Desperate Venezuelans beg Maduro to accept aid coming across the border

Shelves lie empty in the few pharmacies left open in the Venezuelan border town of Ureña. There are no medicines, just a few packets of cotton wool and boxes of plasters.

A few miles away, on the eerily quiet bridge to Colombia, a fuel tanker and shipping containers placed by the military sit across the empty lanes ready to block millions of dollars of US aid. 

In a sign of increasing desperation, residents in Ureña say they are ready to turn on the security forces if the aid is not allowed in. “We are absolutely ready to resist if the government does not allow the aid to enter,” Unay Bayona, a chef and youth worker, told The Telegraph as the standoff continued to escalate on Thursday night.

Sixty tonnes of food and medicine began arriving from the US on Thursday and was placed within viewing distance of Venezuela in a high stakes game designed to put pressure on President Nicolas Maduro – and stoke unrest among the local population.

Protests that have shaken the country since last month have failed so far to topple the socialist regime blamed for widespread shortages of medicines and basic food.

“The people will not hesitate to take to the streets and even take up arms if we have to," Mr Bayona said, shrugging off the threat from the Venezuelan military.

“There is no doubt they will deploy the army, but they are on our side. They won’t fire on their own people,” he said, underlying the stark choice security forces are likely to face if ordered to block the convoy.

The aid was called in by Juan Guaido, the opposition leader and self-appointed interim president of Venezuela, who has been recognised by 40 states so far, in a challenge to Mr Maduro. 

Ureña is best known for its jeans industry, although with hyperinflation jeans are now way too expensive for most Venezuelans. Many of the factories have become empty shells, symbols of Venezuela’s economic decline.

Jorge Gonzalez, 63, used to work on one of the production lines. He said he has always supported the left, but feels betrayed by Mr Maduro.

“This government is full of lies and corruption,” he said. “Look what they’ve done to the economy. It´s the workers who suffer most, but we are ready to fight back.”

Amid the growing tension, there are increasing signs that even some of the most hardened pro-Maduro groups are beginning to turn on the regime. 

Kiki, in his 40s, who withholds his full name for fear of reprisals, belonged to a ‘colectivo’, an armed militia called on by the regime to suppress dissent and protests.

He left the group and moved to Ureña two years ago.

“I decided enough was enough when we went to the local hospital and robbed everyone. That’s when I realised this was not about defending the Revolution,” he said.

“These guys say they’re promoting socialism, but they’re only interested in violence and making money,” Kiki said. “They will definitely be ready for any trouble that comes.”

Venezuelans from all over the country arrive in Ureña every day to cross into Colombia and do their shopping where products are affordable. The IMF has predicted that inflation in Venezuela will hit 10 million per cent in 2019.

Mr Guaido’s gamble looks to be a lose-lose situation for Mr Maduro. If he lets the aid in, he tactitly acknowledges Mr Guaido’s authority. If he doesn’t, he risks further inflaming unrest across the country. 

But a successful blockade will prove the one thing Mr Maduro is relying on at this point – that the military still remain loyal. 

Profile | Juan Guaidó

In Caracas, from where hundreds of thousands have emigrated for good, queues formed outside pharmacies on Thursday as residents waited under the baking sun for dwindling supplies of medicines.

“This is a criminal act, said Javier Rondon, referring to the regime blocking aid, as he waited for an antibiotic to treat his five year-old daughter’s lung infection. "This is absurd that the armed forces instead of putting themselves on the side of the people do this."

“We are eating up the little bit of savings we’ve saved in years and years of work, and our lives are being torn apart by a group whose only interest is to remain in power,” said Jose Pereira, 56, as he waited to buy medication to treat his 95 year-old mother’s Alzheimers.  “The only legitimate president of Venezuela is Juan Guaido."

“This is just laughable, to think that there isn’t a humanitarian crisis here, look at this,” said Jose Betancourt, a 70 year-old retired bus driver queuing for an anti-inflammatory medication for himself.  “All we need now are for the armed forces to realise that we can’t continue like this.”  

The state of Venezuela

Back in Ureña’s shops and supermarkets, there is produce, but it is simply too expensive for most people to buy. A carton of 30 eggs costs 14,000 bolivars (£4.20) and a kilo of cheese 20,000. The monthly minimum wage is only 18,000 bolivars. 

The border has been closed intermittently in the last year as millions of Venezuelans have fled amid the chaos. A closure in 2016 to tackle illegal trafficking led to the formation of the Women in White, a campaign group from Ureña who forced the reopening.

“This is aid we desperately need,” says Lucero Varela, an activist from the movement. “People are dying here.

“Were ready to defend the town again and remove whatever they have on that bridge."

In a video posted on Twitter, the mayor of Ureña, Jhon Carillo, accompanied by a  local army commander, said: “We are ready to preserve the peace.”

For some in Ureña, this was a blatant warning.

“The only way they intend to maintain peace is by shooting us,” said Mr Gonzalez.

Additional reporting by Cody Weddle

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