U.S. Masses Aid Along Venezuelan Border As Some Humanitarian Groups Warn Of Risks Some aid workers are being denounced as opposition activists and there are fears that all aid could be blocked. The situation could soon resemble a "medieval siege," warns an analyst in Caracas.
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U.S. Masses Aid Along Venezuelan Border As Some Humanitarian Groups Warn Of Risks

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U.S. Masses Aid Along Venezuelan Border As Some Humanitarian Groups Warn Of Risks

U.S. Masses Aid Along Venezuelan Border As Some Humanitarian Groups Warn Of Risks

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to the Colombia-Venezuela border, where the U.S. is positioning food and medicine, which it hopes to get to needy Venezuelans. But the plan is highly controversial. Venezuela's authoritarian president, Nicolas Maduro, claims the aid operation is a prelude to a U.S. invasion, so he's closed the border. And, as John Otis reports, even some international relief agencies are wary of the U.S. effort.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Due to Maduro's blockade, tons of food and emergency medical kits are stuck in a warehouse just outside the city of Cucuta on the Colombian side of the border.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Spanish).

OTIS: That has sparked protests like this one in a Cucuta park. These Venezuelans, who have crossed over to take part, are demanding that the U.S. aid be allowed into their country.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Spanish).

OTIS: But the massing of U.S. supplies on the border is also a provocation. The U.S. is trying to convince Venezuelan military officers to defy Maduro's orders and allow the aid into the country. Such a rebellion could lead to Maduro's ouster. And that's exactly what Venezuela needs, says Kevin Whitaker, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia. He spoke with NPR by phone from Washington.

KEVIN WHITAKER: He needs to leave so that his people's needs can be attended to, so the Venezuelan economy can be put back on its feet and so that Venezuela can once again be a normal country. He needs to leave.

OTIS: But humanitarian operations are supposed to be neutral. That's why the International Red Cross and other relief agencies have refused to collaborate with the U.S. effort on the Venezuelan border. Here's Stephane Dujarric, the United Nations spokesman, at a recent press briefing.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS BRIEFING)

STEPHANE DUJARRIC: What is important is that humanitarian aid be depoliticized.

OTIS: The risks of linking aid to regime change are already coming into focus, with some aid workers being denounced by the Maduro government as opposition activists. Daniel Almeida works for CARE International, which partners with aid groups in Venezuela.

DANIEL ALMEIDA: Local AGOs received sort of retaliations or warnings because of their engagement with international aid. The whole environment is becoming more aggressive.

OTIS: Another danger is that Maduro, who currently allows in some humanitarian assistance, could close the door on aid altogether. Meanwhile, aid groups are bracing for U.S. sanctions that effectively block the sales of Venezuelan oil to the U.S. These proceeds make up the bulk of Venezuela's cash income, which is used to import food and medical supplies. That means rice, milk and antibiotics could become even more scarce. Even so, many Venezuelans strongly back the U.S. approach. They include Jose Manuel Olivares, a doctor and opposition congressman.

JOSE MANUEL OLIVARES: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Olivares says he's convinced there won't be time for average Venezuelans to feel the pinch of the sanctions because Maduro will soon be forced out. Ambassador Whitaker insists that the U.S. aid effort is moral and ethical. By contrast, he says Maduro is funneling state food handouts to hungry Venezuelans in exchange for their support.

WHITAKER: If anyone's politicizing this, it's Maduro because there's need of great aid in that country.

OTIS: The Venezuelan opposition is now enlisting thousands of volunteers to help break the aid blockade starting on February 23. Such a maneuver could provoke clashes with the security forces. Still, Jorge Valenzuela (ph), a retired lawyer at the protest in Cucuta, has signed up to help

JORGE VALENZUELA: (Speaking in Spanish).

OTIS: The aid is legitimate, he says, and we need it.

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Cucuta, Colombia.

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