A Year After Maduro Crossed the Red Line
We can still send humanitarian aid to Venezuela. But it will have to be with the use of military force
This article was originally published last year on 24th February 2019, a day after the attempt to bring in humanitarian aid into Venezuela.
“Three members of the Bolivarian National Guard defected to Colombia” was the first thing I read that morning. It had happened on the Simón Bolívar bridge, which links the country of cordiality with the abducted one. Then I saw the images: they were three people, quite young, fleeing from their companions. And from pure, genuine hatred of any Venezuelan authority, I had a sense of empathy. They too felt abducted. And then they were free. It was a moving sight.
The inherent siblicide of the barbarians caused the next defections to be eventful. We learned that one soldier was shot in the back as he fled Venezuela. It was his friend who killed him, according to the victim’s sister. And we saw the horror with utmost dismay at what members of the system were capable of. These were crucial moments.
I was at the entrance of the Las Tienditas International bridge at 9 a.m. It was the center of the western world that day. On the outskirts, thousands of citizens were gathering. They were standing on the grass to avoid hindering traffic and were spreading the euphoria of those celebrating what had not yet happened.
“Sí se puede!,” they chanted. “Yes we can!”
Many had slept there. They waited in a vigil for the clarion call and were willing to follow instructions. Almost all of them were Venezuelans. Many were very poor. Very, very poor. None of them was wearing proper clothes, but they didn’t care. They were there; they were going to make history, and they were going to win. They already knew it, and that’s why they were celebrating. That’s also why, the previous day, everyone had been enjoying the concert, the great event where thousands were naively triumphant – but that was the time to be triumphant and to look ahead. And there they were, under the scorching sun, at the entrance to the Las Tienditas bridge, waiting for instructions.
The orders came almost an hour later. “You may enter now,” a Colombian police officer who blocked the only entrance marked by a black gate told the thousands. The first to line up was a group of people wearing blue berets. “What are these?” I asked a friendly-looking man. “We are (members of) the Peace Corps.”
I was able to go ahead thanks to press credentials and, after passing a close search by several officials, I was surprised by what I saw: two older men, one on each side, with white roses in their hands, giving them to all those who managed to pass the line of police. In a matter of minutes, thousands of Venezuelans were holding white roses in their hands. And as they waved them, once again, it was a touching image.
Deputy Ismael García led the crowd. With a megaphone in hand, he tried to organize that mass of free but excited citizens. Even with messages of peace in his hands, they intended to get rid of dictator Nicolás Maduro that day. They wanted to take the humanitarian aid supplies and pass them on to the other side. That day, they wanted to touch Venezuelan soil. They were convinced that they could do it.
One person who stood out among the crowd was the Venezuelan military official, Clíver Alcalá Cordones, a former Chavista commander and coup plotter. He had someone with him and wanted to introduce him to the crowd: another official who had defected from Venezuela. It was Major Parra.
There were screams and applause. There was joy: we have another new one on our side. Parra spoke but was not well-heard. He murmured about his courageous decision and said that he recognizes Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela.
The crowd didn’t get past it. A cordon of the Colombian police held them. There were still a couple of kilometers till the concrete hangars in which the tons of humanitarian aid offered by several countries were sheltered. I walked further, and after a few meters, I found friends and people I admire.
There, there were Diego Arria, Miguel Ángel Martín, deputy Armando Armas, David Smolansky and Héctor Schamis. They all came, along with a small crowd of a hundred people, from a building that was now several meters away. They were walking towards the large concrete hangar, in front of which about ten trucks were parked.
“Historic day, isn’t it?” Arria asked me. Martin, the president of the Supreme Court in exile, told me he hadn’t quit. Deputy Armas confirmed that we were doing well, that we were almost there. David expressed the same idea: “soon, very soon.”
At that time, the reports coming in from the other hot spots were disturbing. In Santa Elena de Uairén, on Venezuela’s border with Brazil, the repression had begun. Members of the Bolivarian National Guard had positioned themselves to prevent the entry of humanitarian aid. They were using pellets and tear gas to piece together a boycott. “The aid will not pass” was the Chavista mantra.
Almost undetected, hidden among a crowd of journalists and security officials, the OAS General Secretary, Luis Almagro and the heads of state came in. They were the Latin American presidents Iván Duque, Sebastián Piñera, and Juan Guaidó, the star of the hour. The previous day, Guaidó had arrived in Cúcuta, evading the guarded Venezuelan borders, in a courageous and brilliant move.
