Venezuela’s Maduro spurns U.S. aid, rival warns military not to block it

February 9, 2019

By Sarah Marsh and Nelson Bocanegra

CARACAS/CUCUTA, Colombia (Reuters) – Venezuela’s government on Friday said the United States should distribute humanitarian aid in Colombia where it is being stockpiled, while the opposition warned that blocking much-needed food and medicine could constitute crimes against humanity.

A day after the aid convoy arrived in the border city of Cucuta, President Nicolas Maduro ridiculed the United States for offering small amounts of assistance while maintaining sanctions that block some $10 billion of offshore assets and revenue.

Rival Juan Guaido, who is recognized by dozens of countries as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, warned military officers against blocking the arrival of aid amid spiraling disease and malnutrition brought on by a hyperinflationary collapse.

“Take all that humanitarian aid and give it to the people of Cucuta, where there is a lot of need,” Maduro said in a news conference. “This is a macabre game, you see? They squeeze us by the neck and then make us beg for crumbs.”

“They offer us toilet paper, like (U.S. President) Donald Trump threw at the people of Puerto Rico,” he said at the conference, which experienced technical difficulties including a blackout and a microphone failure. He was referring to Trump’s improvised 2018 aid distribution in the U.S. territory following a hurricane, during which he threw rolls of paper towels.

Venezuela’s dire situation has fueled a political crisis that has peaked over the last month with Guaido invoking a constitutional provision to declare himself the legitimate, interim president.

The 35-year-old argues Maduro was re-elected last year in a sham vote and the country must hold new presidential elections.

More than 40 nations including the United States, major European powers and most of Latin America have recognized Guaido as the country’s rightful head of state.

“I want to see how many military officers are willing to commit crimes against humanity by not allowing the lives of the most vulnerable to be saved, 250,000 to 300,000 are at risk of dying if they do not receive immediate attention,” Guaido said during a gathering of university students.

Officials at a Cucuta warehouse organized staple foods and sanitary products into sacks during an event attended by U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whitaker and called on the armed forces to help it across.

The aid seems unlikely to move into Venezuela.

Humanitarian organizations have warned that attempting to force the aid into the country would be dangerous, and a top U.S. official on Thursday said Washington did not plan to do so.

The Red Cross urged Venezuelans not to politicize the aid issue, without saying how or if the aid would arrive.

In an ironic twist, a Venezuelan navy ship laden with equipment sent by Maduro’s government to help Cuba rebuild after a tornado hit Havana last month arrived in the city’s port on Friday, Cuban state media reported.

Cuba is one of Venezuela’s few remaining allies in the region although the country retains the powerful backing of Russia, China and Turkey too, which have warned others against intervening in its domestic affairs.

The Trump administration last week issued sweeping sanctions against state oil company PDVSA, froze profits generated by refining subsidiary Citgo, and has vowed to starve Maduro’s government of all revenue.

Maduro said blocking the OPEC nation’s oil shipments would be economically and socially “catastrophic” for the country, adding that anyone who accepted a nomination from Guaido to posts at PDVSA or Citgo would “face justice.”

European nations have been broadly critical of Maduro but have sought to strike a counterpoint to the aggressive U.S. stance by urging dialogue.

Maduro said he was willing to meet with envoys of the so-called International Contact Group, that is backed by the European Union, but said a statement from its first meeting on Thursday was partisan and ideological.

“You’re deaf to the reality of a revolution with 20 years of democratic patrimony; you only follow the script written by the extreme right,” he said.

Critics say three previous rounds of dialogue have allowed the ruling Socialist Party to stall for time without making major concessions on key issues including imprisoned opposition politicians and electoral transparency.

Guaido has said the time for dialogue has passed.

(Reporting by Sarah Marsh in Caracas and Nelson Bocanegra in Cucuta, Colombia; additional reporting by Helen Murphy, Mayela Armas, Brian Ellsworth, Deisy Buitrago and Shaylim Castro; editing by Brian Ellsworth, Jeffrey Benkoe and James Dalgleish)

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