Venezuelan Crisis Intensifies: After Deadly Border Clashes, Pence Asserts U.S. Influence in Bogotá and Maduro Cuts Ties with Colombia
As the fight for power in Venezuela between Nicolás Maduro and opposition head Juan Guaidó has escalated to new level and border clashes turned deadly over the past three days, the United States has further interjected itself into the middle of a dispute that Washington wishes to end with the long-standing Venezuelan head of state out of office.
Photo: Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guiadó, Colombian President Iván Duque, and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence pose for a photograph showing their solidarity in Bogotá beside the Venezuelan, Colombian, and U.S. flags. (Photo credit: Presidencia de la República)
To further assert its influence, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump today sent Vice President Mike Pence to Colombia, the staging ground for a U.S.-led humanitarian aid transport effort that has led to showdown on the border.
From Bogotá, he did not reveal any next steps but reiterated that nothing is being ruled out, including military action. “We hope for a peaceful transition to democracy, but as President Trump has made clear, all options are on the table,” said Pence. He added that “Nicolas Maduro is a usurper with no legitimate claim to power, and Nicolas Maduro must go.”
“I want to assure you, President Guaidó, that the tragic events of the past weekend have only steeled the resolve of the United States of America. We are with you 100%.” – Mike Pence, vice president of the United States
Colombia, however, continues to stress the need for a peaceful solution and has publicly rejected the use of force, according to Carlos Trujillo Holmes, the nation’s foreign minister. “We have never contemplated a military solution,” he said this morning in a radio interview. “All the actions are political and diplomatic, and I say that emphatically, so there’s no more speculation on Colombia’s position.”
Hugo de Zela Martínez, assistant foreign minister of Peru, echoed this sentiment. “The use of force, in any of its forms, is unacceptable,” he said.
U.S. Maintains “100%” Support for Guaidó
In the capital, Pence also met with Guaidó, as well as representatives of the region-wide Lima Group assembled last year to address a coordinated response to the Venezuelan crisis. The vice president publicly doubled down on support from the Trump administration to the recently named National Assembly leader.
“I want to assure you, President Guaidó, that the tragic events of the past weekend have only steeled the resolve of the United States of America,” said Pence. “We are with you 100%.”
Pence also pledged an additional $56 million USD in assistance for Venezuelans affected by the crisis, announced new sanctions against four Venezuelan nationals, and urged other countries to put further financial pressure on Maduro by freezing foreign assets of PDVSA, the floundering state oil company of Venezuela. “There can be no bystanders in Venezuela’s struggle for freedom,” said Pence.
The financial sanctions were formally levied by the U.S. Treasury Department today against four governors in Venezuela who have continued to support Maduro. In addition to implicating the governors in corruption, the Treasury Department cited their role in blocking international humanitarian aid from entering the country. Over the past year, Treasury has continued to issue more and more sanctions against Venezuelans and domestic entities, including severe sanctions against PDVSA last month.
“In the days ahead, the United States will announce even stronger sanctions on the regime’s corrupt financial networks,” said Pence.
The $56 million USD, according to the U.S. State Department, aims to complement the “aid that the United States and its partners pre-positioned near the Colombia- and Brazil-Venezuela borders over the last few weeks. The agency added that it will be used to “provide urgently needed shelter, food, medical services, and livelihoods support that will help the integration of Venezuelans who have fled into host communities in the region.”
In all, the United States has now provided some $195 million USD in assistance for Venezuela since 2017, according to the State Department.
U.S.-Led Campaign to Force Aid into Venezuela
The additional measures announced today follow a chaotic weekend in which Colombia played host to a massive music concert backed by British billionaire Sir Richard Brandon. The event, which featured a star-studded lineup of commercially and critically acclaimed artists, sought to bring attention and raise funds for Venezuelans suffering from the socioeconomic downward spiral that has led to widespread food and medicine shortages and spurred millions to flee the nation, often on foot with few possessions.
The concert culminated with the arrival of Guaidó, who arrived through Venezuela across the border a move that defied a court-ordered travel ban. The opposition leader has been a public enemy of the Maduro regime since declaring himself the constitutionally backed interim president of the country in January, a move supported by Trump, Colombia President Iván Duque, and a dozen other heads of state throughout the Americas that now recognize him as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.
