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Venezuela’s political battle over foreign aid turns to violent confrontation

Violent protests erupted this past weekend in Venezuela over humanitarian aid shipments into the country. Meanwhile, Vice President Pence traveled to Colombia to meet with opposition leader Juan Guaido, promising that the U.S. would increase sanctions on Venezuela in an attempt to oust President Maduro, and calling for other countries to do the same. Special correspondent Nadja Drost reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported, Vice President Pence was in Colombia today to press the case against Nicolas Maduro, the man in charge of Colombia's starving neighbor to the east, Venezuela.

    Confrontations on the border between the countries erupted this past weekend, as what was a political fight over humanitarian aid became violent. At least three people were killed and hundreds were wounded.

    With support of the Pulitzer Center, special correspondent Nadja Drost and videographer Bruno Federico have been reporting from Venezuela for us for the past two weeks. And they were in Urena — that is Venezuela — on Saturday. It's become the focal point of the struggle between Maduro and Juan Guaido, the opposition National Assembly leader, which the U.S. recognizes as the rightful president of Venezuela.

  • Nadja Drost:

    The town of Urena on the border with Colombia was the front line on Saturday in the battle between the two leaders for control of Venezuela. And the weapon of choice, humanitarian aid.

    For the so-called Women in White, pacifist demonstrators who've helped lead protests throughout the country, their mission was clear.

  • Claudia Perez:

    The plan today is to reach the heart of the military. If the military don't consent, if they don't see in us the reflection of their mothers, daughters, wives, of whoever suffers, we will have to use force.

  • Nadja Drost:

    They're following a plan devised by the man they now consider their president, Juan Guaido, who is trying to peel away support of President Nicolas Maduro from the military to allow aid into the country.

    And that meant going up against the national guard, military and police sent in the hundreds to guard the three bridges.

  • Claudia Perez:

    We have had so much taken away from us, to the point that we don't have fear.

  • Nadja Drost:

    But the Women in White had little chance to make it to the heavily guarded bridge. By early morning, clashes had already broken out between protesters and the national guard.

    Protesters want to make their way onto the bridge that crosses the river into Colombia, but the national guard has been blockading all groups from access. And as they have been coming up from the bridge, protesters are meeting them. There's been an exchange of Molotov cocktails and rocks from one side and tear gas from the other.

    No matter what happens, protesters here today say they will find a way to break the blockade of the national guard in order to allow humanitarian aid from Colombia to pass the border into Venezuela.

    Among them was a member of the opposition-held National Assembly, Joaquin Aguilar.

  • Joaquin Aguilar:

    The goal is to reach the bridge and allow the entrance of humanitarian aid, to break the barrier of repression that the regime of Nicolas Maduro is imposing on the Venezuelan people.

  • Nadja Drost:

    As the national guard took to the streets and started firing at protesters with rubber bullets, many of them were rescued by mobile units of volunteer nurses and brought to the nearest safe house, before being transferred to this private health clinic opening its doors to anyone injured.

    By noon, volunteer doctor Solaris Medina reported 40 injuries of protesters, all by rubber bullets. By end of day, the tally had reached 150 for that clinic alone.

    On the Colombian side of that bridge, one truck carrying American-donated aid inched into Venezuelan territory before it burst into flames. It was unclear how the fire started, but opposition leader Juan Guaido blamed Maduro for the fire, the searing image the latest in what has become a violent fight over aid in the country.

    While the opposition blames Maduro for not allowing shipments of food and health supplies donated by the U.S., seen by the Maduro's government as their number one enemy, the government says the effort to force in aid is a form of foreign intervention and threat to sovereignty.

  • Ernesto Villegas:

    If a person wants to bring across goods, they have to be subject to inspection by authorities. What can not be permitted — no country would do this, least of all the U.S. — is to open a passage, and open the way to whatever may be.

