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A Showdown Over Aid In Venezuela


We're going to go now to the Colombian-Venezuelan border. