Thousands Gather Along The Border In Standoff Between Colombia And Venezuela

Feb 22, 2019
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Opponents of Venezuela's authoritarian president, Nicolas Maduro, gathered today just across the border in Colombia for a massive concert.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: Hey.

(CHEERING)

SHAPIRO: Venezuela's opposition leader, Juan Guaido, made a surprise appearance there. And on the other side of that border in Venezuela, Maduro's supporters held a rival concert. Correspondent John Otis was at the event on the Colombian side earlier today, and he joins us now. Hi, John.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Hey. How's it going?

SHAPIRO: Good. So this was a surprise appearance by Juan Guaido. Tell us about his arrival.

OTIS: Yeah, he kind of arrived in the middle of a set by Juanes, a big Colombian star. But right now Juan Guaido is kind of the major attraction because, you know, he's the self-proclaimed interim leader of Venezuela, and he's the guy who's really trying to force President Nicolas Maduro from power in Venezuela. And so, you know, he's - it's a really big deal that he showed up here. There's actually an arrest warrant against him that the Maduro government has put against Guaido, so he's taking a big risk by crossing the border and coming to this concert.

SHAPIRO: OK, so you have two people claiming the presidency of Venezuela, two concerts on either side of the border. Tell us about the concert you attended in Colombia and who attended.

OTIS: Yeah, it's quite big. They're saying that more than 300,000 people showed up for the concert. It's got a lot of major Latin American bands and music stars. It was organized by British billionaire Richard Branson with the idea of raising a hundred million dollars for food and medicine for Venezuela. And a lot of the Venezuelans - there's a lot of Venezuelans among the crowd, and many of them are just very, very grateful that the world is starting to really pay attention to the crisis in Venezuela.

SHAPIRO: I know this concert was held to raise money for aid to Venezuela. There already is a lot of aid sitting there at the border, provided by the U.S., and Maduro's government won't let it in. So what's the plan to get it across the border?

OTIS: Well, the opposition is recruiting a big army of volunteers as well as many of the concertgoers today. And tomorrow, starting tomorrow morning, their idea is to try to move this aid across the border into Venezuela. It's unclear whether they're going to try to do that in vehicles or just carrying bags of, you know, food and medicine. But the problem is, President Maduro on the Venezuelan side has vowed to block the border. Venezuelan soldiers are under orders to do that.

The opposition - what they're trying to do is they're trying to provoke the Venezuelan military into backing down and defying Maduro's orders and letting the aid in, and that would be a big embarrassment for Maduro. And they're hoping that that may be kind of one of the first steps towards a regime change in Venezuela.

SHAPIRO: But John, there are lots of conflicts around the world where humanitarian aid is allowed in despite political disagreements. Why is Maduro's government so insistent that the aid not cross the border?

OTIS: Well, Maduro claims that there is no humanitarian crisis inside his country despite all the evidence to the contrary. I mean, there's - you know, there's all kinds of food and medicine shortages there. Three-point-four million Venezuelans - that's about 10 percent of the whole population - has fled the country within the past several years. So you know, there really is a crisis there.

However, Maduro says that allowing in humanitarian aid is just sort of a pretext for an invasion by foreign powers, such as the U.S. In other words, you open the door to aid trucks, and the next thing you know, you're going to have tanks rolling into Caracas, and that's something the international community denies is going to happen.

SHAPIRO: Just really briefly, John, I know that some people trying to bring aid into the country were shot earlier today in a different section of the border. Is there a fear that that could happen where you are?

OTIS: Yes, that's exactly correct. There's a lot of concern about what's going to happen tomorrow. It's unclear whether - you know, what's going to happen with the Venezuelan military. There, you know, could be tear gas. There could be live bullets. Or maybe they'll allow the aid into the country tomorrow. It's just really unclear right now, so people are quite on edge despite the good vibrations at today's concert.

SHAPIRO: That's John Otis in Cucuta, Colombia, near the Venezuelan border. Thank you.

OTIS: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.