Then, in the middle of a large courtyard, under the harsh Cúcuta sun, they spoke to the world. They all stressed the importance of what was to come. In a short time, the trucks behind them, colorful, unlike any other, quite archaic, but impeccably aligned with each other, would leave for their Venezuelan destinations. Some would leave by the Simón Bolívar bridge, others would go to Ureña, and the rest would go this way through Tienditas. Don’t worry about the containers that are crossed.
The moment was magical. Inspiring. Like a tuning chorus, the truck drivers began to honk their horns. Then, all at once. The ten metal giants coordinated to give the spectators a show that announced what was to come. Humanitarian aid set sail! Suddenly, another exciting image: hanging on the driver’s door, in the first truck, white one with blue decoration on the windshield, the president of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó. A fist in the air, a smile on his face.
The presidents, along with Almagro, began to walk towards the building where they had gathered a little earlier. Guaidó was no longer on a truck but was once again surrounded by dozens of journalists. Between a barrier formed by squalid security, unsuitable for the presence of three western presidents, the presidents walked until they entered the building. The atmosphere was uncomfortably airtight.
Reports kept coming in. It was learned that several metal containers had already been set up in front of the respective bridges. This response was uncivilized. Cruel and ruthless, innate to those guys who are at Fort Tiuna giving orders. Repression. Lots of bullets and lots of tear gas, several wounded. We knew of the death on the border with Brazil. The horror was unfolding.
But the expectations were still focused on Tienditas. It was eleven o’clock in the morning, and the crowd of hopeful, euphoric citizens, with roses in their hands, was still waiting at the entrance of the road to the Bridge. I approached the border on the Colombian side, a few meters from Venezuela, and was surprised to see that hundreds of journalists and media outlets were already lurking around the news from there. CNN, someone from The New York Times, people from Reuters, NTN24, Telemundo, Univision, and the daily El Mundo. There I learned that even Netflix was filming a documentary.
“I have never seen an event that received so much coverage. This is historic,” a Reuters reporter told me. He, an American, had been to many places. Still, he was surprised by the presence of so many media outlets there.
They followed the containers welded to the ground. The most cynical was the blue one, the one on the right side, with the word “peace” painted in white. On the left side, the orange one, a disturbing detail stood out: there were three people, with cameras in their hands, looking towards Colombia. “It’s Telesur,” they explained.
It was noon and nothing was happening at Tienditas. Nothing was going on except the burning sun, the fierce heat, and the unavailability of water. “Where is water?!” Everyone was running around looking for those little plastic bags that you had to bite into to get water. At different times, the journalists were entertained. First, when a short fat man appeared, half hunched over, with a Venezuelan cap and a flag that didn’t stop fluttering. He was a supposedly retired colonel with a message to the world. And, given the inertia, well, cover it right up. Then Nacho arrived. Everybody loves Nacho. And he went straight to be interviewed by Fernando Del Rincón.
Several meters away, at a kind of Presidential Emergency Operations Center, but not a bunker, the presidents were still discussing what to do. There was Piñera, Duque, Guaidó, Colombia’s defense minister, and part of the Colombian military high command. They followed closely what was happening on the other bridges thanks to three televisions that showed the repression live. This response from the armed forces sparked concerns, especially from Iván Duque.
What to do, how to do it. What to do here in Tienditas? They already had some cranes ready to remove the containers, but then what? And how to do it? And what about the thousands that are still standing under the scorching sun?
The atmosphere was tense, I knew. The presidents wanted to be sure what the response of the Venezuelan military would be in Tienditas. Something prevented them from making a decision: Duque would not risk any injuries or casualties on the Colombian side. That was unacceptable. It could not happen.
At about two o’clock in the afternoon, a woman who had been with the group of thousands still waiting at the entrance to the Bridge managed to dodge obstacles to get to the Colombian border of Tienditas, where the media was stationed. She hysterically approached a congressman. How dare they put up with people from nine o’clock in the morning; it was rude and abusive, and what was the point of playing with people? Let them pass by; they want to bring humanitarian aid! Let the presidents go, if they have to go for that to happen, but the aid has to cross the border now!
They will have to stay there, holding on, because the presidents give the order. And they haven’t said anything yet. After the agitated woman left, I asked the congressman what would happen in Tienditas. “We don’t know yet. We are watching. But we will cross this bridge. We will cross it no matter what. If we have to go over the containers, we will.” I didn’t understand. He didn’t seem to know what they were going to do. They seemed to be running on an improvised schedule. I had been told that they were going to remove the containers with cranes.