  • Nadja Drost:

    After Guaido declared himself president on January 23, the military didn't rally to his side, as he hoped. Aid then became a mechanism to force the military into a corner: Either disobey Maduro and let the aid pass, or prevent it with the repressive tactics the government is known for.

    While the Venezuelan Red Cross has offered to administer whatever aid is in the country, it has refused to participate in an operation where alleged political motivations eclipse humanitarian ones.

  • Luis Farias:

    If we participate in an activity of politicized aid, we are straying from our fundamental principles. The trust that we are acting with impartiality and independence are the principles that guarantee us access to communities.

  • Nadja Drost:

    Economist and political Victor Alvarez is concerned the outbreak of violence over aid could become the pretext for more violence.

  • Victor Alvarez:

    This reaction of violent repression can plant a seed in international public opinion that in Venezuela there is a bloodbath, and so that could justify a military intervention from other countries. That is the fear.

  • Nadja Drost:

    Following the outbreak of violence on the border, Guaido was in Bogota today with Vice President Pence at a meeting of regional nations, almost all of which have demanded Maduro leave.

    Jesus Faria, a member of Maduro's government party, said this is the latest in a long string of U.S. provocations.

  • Jesus Faria:

    When they talk about dialogue, the only dialogue there is that President Nicolas Maduro should go. First it's said in the United States, and then it's said here.

    What is the justification? We don't want to prolong the suffering of Venezuelans? But you're ready for there to be war and a military intervention? That doesn't generate suffering?

  • Nadja Drost:

    Earlier this month, President Donald Trump announced a new series of broad sanctions against Venezuela that included tough measures against the country's all-important oil industry, asset seizures and export sanctions that could cost it $11 billion in lost oil revenue.

    Despite offers of aid from the U.S., the sanctions are expected to nearly obliterate the country's ability to import much-needed food and medication. Hyperinflation has meant that average Venezuelans can't afford to buy medication, driving this woman to beg for antibiotics on a Caracas roadside.

    Her son has spina bifida and club foot. Once able to get medication, now she needs any help she can get. And her needs supersede politics.

  • Mirella Morena:

    What I think is, my mind is totally blocked. I don't speak, say anything, give my opinion. And I can't say I won't receive help. I always accept whatever help I get.

  • Nadja Drost:

    Maduro continues to deny a humanitarian crisis, but it is clear that Venezuelans are in dire need of food.

    Inside the public hospital in the border town of San Antonio del Tachira, the corridors and rooms are largely empty. Patients either don't come because they know the hospital can't to treat them, or they cross into Colombia.

    Dr. William Bahoque shows entire units of the hospital that have been closed.

  • Dr. William Bahoque:

    A lot of patients arrive in a serious state, and they die on the way here because even the ambulances aren't properly equipped to attend to a patient in a grave state. And, then here, a lot of people die because we don't have the necessary equipment, nor medical supplies to stabilize them.

  • Nadja Drost:

    Doctors here often ask patients to buy their own medical supplies.

  • Dr. William Bahoque:

    Everything you can imagine, we need it in this country.

  • Nadja Drost:

    Facing almost no hope of prospering, much less surviving here, thousands of Venezuelans walk across the Simon Bolivar into Cucuta, Colombia, every day.

  • Edwin Perez:

    The situation in the country is chaotic. Every day, we are worse off. We work three times as hard to live worse. A lot of work, less money.

  • Nadja Drost:

    Edwin Perez and his family traveled over 24 hours to arrive at this vital crossing. As a bus driver, along with his wife, a nurse, they can't make ends meet. This family may make their way to Peru, but they have no idea where to go after they cross the bridge.

    Edwin's wife, Niurys Yeguez:

  • Niurys Yeguez:

    We are risking practically everything. We left it all behind, our house, our work, our car. Just to leave everything suddenly because you can't get what you need, it's so upsetting.

  • Nadja Drost:

    One day after their crossing, Maduro closed all land borders, leaving other families who could not flee with no options.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," reporting with Bruno Federico, I'm Nadja Drost in Urena, Venezuela.

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