Venezuelan defence minister Vladimir Padrino, right, is surrounded by military men as he delivers a speech in Caracas on February 19 2019. Picture: AFP/YURI CORTEZ
Venezuelan defence minister Vladimir Padrino, right, is surrounded by military men as he delivers a speech in Caracas on February 19 2019. Picture: AFP/YURI CORTEZ

Caracas — Venezuela’s military said on Tuesday it was on alert at its frontiers following threats by US President Donald Trump and suspended air and sea links with the island of Curaçao ahead of a planned aid shipment.

Opposition leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó has vowed to bring aid in from various points on Saturday “one way or another”, despite military efforts to block it.

But commanders doubled down on their allegiance to President Nicolás Maduro after Trump urged them to abandon him. 

“The armed forces will remain deployed and on alert along the borders ... to avoid any violations of territorial integrity,” said defence minister Vladimir Padrino.

Regional commander Vladimir Quintero later confirmed media reports that Venezuela has ordered the suspension of air and sea links with Curaçao and the nearby Netherlands Antilles islands of Aruba and Bonaire.

Shipments of food and medicine for Venezuelans suffering in the country’s economic crisis have become a focus of the power struggle between Maduro and Guaidó. Aid is being stored in Colombia near the Venezuelan border and Guaidó aims also to bring in consignments via Brazil and Curaçao, which is off the coast of Venezuela.

A Brazilian presidential spokesperson said the country is co-operating with the US to supply aid to Venezuela but would leave it to Venezuelans to take the goods over the border. Maduro says the aid plan is a smokescreen for a US invasion. He blames US sanctions and “economic war” for Venezuela’s crisis.

Guaidó has appealed to military leaders to switch allegiance to him and let the aid through. He has offered military commanders an amnesty if they abandon Maduro. But the military high command has so far maintained its public backing for Maduro — seen as key to keeping him in power.

“We reiterate unrestrictedly our obedience, subordination and loyalty” to Maduro, Padrino said.

Guaidó says he has enlisted the support of 700,000 people to help bring in the aid on Saturday and is aiming for a million in total

Guaidó posted a series of tweets calling senior military leaders commanding border posts to abandon Maduro. He has branded Maduro illegitimate, saying the elections that returned the socialist leader to power last year were fixed.

The US and some 50 other countries back Guaidó as interim president. 

Trump has refused to rule out US military action in Venezuela. He raised the pressure on Monday, issuing a warning to the Venezuelan military. He told them that if they continue to support Maduro, “you will find no safe harbor, no easy exit and no way out. You will lose everything”. 

Padrino rejected Trump’s threat, branding the US president “arrogant”. If foreign powers try to help install a new government by force, they will have to do so “over our dead bodies”, he said.

Venezuela’s deputy military attaché at the UN announced on Tuesday that he was siding with Guaidó. “I declare myself to be in total and absolute disobedience to the illegally constituted government of Mr Nicolás Maduro,” Col Pedro Jose Chirinos said in a video posted on social media.

Since Guaidó declared himself interim president on January 23, he has received the support of an army colonel and an air force general, neither of whom actually have any troops under their command, a retired air force major-general and a number of lower-level officers.

‘Pack of lies’

Despite sitting on the world’s biggest oil reserves, Venezuela is gripped by an economic and humanitarian crisis, with acute shortages of food and medicine. It has suffered four years of recession marked by hyperinflation that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) says will reach a mind-boggling 10-million percent this year.

An estimated 2.3 million Venezuelans have left the country since 2015. 

Guaidó says 300,000 people face death without the aid but Maduro denies there is a humanitarian crisis. Padrino said the military would not be “blackmailed” by “a pack of lies and manipulations”.

Maduro said that 300 tonnes of Russian aid would reach Venezuela on Wednesday. He previously announced the arrival of goods from China, Cuba and Russia, his main international allies.

In a series of tweets, Guaidó urged supporters to write to the generals “from the heart, with arguments, without violence, without insults”, to win them over.

Battle of the bands

Guaidó says he has enlisted the support of 700,000 people to help bring in the aid on Saturday and is aiming for a million in total. He thanked Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain for pledging “more than $18m for the humanitarian aid”.

British entrepreneur Richard Branson said he will hold a pro-aid concert just over the border in Colombia on Friday. British rock star Peter Gabriel and Colombian pop singer Carlos Vives are among those scheduled to perform.

Former Pink Floyd singer Roger Waters weighed in on Maduro’s side in a video broadcast on Venezuelan state media, criticising Branson and Gabriel and said the aid was being politicised.

Maduro’s government plans to stage a rival concert on its side of the border.

AFP