growing share of the country’s roughly 30 million people is suffering from malnutrition.
Guaido showed up late on Friday at a fundraising concert in Cucuta backed by British billionaire Richard Branson that was estimated to have attracted nearly 200,000 people.
His appearance, arm-in-arm with Colombian President Ivan Duque, was an open challenge to Maduro given that the pro-government Supreme Court has banned him from international travel on grounds he is under investigation for allegedly helping foreign countries to interfere in internal matters.
Soldiers open fire
Friday’s violence broke out in the village of Kumarakapay in southern Venezuela after an indigenous community stopped a military convoy heading toward the border with Brazil that they believed was attempting to block aid, according to community leaders Richard Fernandez and Ricardo Delgado.
Soldiers later entered the village and opened fire, killing a couple and injuring several others, they said. A regional official confirmed that two people were killed.
“I stood up to them to back the humanitarian aid,” Fernandez told Reuters. “And they came charging at us. They shot innocent people who were in their homes, working.”
Seven of the 15 injured were rushed by ambulance to a hospital in the Brazilian frontier city of Boa Vista, a spokesman for the state governor’s office said.
Diosdado Cabello, one of the most prominent figures in Maduro’s Socialist Party, accused the civilians involved in the clash of being “violent groups” directed by the opposition.
Venezuelan security forces have executed dozens and detained hundreds of others since protests broke out in January against Maduro’s swearing-in, according to civil rights groups.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres met Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza in New York on Friday and “urged the Venezuelan authorities not to use lethal force against demonstrators,” spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
Asked about the deaths, Arreaza told reporters the armed forces would never take disproportionate action against its own people: “Our armed forces are known for their humanism.”
The US special envoy for Venezuela, who joined regional leaders and diplomats in Cucuta to show support for the opposition, called the killings “a crime and a disgrace”.
“What do we do if the government of Maduro, the former government of Maduro, does not fall tomorrow?” Elliott Abrams said after meeting the presidents of Paraguay and Chile and the secretary-general of the Organization of American States.
“We continue trying to bring humanitarian aid to the people of Venezuela.”
China, which along with Russia backs Maduro, warned that humanitarian aid should not be forced across the border because doing so could lead to violence.