CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – Venezuela’s opposition called its supporters into the streets across the country Tuesday in a campaign to break the military’s support of President Nicolas Maduro, who refuses to let emergency food and medicine from the United States across the border.
Maduro also rallied supporters at rival demonstrations following more than a month of pressure led by opposition lawmaker Juan Guaido, who has proclaimed himself the country’s legitimate president.
The struggle now centers on emergency food and medicine from the United States warehoused on the Colombian border town of Cucuta. Guaido vows to deliver it to Venezuelans who need it, but his strategy for outmaneuvering Maduro remains unclear. Maduro remains firmly in power and has the backing of the military, which has been blocking the aid he snubs as part of an effort to topple him.
Thousands of opposition demonstrators began gathering early Tuesday in the capital of Caracas. Many painted their faces with the colors of the Venezuelan flag and draped flags over their shoulders.
Maduro backers, meanwhile, gathered at a square in the capital, cheering and waving flags.
National Guard members dressed in riot gear and holding shields blocked some streets in anticipation of opposition demonstrators.
Guaido in January declared presidential powers, arguing Maduro’s re-election was a sham, and called on soldiers to back a return to democracy. He’s garnered broad international support and has drawn masses into the streets for protests, which have sometimes turned violent.
With a few exceptions, however, soldiers have yet to answer his call.
The socialist president says the humanitarian aid is part of a U.S.-led coup and won’t let it across the border. Venezuela’s military last week barricaded a key bridge between Venezuela and Colombia in an apparent attempt to keep the humanitarian aid from entering.
Protesters Tuesday called on Maduro to relent, citing epidemic hunger and illnesses that they can’t treat in Venezuela, once among Latin America’s wealthiest nations and one with the world’s largest oil reserves.
“Nicolas Maduro should put his hand on his heart and accept that aid,” said Mayerly Prada, among a small group of protesters on the Colombian side of the Tienditas International Bridge. “It’s help for many Venezuelans like my son.”
Prada, a 24-year-old mother of two, said she left home in Venezuela last week after her 2-year-old son came down with a strange rash, and she wasn’t able to get treatment. She hoped to get medicine and return home to Venezuela.
Juan Carlos Capacho, a councilman from Cucuta, said Venezuela’s history is being written, and the outcome depends on what the people of Venezuela do next. His town across the border from Venezuela has been inundated by Venezuelan migrants.
“The call to the Venezuelan people is to get out and define their destiny,” he told The Associated Press on Monday. “We are certain there is no barricade, no chain, no obstacle that can detain the march of history.”
Associated Press writer Christine Armario contributed from Cututa, Colombia.