“We are here today because the real dilemma is the continuation of tyranny or the overwhelming triumph of democracy.” – Iván Duque, president of Colombia
Duque was on hand for the Venezuela Aid Live concert in the border city of Cúcuta, posing with and celebrating the arrival of Guaidó, who oversaw a plan over the subsequent 48 hours to force stockpiled aid across the border.
Maduro has continually rejected international assistance and blocked the humanitarian aid, using military personnel and resources to close bridges and large swaths of the border with both Colombia and Brazil. He has called the campaign little more than a cloaked effort to begin an invasion and characterized Guaidó a puppet of the U.S.-driven push to oust him from power.
Violence ensued as locals on the Colombian side of the border, in multiple locations, attempted to forcefully transport the food, medicine, and other goods into Venezuela. The military used tear gas and rubber bullets in several instances while vehicles were set on fire and opposition forces threw Molotov cocktails. At least two people died and some 300 were injured during a chaotic weekend.
Clashes over aid on the Brazilian border also broke out previously with multiple deaths reported after locals reportedly tried to stop a military convoy while attempting to push through goods, according to the Washington Post.
“Today has been a historic day,” said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday. “Interim President Juan Guaidó, the National Assembly, and the people of Venezuela have been an inspiration to the world. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers turned out in peace to face down a dictator and helped to carry life-saving humanitarian aid to their fellow citizens.”
Trying to Turn the Military Against Maduro
There have been a significant number of defections reported among Venezuelan military members, including some high-ranking officials, who have walked across the border to joining their Colombian peers. Duque, in a public statement, has put the number as high as 440 people, according to the New York Times, but Venezuelan officials have questioned that number.
Encouraging such defections was a stated goal of the campaign to transport aid across the border, with Guaidó and his supporters saying that those physically controlling the border for Maduro, who was residing hundreds of miles away on Caracas, would be forced to make a decision about whether or not to allow entry of the trucks and vehicles carrying the cargo. Guaidó has pledged to offer amnesty to any members who defect if he comes to power in Caracas.
READ MORE: Colombia Hosts Star-Studded ‘Venezuela Aid Live’ Concert Featuring Maluma, Alejandro Sanz, Luis Fonsi
“A broad coalition of democracies has assembled to insist that Venezuela be free and that humanitarian assistance should enter, and we salute President Duque and Colombia for their leadership,” said Pompeo on Saturday as the campaign pushed to transport the aid.
But despite the defections, very little aid has reportedly made it across the border, and the opposition campaign was unable to convince a large-enough contingent of the military to abandon their posts to let the goods through.
“We can’t keep putting up with Colombian territory being used for attacks against Venezuela. For that reason I’ve decided to sever all ties with the fascist government of Colombia.” – Nicolás Maduro
Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research, called the entire effort a “public relations stunt” in an interview with the Associated Press. “As the Trump administration admitted, it was an attempt to get the Venezuelan military to disobey Maduro,” he said. “It was a farce, and it failed.”
“the opposition represented by Guaido did not manage to introduce humanitarian aid, nor did it achieve a weighty military pronouncement repudiating the Maduro government.”
Maduro Cuts Ties with Colombia
As the humanitarian aid campaign turned violent and the military clashed with civilians in the street, Maduro responded by formally cutting diplomatic relations with Colombia on Saturday and ordering all Colombian diplomats out of Venezuela.
“We can’t keep putting up with Colombian territory being used for attacks against Venezuela,” said Maduro at a public event on Saturday, according to NBC News. “For that reason I’ve decided to sever all ties with the fascist government of Colombia. All consul employees should leave within 24 hours. Out! Get out. Enough is enough.”
Duque, speaking today from Bogotá and once again brandishing Maduro’s regime as a “dictatorship,” blamed the leader in Caracas for the current state of affairs at the border.
“We are here today because the real dilemma is the continuation of tyranny or the overwhelming triumph of democracy, the triumph of human rights, the triumph of freedoms,” said Duque.
Duque also said that the Lima Group officials that met in Bogotá were formulating the next steps to proceed with a “transition that the people of Venezuela cry out for” and that Colombia will continue to welcome fleeing Venezuelans with “determination and goodwill.”