Maduro’s soldiers have begun disobeying orders, US senator says

A volunteer sorts U.S. humanitarian aid packages at a warehouse near the Tienditas International Bridge in Cucuta, Colombia. (Bloomberg pic)

CARACAS: Venezuelan troops have begun disobeying orders from Nicolas Maduro’s top officers and are unlikely to heed calls to crack down on a humanitarian-aid caravan scheduled to enter the country this weekend, US Senator Marco Rubio said.

“Saturday’s a day when we’re going to find a lot about the Maduro regime,” Rubio, who’s been helping set US policy toward Venezuela, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.

“I have reason to believe that rank-and-file military are not going to violently suppress aid workers.”

Juan Guaido, the National Assembly leader battling Maduro as legitimate head of the country, has been pushing aggressively for soldiers and generals alike to recognise him as president, something the US and more than 30 other countries have done.

While only one general and two colonels – among thousands of top officers – have broken ranks in the past weeks, Rubio says Maduro’s grip is loosening.

“There’s already significant resistance among the troops,” he said, adding that high-ranking personnel have doubts about “whether the people under their command are going to do what they’re asking them to do.”

Following Guaido’s lead, thousands of volunteers have organised to escort relief caravans expected to enter Venezuela from Colombia on Feb 23, carrying food and medicine that’s been piling up on the border for days.

Maduro has ordered his security forces to barricade the entry points, contending the shipments are meant to humiliate and undermine him and serve as a pretext by President Donald Trump to invade his country.

In a speech in Miami earlier this week, Trump called on Venezuela’s troops to stop blocking the supplies.

His administration has moved swiftly to try to shore up Guaido’s government-in-waiting but is struggling to move promised aid into the country while Maduro controls the military.

“We seek a peaceful transition of power, but all options are open,” Trump warned.

Rubio travelled to the Colombia-Venezuela border on Feb 17 after a second US supply shipment arrived to help alleviate the growing crisis.

Traditional aid groups have shunned the effort as a political ploy, but Guaido is counting on the US-backed initiative to persuade his country’s military to recognise him and create an opening for desperately needed relief.

Florida, which Rubio has served as a US senator since 2011, is a swing state where the Latino vote includes Venezuelan expats and is a key bloc.

Virgin Atlantic founder Sir Richard Branson is planning a star-studded Live Aid-style concert Friday in the border town of Cucuta, Colombia, to raise US$100 million and add pressure on Venezuela’s authoritarian regime.

To offset Branson, Maduro’s administration said it also is planning an “immense” concert the same day on the Simon Bolivar bridge connecting the two countries.

In the meantime, there were few signs on Wednesday of the government’s planned counter concert or opposition protests along Venezuela’s western border.

Venezuelans travelled over pedestrian crossings in Tachira state to buy basics or emigrate, while dozens of guardsmen patrolled the Tienditas International Bridge, where the Aid Live event will be held.

Other guardsmen and national police were deployed across border cities manning checkpoints and reinforcing crossings.