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Venezuela's authoritarian president, Nicolas Maduro, is refusing to let humanitarian aid from the U.S. into his country. Opposition leader Juan Guaido says he'll mobilize caravans of people to bring it in. At a rally today, Guaido announced a deadline for getting the aid, setting the stage for a confrontation. NPR's Philip Reeves reports from the Venezuelan capital of Caracas.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: For the third time in three weeks, Juan Guaido has summoned his supporters for a mass protest on the streets of Caracas. Once again, the crowd is huge.
There's a sea of people, many of them waving the national flag - red, yellow and blue - under a blazing hot sun. Some people here have banners, which are demanding that humanitarian aid is allowed into the country to help the many, many Venezuelans who are suffering from shortages of food and medicine. Nicolas Maduro has been blocking that aid.
This crowd wants Maduro to leave office immediately, allowing Guaido to take control as interim president and lead Venezuela to new, fair elections. Dozens of nations, including the United States, recognize Guaido as the legitimate head of state, yet Maduro still holds power.
What's your name, please?
ISABEL LESMAN: Isabel Lesman.
REEVES: And your profession.
LESMAN: I'm a teacher.
REEVES: Are you at all worried that it's now been three weeks? We're at the third demonstration of this kind and yet Maduro is still there.
LESMAN: Oh, I know. It's hard when you try to put some time or some deadline on this. Even though we're not sure of what's going to happen or when, we are confident.
REEVES: How do you keep the momentum going?
LESMAN: Well, that's hard. That's hard.
TAMARA ADRIAN: I know people are exasperated, are willing to have a change immediately and to see the new government with full powers immediately.
REEVES: Tamara Adrian is a senior member of Popular Will, Guaido's political party. She's involved in the strategic planning of the campaign to establish a transitional government and get Maduro out. Adrian believes it's all about being patient.
ADRIAN: We have to be very strategic about that - when and how we have to rise the temperature and when we have to lower it because we know now that this - it's a transition that might take several months, even more than one year.
REEVES: Much of the success of Guaido's campaign depends on whether Venezuela's armed forces abandon Maduro. A few senior officers have defected, and there have been many desertions in the junior ranks. The top brass remains loyal to Maduro for now. Adrian says she believes there is discontent in the upper echelons. She says she met some military officials recently, including a fairly senior officer.
ADRIAN: He told me, listen here, everybody. It's with you, but don't say that to anyone. But we are here to support you whatever you need.
REEVES: Guaido's trying hard to get the military to defect. He's offering amnesty. He's also urging the security forces to disobey orders by allowing in the U.S. humanitarian aid warehoused on the border in neighboring Colombia. Guaido has said the first delivery inside Venezuela has already been made without saying how or where. Adrian also says a few trucks with food and medicine have arrived but very little when compared with the needs of Venezuelans.
ADRIAN: The reality - it's that the process is much more complicated than the United States and Colombia organizers thought. There are many, many, many various aspects that are very complicated.
REEVES: Today at the mass protest, Guaido announced a deadline for getting the aid into Venezuela - the 23rd of February. Maduro shows no sign of relenting. Speaking to the BBC, he denied there's hunger in Venezuela and accused Washington of engineering a humanitarian crisis to justify a military intervention. His supporters from the ruling Socialist Party held a counter-rally in Caracas. The minority of Venezuelans who still believe in Maduro include this man, who'll only gave his first name, Melvin, for safety reasons. He believes the U.S. is after Venezuela's vast oil reserves...
MELVIN: (Speaking Spanish).
REEVES: ...And argues that if Washington really wants to provide humanitarian help to Venezuelans, lift the sanctions. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Caracas.
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