Cucuta, Colombia – Volunteers in the Colombian border city of Cucuta began preparing US aid packets for Venezuelans, despite Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro vowing to not let in what he called on Friday “fake humanitarian” assistance.
The aid, which arrived in Cucuta on Thursday, includes flour, lentils, rice and cooking oil as well as personal hygiene items like toothbrushes and soap, Colombian, Venezuelan and US officials told reporters.
The items were being packed by volunteers into individual bags for Venezuelan families.
High protein energy supplements were also included for young Venezuelan children suffering from malnutrition. This is the first aid to arrive and would only last for a short time, but officials said it would benefit thousands of people unable to get hold of basic medicine and food inside Venezuela.
The aid was requested by Venezuelan opposition leader, Juan Guaido, who declared himself interim president last month with the support of the United States and several other Latin American countries. Guaido maintains that Maduro’s second term as president is illegitimate, citing the May 2018 election that faced widespread international condemnation.
Maduro accuses Guaido and his supporters, including the US, of staging a coup.
It is still unclear how the aid will get through the Colombian-Venezuelan border. On Wednesday the Venezuelan military, which backs Maduro, barricaded its own side of the border, vowing not to allow the aid to enter. Maduro has consistently denied that a humanitarian crisis is happening in the country, blaming food and medicine shortages on the US sanctions, which have mostly targeted individuals and the state-owned oil company.
In a plea for the aid to pass through, exiled politician and Guaido’s spokesperson in Colombia, Lester Toledo, sent a message to Venezuela’s military.
“Dear military personnel, this aid is also for you … here comes food for your children, here comes medicine for the people who are suffering,” he said.
Toledo also said that more points of aid were going to be established in countries neighbouring Venezuela soon, to speed up aid delivery into the country.
Venezuela’s socialist economic system has been severely hit following the collapse of world oil prices in 2014. Inflation has skyrocketed, and since 2015, more than three million Venezuelans have fled to neighbouring countries due to the scarcity of food, jobs and medicine. Venezuela has gone from being one of the richest countries in the region to the poorest.
Maduro said in a press conference in Caracas on Friday that the aid should be given out to Colombians because “Venezuelans are not beggars”.
“Take all that humanitarian aid and give it to the people of Cucuta, where there is a lot of need,” Maduro said. “Venezuela is not suffering the humanitarian crisis made up by Washington over the last four years to justify intervening in our country.”
Maduro also accused US President Donald Trump of orchestrating a coup.
“There’s an attempt to violate our national sovereignty with this ‘show’ of a humanitarian operation by the government of Donald Trump,” he said.
On Friday morning an awning was set up on the Venezuelan side of the Simon Bolivar pedestrian bridge, the main point of entry between the two Andean countries, aiming to collect signatures in support of Maduro to remain president of Venezuela. Passersby shouted “Maduro out”, while military officials replied, “long live the revolution”.
Omaria Perez, 44, was at the entrance of the Tienditas bridge early on Friday morning, writing messages on placards. A Venezuelan migrant from Valencia State, Perez left her home 10 months ago in search of a better life in Colombia.
“I am here to support my country and we need this [aid] to enter,” she said.
Perez has been separated from most of her family, some back in Venezuela while others have gone to Peru and other countries in search of job opportunities.
“I don’t have words to describe how I feel about what he [Maduro] is doing. I can’t believe a person can be so cruel,” she told Al Jazeera.
Jose Mendoza, 22, held up the poster that Perez had made earlier, which stated, “in the name of God, we declare peace and freedom for our beautiful Venezuela. Humanitarian aid now. United public outcry.”