“Run! Come on!” a reporter told her colleague. About fifteen more went after them. They left, quickly, towards a corner of the bridge, where the concrete ends and the jungle appears. And there they came. There were three of them. Their uniform was apparent to those of us who suffered them in Venezuela. Escorted by the Colombian army, they were new deserters of the Bolivarian National Guard. “And they are still deserting!” I said to the congressman. He scolded me. “They are not deserting. They are moving away from Maduro and recognizing the Constitution.” We still didn’t know how to label the brave ones then.
They were stars. The military escort was joined by the Colombian media and officials, who accompanied them to a frosted glass building. They were already about nine. That morning, they were three, and as time went by, there were more. The number would increase.
A Dantean event marked the day: on the Francisco de Paula Santander Bridge, between Ureña and Cúcuta, a truck loaded with humanitarian aid managed to pass. Only a few meters into Venezuela, the truck faced the most savage onslaught of the Nicolás Maduro dictatorship. Members of the Bolivarian National Guard attacked the vehicle, and then the aid was set on fire. Tons of supplies were being consumed in the flames as the young men facing the Guard diverted their efforts to try and save anything they could. Chemotherapy, wheelchairs, food. Everything burned down under the eyes of the Venezuelan military.
Journalists captured the terrifying moment. They had captured the image of the day and the one that would expose the greatest barbarism of the Chavista regime so far. Their great act. The grotesque display of barbarism and pain. The moment when Maduro crossed that red line.
In Tienditas, inside the improvised room, tension reigned. General Secretary Luis Almagro would come and go. He would go to the black-armored truck, accompanied by someone, enter the vehicle, wait for seconds, and then come out again. From outside, Guaidó could be seen on the second floor through a glass window, talking on the phone.
Nothing was going on. Nobody knew much. Not much was clear other than these presidents’ commitment to the historical moment. Piñera, in particular, spoke at length with Juan Guaidó and his right-hand man in Colombia, Lester Toledo. On the television screens, they saw the burning truck and the wounded victims coming out of the Simón Bolívar bridge. Terrified, they saw live the fiercest side of Nicolás Maduro’s regime. And that was obviously worrying.
Much was said on the eve of 23rd February. That it was going to be D-Day, that it was the last one, that something big was going to happen. But above all, there was speculation about the military. In fact, early on, journalist Sebastiana Barráez, who knows more about the military world, asserted that the Bolivarian National Guard would allow humanitarian aid into Venezuela. But that did not happen. On the contrary, they attacked the aid supplies until they were burned.
At three o’clock in the afternoon, Juan Guaidó’s ambassador to Honduras, Claudio Sandoval, revealed to me what was to happen. “It has been decided that nothing will happen here in Tienditas.” There I found out that the thousands who were standing at the entrance had been baited. Of course, a hungry crowd, under the sun, is easily fooled. And so they were. “A truck came in with snacks, and they took advantage of it to pull people away.” What will she think, what will she say, what will the hysterical woman who was nagging deputies say?
I was disappointed. Well, then. The expectations surrounding Tienditas were very high. I understand that Guaidó intended to lead this massive mobilization of humanitarian aid. Who knows if the other presidents would accompany him. But that is what the dozens of journalists planted on the border were for. That is why they were waiting there despite the sun strokes.
Diego Arria proposed that we go to the Simón Bolívar International bridge. I said, of course. I wanted to go and see what was happening. The information that came from there was not encouraging and should provoke, from the sensible people, the opposite reaction. But we had to go.
The street wasn’t as crowded as I expected. At the exit of the International bridge of Tienditas, at four o’clock in the afternoon, there were no longer thousands but about fifty people who were still on the grass, perhaps not knowing what to do. Near the median strip, where people had gathered, a half-naked man was hoisting a giant Venezuelan flag. It all looked like a dystopian scene from some Orwellian tale. You could feel the misery. The pavement was screaming that thousands had been on it. The dirt, the bottles, and the papers.
The area around the mouth of the Simón Bolívar International bridge looks like the most marginalized three hundred meters around Cúcuta. “It looks like there’s been a conflict here,” Arria said. And he knows about conflict. That depressed, miserable area looked too unhappy. But in contrast to the shattered architecture and the garbage that covered the pavement mixed with dirt, there was too much life. Tense, threatening, hostile life, but life. It was there that I did put my wallet in a more secure pocket.
