CUCUTA: Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido joined thousands over the Colombian border on Friday for a charity concert to push for humanitarian aid deliveries in defiance of a blockade by President Nicolas Maduro — as tensions over access to food turned deadly elsewhere.
Humanitarian aid has become a key focus of the power struggle between Maduro and Guaido, who has been recognised as interim leader by more than 50 countries.
The tense standoff over aid resulted in two deaths even before the concert — and a rival one in support of Maduro — after a group of indigenous people tried to prevent Venezuelan troops from sealing unofficial pathways across the Brazilian border.
“An indigenous woman and her husband were killed and at least 15 other members of the Pemon indigenous community were injured,” said a local human rights group, Kape Kape.
The clash occurred in southeastern Bolivar state close to the border with Brazil, which Maduro ordered closed on Thursday.
Guaido, who defied a government ban on leaving the country to attend the aid concert in Colombia, called on the military to arrest those responsible for the killings, “or you will be responsible.”
“It wasn’t a clash, it was an attack,” said Salomon Perez, who accompanied a brother and two nieces suffering from gunshot wounds by ambulance to a hospital in Brazil.
“People were in their community, calm. The soldiers came and started shooting at the indigenous people,” he said from Roraima state in northern Brazil.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres sternly warned Venezuelan authorities “not to use lethal force against demonstrators,” a statement said.
Guaido turned up unexpectedly in Cucucta on the Colombian side of the border to attend the “Venezuela Aid Live” concert organized by British entrepreneur Richard Branson in support of the opposition leader’s humanitarian aid relief plan.
He has set a Saturday deadline for the entry of humanitarian aid, saying as many as 300,000 Venezuelans are in dire need of food and medicines after years of shortages and malnutrition.
Some 2.7 million people have fled Venezuela since 2015 amid a devastating political and economic crisis, according to UN figures released Friday.
The UN said people were fleeing the crisis at a rate of 5,000 a day.
Maduro, who retains the support of allies China and Russia and crucially, the powerful military, has blocked the entry of aid and accused the United States of plotting a military intervention.
US special representative Elliott Abrams kept up the foreign pressure on Maduro on Friday, joining a Cucuta-bound plane carrying medical supplies and food.
“The humanitarian and the social-economic situation in Venezuela is very bad, there’s a terrible need for food, for supplies, and the international community is responding,” Abrams said.
Moscow has blasted Washington for using aid as a “convenient pretext for conducting military action.”
Chants of ‘freedom’
Hundreds chanted “freedom” and “the government is going to fall” while they waited for the concert to begin under a hot sun on the edge of the Colombian city of Cucuta, the barricaded border crossing visible nearby.
“We must break the impasse, end the humanitarian crisis,” billionaire Branson told the crowd shortly before veteran Venezuelan crooner Jose Luis Rodriguez began his set.
Branson said he hopes to raise $100 million for humanitarian aid over the next 60 days via internet donations, though meanwhile aid is being stockpiled in Colombia, Brazil and the Caribbean island of Curacao because of Maduro’s ban.
The concert was being broadcast live on the internet, including on YouTube, with regular tickers showing where people could donate.
The line-up included Latin American giants Carlos Vives and Juanes of Colombia, Juan Luis Guerra of the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico’s Luis Fonsi.
Colombian President Ivan Duque, Chile’s Sebastian Pinera and Mario Abdo of Paraguay were due to participate at the closing ceremony on Friday evening.
“The concert is an immense help because this type of initiative was necessary to open our eyes and pressure the Venezuelan government,” said Wendy Villamizar, a 32-year-old Venezuelan woman wearing a cap with her country’s yellow, blue and red tricolor.
Maduro’s rival concert, decidedly smaller and featuring Venezuelan and Cuban artists, began hours later just hundreds of metres away on the Venezuelan side of the border in Urena.
Performers took to the stage against a giant backdrop emblazoned with the words “#Trump Hands off Venezuela,” with around 2,500 people in attendance.
“We don’t want to be interfered with, we don’t want to be invaded,” said Johana Suarez.
Maduro, who was not seen at the concert, said the event would last Sunday.