“These planes don’t just bring food and medicine,” Lester Toledo, Guaidó’s top representative in Cúcuta, said during a widely televised press conference with American and Colombian officials. “They bring hope.”
Virtually all other major humanitarian organizations, however, have kept their distance. Many aid workers were wary of talking on the record, fearing repercussions for themselves and their organization. One director of a humanitarian-assistance team told me that using what was apparently an aid mission to challenge a president stood against the principles of humanitarianism, while another said the effort was little more than an attempted overthrow of the government. Christian Visnes, the director of the Norwegian Refugee Council in Colombia, didn’t want to address the specific situation, but told me that there were “dangers of associating political objectives with humanitarian aid,” and warned that sometimes “crises evolve into bigger crises.”
Many in Latin America are also suspicious about the eventual course of any U.S. intervention in regional affairs—Washington has a long and troubled history of stepping in, with deadly and disastrous results.
The examples are numerous. The United States sought to overthrow Chile’s socialist president Salvador Allende in the 1970s, a move that eventually led to the brutal 27-year rule of Augusto Pinochet. It used a humanitarian-aid program in Nicaragua in the 1980s to hide $27 million in weapons for right-wing groups fighting a leftist government, fueling a civil war (a scandal that involved Elliott Abrams, who is now Donald Trump’s special envoy for Venezuela). And in 1989, the U.S. left hundreds of civilians dead in Panama when American forces invaded to overthrow the country’s de facto leader, Manuel Noriega.
Since Panama, though, the United States hasn’t intervened on the ground against a sitting Latin American government. In some respects, the world’s most powerful country showing up at Venezuela’s border with truckloads of food and medicine is much better than what it has done in the past.
“This move is really showing us the evolution of American intervention in Latin America,” Alan McPherson, a history professor at Temple University in Philadelphia and the author of A Short History of U.S. Interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean, told me.
For Ana Teresa Castillo, who runs an organization called Asociación Deredez that has for years helped hungry people at the Venezuela-Colombia border, the latest U.S. effort seems like a dangerous stunt. She told me that she was saddened to see so much food locked away in a warehouse, and worried that little would make it to the needy. Having lived a life plagued by violence—a Colombian guerilla group took over her home and killed her husband 20 years ago, so she fled to Venezuela, where soldiers violently evicted her and thousands of other Colombians from the border area in 2015—she worries that Washington’s moves are a prelude to more conflict.
“What we hope is that this doesn’t become a second Syria, especially with that crazy guy in charge in Venezuela,” she told me over lunch in her home. “Who is going to suffer? The civilians. The poor. Us here.”