CÚCUTA, Colombia—Here at the Venezuelan border, American officials have addressed the press several times in recent days, touting a project meant to challenge the rule of Venezuela’s leadership. But it is one that has aid workers and international organizations worried.
First there was the United States’ ambassador to Colombia, Kevin Whitaker, who spoke near a barricaded border bridge close to where the first shipments of American aid to Venezuela had arrived. Days later, Mark Green, the director of USAID, addressed journalists from a podium on the tarmac at the airport here as forklifts behind him unloaded pallets of humanitarian supplies from military cargo planes. Then Senator Marco Rubio, a leading critic of the government in Caracas, came to meet the Venezuelan managers of the plan to carry these 200 tons of aid into their country on Saturday morning.
These supplies of groceries, nutrition biscuits, vitamin supplements, hygiene products, and medical aid are what the United States hopes will help force Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro from power.
“Freedom and democracy deserve sacrifice,” Rubio said in Spanish to a crowd of hundreds of journalists and spectators gathered Sunday under the sweltering sun, a few hundred feet from the Venezuelan border. “Tyrants don’t go easily.”
Ostensibly aimed at alleviating Venezuela’s spiraling crises of hunger, health, and security, the humanitarian aid put forward by the United States also serves another purpose. Venezuelan opposition leaders here and the U.S. officials offering up much-needed aid posit that the mission could induce military officers to turn away from their government. Aid groups on the ground worry, however, that a political operation thinly padded with humanitarian objectives could send a precarious situation down an even worse path—disastrous American efforts to intervene in Latin America from decades past serve as a reminder of how badly things can go.
After years of decline, living conditions for most Venezuelans worsened substantially in the past year. Thousands of people who flee the country each day, many on foot, testify to miserable hunger and sickness at home, where food continues to grow scarcer. Then last month, Maduro officially began a new term in office after winning what international observers said was a sham election, and tensions ratcheted up markedly. Venezuelan legislators hailed their own leader, Juan Guaidó, as the interim president, and huge protests erupted across the country. In the weeks since, though, Guaidó’s efforts to win over Venezuela’s powerful military leaders have made little headway, and the two sides are now deadlocked.
Throughout, international aid organizations including the United Nations have quietly been delivering assistance throughout Venezuela, with the tacit approval of Maduro’s regime, which has long restricted humanitarian aid and has falsely denied that any Venezuelans are going hungry. A huge concert in Cúcuta on Friday aims to raise additional funds for food and medicine. More U.S. government funds could simply be moved to those programs, were the objective solely to address the humanitarian crisis.
Instead, Venezuelan opposition leaders here say they plan to use U.S. assistance to turn this page in Venezuelan history. Guaidó has said that he asked Washington to bring the aid, and that his representatives will take it across the border on Saturday. Maduro has ordered the army not to allow in the supplies from the United States—the archenemy of the socialist revolution he inherited from Hugo Chávez—but American officials have called upon Venezuelan forces to forsake their orders.
Those who support the mission say that soldiers will be motivated by the impact Venezuela’s crisis is having on their families to switch sides and effect a peaceful transfer of power. In an emailed statement, USAID said that Maduro’s management has damaged Venezuela, and that the agency would “continue to take concrete action against those who oppose the peaceful restoration of democracy in Venezuela.”
“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.”
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