By Christine Armario and Luis Andres Henao / Associated Press
CUCUTA, Colombia — Defying orders banning him from leaving Venezuela, opposition leader Juan Guaido made a surprise appearance at the end of star-studded aid concert in neighboring Colombia, joining thousands of other Venezuelans in pressuring President Nicolas Maduro into allowing the delivery of emergency food and medicine.
In Venezuela, a much smaller crowd gathered for a rival, three-day “Hands Off Venezuela” festival being organized by Maduro. Even as several million Venezuelans flee the country and those who remain struggle to find basic goods like food and antibiotics, the embattled president claims the relief effort led by Guaido is a U.S. orchestrated ploy to oust him from power.
It’s not clear how Guaido sneaked into Colombia — in one video circulating on social media he appears running across a bridge near the Colombian town of Puerto Santander, while in another he could be seen boarding a helicopter belonging to the Colombian air force.
But once he arrived at the giant stage located next to the Tienditas bridge connecting the two countries he was greeted like a rock star himself. Thousands of Venezuelans shouted “Juan arrived! Juan arrived!” when they spotted him donning a white shirt and accompanied by a large contingent of Colombian security as he made himself through the front of the crowd.
The presidents of Colombia, Chile and Paraguay were on hand to be the first foreign heads of state to embrace the 35-year-old lawmaker since he declared himself interim president a month ago at an outdoor rally.
The optimistic mood at the Live Aid-style concert opened in the Colombian border city of Cucuta couldn’t mask underlying tensions a day before Maduro’s opponents embark on a risky strategy to undermine Maduro and bring in the aid being amassed along three of Venezuela’s borders.
Thousands of kilometers away, near a crossing with Brazil, a member of an indigenous tribe was killed and 22 more injured in clashes with security forces who enforced Maduro’s orders to keep out the aid.
British billionaire Richard Branson organized the “Live Aid Venezuela” concert, which featured dozens of Latin musicians performing on a bridge-side stage not far from where Maduro’s government has placed a giant shipping container and tanker to prevent the delivery of U.S.-supplied food and medical kits.
As Venezuela’s political turmoil drags on, allies of Guaido, who the U.S. and dozens of other countries have recognized as Venezuela’s rightful leader, are hoping the massive concert in Cucuta will set the stage for the smooth delivery Saturday of the aid and a turning point in their quest for a transitional government. The promised “humanitarian avalanche” is taking place exactly a month after Guaido declared himself interim president in an outdoor rally.
The plan to bring in aid is the most ambitious — and potentially dangerous — that the opposition has attempted to undertake since Guaido decided to challenge Maduro’s rule.
But the embattled socialist has shown no signs of backing down, and analysts warn that whatever happens over the next two days may not yield a conclusive victory for either side.
Much like the original 1985 Live Aid concert, which raised funds to relieve the Ethiopian famine, Branson has set a goal to raise $100 million for Venezuelans in need within 60 days.
Days after Branson launched his concert, Maduro’s government announced that not only would they hold a rival festival but that they would also deliver more than 20,000 boxes of food for poor Colombians on Friday and Saturday.
In contrast to the festive spirit in Cucuta, most of the acts at the pro-government show were lesser known, the crowd of a few hundred much older and some attendees reported being bused in by the government from as far away as the capital, Caracas.
While the pro-Maduro conference was being broadcast on state TV, people inside Venezuela had trouble tuning into the fundraising concert. Internet watchdog group Netblocks said YouTube, Bing and Google services inside Venezuela went down for nearly an hour on state-run internet provide CanTV. On widely used DirecTV the plug was also pulled on two foreign networks that carried the concert live.
Meanwhile, the aid continues to arrive.
Chilean President Sebastian Pinera arrived in Cucuta for a meeting with his Colombian counterpart Ivan Duque with almost 9 tons of aid in tow, while Brazil’s air force sent a plane with food and medicine to Boa Vista, the main city in the northern state of Roraima. A U.S. military cargo plane transported from Miami another 50 tons of aid boxes stamped with an American flag — the fifth such aid airlift this month.