As soon as we set foot out of the vehicle, we could hear screams echoing from the bridge. “Another wounded man is on his way, another wounded man!” “We need water, get water!” ” Shot in the eye!” On a megaphone, a young man was describing the urgency of the moment. He was under a small white tent marked as part of the “Help and Freedom Coalition.” In the middle, under the shadow of the tent, lay a shirtless man. His pants were stained red.
We keep walking. In the crowd, we met Miguel Henrique Otero, the director of the El Nacional newspaper, “It’s a hell of a thing, isn’t it?” And walking with Arria is like walking with a celebrity who everyone wants to hear. The young people admire him and stop him every time for a photo. Many asked him to cheer them up. Some light. Something.
While we were moving ahead among the people, some were coming in the opposite direction. They moved quickly and desperately. Most of them with war wounds. Suddenly, I was shocked to see one man who passed by. Blood was pouring out of his left eye. I could swear he had lost his eye.
Before reaching the boundary imposed by the Colombian police to guarantee the safety of its citizens, I saw a doctor stitching a young man’s forehead. As soon as he had finished closing the wound, the young man, shirtless, wearing sandals and shredded shorts, stood up and returned to the front lines. Moved by this, I asked the doctor about it. “This is the second wound I have sealed,” he explained, much more poignantly. At that point, another young man who was on the side, listening, said to both of us, “I am his brother. Two months ago, our father died in Merida because of the shortage of medicine. Tell me: if we are not here, where will we be?” We didn’t know how to look at each other. That shakes anyone up.
A woman also approached Arria. Her eyes lit up when she saw this diplomatic figure, so distant and polished, amid the almost warlike disaster. She took the opportunity to voice her complaint: “We came here yesterday for the concert, and now I am trapped in Colombia. Sir, please tell us what to do! The aid has to pass through the border to Venezuela, and now what are we going to do if they won’t let it go through? We want you to tell us what to do! We don’t want to be left with our hands ties. They said that help was coming in no matter what, but it is not coming in.”
I understood his frustration, which was felt in the air for several hours. In the end, too many expectations were raised about the influx of humanitarian aid. The “yes or yes” ended up being harmful. People could not see beyond what was happening. They could not see that there were really great conquests that day. That, for example, the aim was not to get humanitarian aid in. The real goal seemed to be just a few steps away.
More wounded. More repression. Screams and cries. People walking around. Ah, the tension inseparable from repression. That adrenaline that comes from hearing the tear gas canisters explode, and the stench. Also, the density of smoke whose origin is ignored. Something is burning. Everything burns.
At this point, like a force that was approaching our group, activist Vilca Fernandez emerged from the side of the bridge, leaving behind the smoke, the heat, and the noise of the shells on the ground. He reached the arms of a lady, white, small, too refined for the surroundings, but full of euphoria and impetus. It was Miguel Henrique Otero’s wife, Mrs. Antonieta Jurado. She seemed to be enjoying the moment alone. As a child in a playground, she was fascinated to see what was going on.
“They are cowards! We are here, and we are going to accompany our people. The humanitarian aid is going to pass, and we are going to conquer freedom!”, said Vilca standing beside Antonieta.
The area wasn’t very safe anymore. A plastic pellet bounced and hit my forearm. The young people, called La Resistencia, “the resistance,” were running back and forth, and there was a risk that at any moment one would be knocked down. The scenery there was surprising. They were unarmed children, where perhaps the oldest was about seventeen, facing a group of criminals, from the other side of the border, armed to the teeth.
And there was something else that was surprising. I had lived through it. I had felt it. In Caracas, Valencia, and Maracay. But now I was in Colombia. I never imagined I would feel the harsh gas again while I was away. But now, the sister nation was lending us the yard to play with guns and rocks. That lopsided game, which we always ended up losing.
By this time, the toll was already heartbreaking: more than ten dead, and several were gravely wounded. Moreover, more than three hundred people were affected; two trucks carrying insulin, cancer treatment, wheelchairs, and food were burnt; aid was seized in Colombia; several deputies were beaten up. At least twenty people deserted, and one soldier was killed by his colleague while trying to flee Venezuela.
Juan Guaidó said February 23 would be the day when humanitarian aid would enter Venezuela. He said, “si o si, “yes or yes.” It seemed like the deadline. The red line. And Maduro crossed it. The aid couldn’t get in peacefully. But we can still get in. And Arria told me on the Simón Bolívar Bridge, with teary eyes because of the gas and the grief, hard and cruel, because we are still in this situation: we still have to use force. And the world must support us.