US Vice-President Mike Pence, right, and Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognised as the country's rightful interim ruler, shake hands in Bogota, Colombia, February 25 2019. Picture: REUTERS/LUISA GONZALEZ
US Vice-President Mike Pence, right, and Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognised as the country's rightful interim ruler, shake hands in Bogota, Colombia, February 25 2019. Picture: REUTERS/LUISA GONZALEZ

Bogota — Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido met members of a multinational support group in Bogota on Monday to hammer out a strategy to remove his rival President Nicolas Maduro from office.

The trip comes after two people were killed and hundreds wounded as Guaido supporters clashed with Venezuelan security forces in a failed attempt to cross in truckloads of humanitarian aid from Colombia and Brazil.

The EU condemned Venezuela’s use of violence and armed civilians to block the aid entry, while UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres said he was “shocked and saddened” by the civilian deaths.

Guaido, the 35-year-old leader of Venezuela’s National Assembly, declared himself acting president in January after the opposition controlled legislature concluded that Maduro was fraudulently re-elected.

About 50 countries recognise him as Venezuela’s legitimate president.

Guaido flew to the Colombian capital on Sunday for the meeting with members of the Lima Group — 13 Latin American countries plus Canada that are seeking to resolve Venezuela’s political impasse.

US Vice-President Mike Pence will represent Washington at the event.

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo said he was confident “Maduro’s days are numbered”, blaming the border violence on armed civilian loyalists known as “colectivos”.

“We’re aimed at a singular mission — ensuring the Venezuelan people get the democracy they so richly deserve,” Pompeo said on CNN’s State of the Union.

President Donald Trump has said the US is not ruling out armed action.

Upon landing in Bogota Guaido called on the international community to consider “all measures to free” Venezuela.

This is the first time that the Lima Group, which first met in the Peruvian capital in 2017, will speak directly to Guaido.

Venezuela is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis that has seen poverty soar during a prolonged recession and hyperinflation.

Humanitarian aid, much of it from the US, has been at the centre of the standoff between Maduro and Guaido. Maduro claims the aid is a smokescreen for a US invasion, and has ordered several crossings on Venezuela’s borders with Colombia and Brazil closed.

“Today we consolidated yesterday’s victory, tomorrow we’ll consolidate it even more,” Maduro’s right-hand man Diosdado Cabello said on Sunday at a pro-government rally in the border town of Tachira.

“Not a single one of those trucks with aid got through,” Cabello said.

Power struggle

Maduro seems to have won this round in the power struggle, even though 156 members of Venezuela’s security forces deserted to Colombia or Brazil.

After Saturday’s events it is “not very clear” that Guaido has “massive” support in Venezuela, analyst Rafael Pineros said.

However the events, which also led to increased repression by the Maduro regime, may instead result in a forceful foreign intervention in Venezuela, according to political scientist Laura Gil.

“In the Lima Group the consensus is that Maduro must be removed, but there is no consensus on how to do that,” Gil said.

Another winner is Washington, because the only way to justify the use of force, if they are willing to actually do that, “is by invitation”, she said.

Colombian President Ivan Duque visited the two border crossing points where most of the violence took place on Saturday.

A 14-year-old boy was among those killed on Saturday near the Brazilian border in clashes with Venezuelan security forces. More than 300 people were injured in a day of disturbances at crossings on the Colombian and Brazilian borders.

Sporadic clashes between hooded protesters and the police, supported by terror-spreading armed civilian “colectivos”, continued on Sunday on the Venezuelan side of the border, but were not as intense as the day before.

Scores of Venezuelans who managed to slip across the border to get aid were trapped there as Venezuelan authorities had closed the border.

Nicolasa Gil, a frail 71-year-old who spent the night in Cucuta near one of the crossing points, said she was “scared to cross into my country. Here we’re safer than over there”.

The attempt to cross aid stockpiled in Colombia led Maduro to sever ties with Bogota — and on Sunday a group of Colombian diplomats trickled across one of the border bridges on foot, luggage in tow.

Also on Sunday three Bolivarian National Guard sergeants fled Venezuela and sought refuge in Brazil.

In the barracks “there is no food”, said one of the defectors, identified as Carlos Eduardo Zapata.

“They don’t even have mattresses. Us National Guard sergeants are sleeping on the ground.”

AFP