Venezuela’s crisis hits standstill over emergency foreign aid

Priest Richard Garcia hands out free lunches to Venezuelan migrants at the "Divina Providencia" migrant shelter in La Parada, near Cucuta, on the border with Venezuela, Colombia, Monday, Feb. 11, 2019. Millions of Venezuelans have migrated, and those left behind struggle to afford scarce supplies of food and medicine. The world watches now whether Nicolas Maduro’s government will let humanitarian aid from the United States cross its borders. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

CUCUTA, Colombia (AP) — Nearly three weeks after the Trump administration backed an all-out effort to force out President Nicolas Maduro, the embattled socialist leader is holding strong and defying predictions of an imminent demise.

Dozens of nations have recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido’s claim to the presidency and the U.S. has tightened sanctions aimed at cutting off billions of dollars in oil revenue. But anti-Maduro street protests have come and gone, and large-scale military defections have failed to materialize.

With the U.S. seen as considering military action only as a last resort, Guaido is trying to regain momentum with an effort this week to move U.S. emergency food and medicine into Venezuela despite Maduro’s pledge to block it.

Such an operation could provoke a dangerous confrontation at the border — or fizzle out and leave Maduro even stronger.

With so much at stake, Guaido is under increasing pressure to soon unseat Maduro, analysts say.

“He is running against the clock,” said Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez, a Venezuela expert at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “Expectations are running very high — not just among Venezuelans but international allies — that this is a crisis that can be resolved quickly.”

Despite having the world’s largest oil reserves, Venezuela is suffering soaring levels of malnutrition, disease and violence after 20 years of socialist rule launched by the late President Hugo Chavez. Critics accuse Maduro, a former bus driver and Chavez’s hand-picked successor, of unfairly winning an election last year for a second six-year term by banning his popular rivals from running and jailing others.

The 35-year-old Guaido was a virtually unknown lawmaker until last month, when he took the helm of the opposition-controlled National Assembly. He has rallied masses of Venezuelans into street demonstrations that have left at least 40 dead since he declared himself interim president on Jan. 23.

Guaido has so far avoided arrest, but the general comptroller announced Monday it was opening an investigation into Guaido’s assets in a new escalation of the confrontation between the government and the National Assembly.

Guaido has won backing from nearly 50 countries worldwide, including the United States, which has pledged an initial $20 million in support and has already shipped emergency food and medicine to the Colombian border city of Cucuta, where it sits in a warehouse.

Maduro has refused all economic assistance, denying there is an economic crisis in Venezuela — and contending the aid is part of a coup being orchestrated by the White House to topple him.

Maduro has made a show of overseeing military operations played on state TV almost daily. He’s jogged with troops in formation, mounted an amphibious tank and railed against what he says is an impending U.S. invasion that he has likened to a Latin American Vietnam.

On Monday, Venezuela socialist party chief, Diosdado Cabello, spoke at a rally in Venezuela’s border city of Urena, across from Cucuta, crowding the streets with Maduro loyalists wearing the red shirts of the socialist party and waving flags.

Addressing the crowd, Cabello asserted Venezuelans tell him not to give in to pressure from the United States, saying they are willing to endure whatever they must to maintain freedom from imperialist rule. He said the U.S. supplies were sent in a showy display aimed at justifying a coup.

“It’s not help and it’s not humanitarian,” he said to cheers from roughly 1,000 Maduro supporters, including civilians and soldiers.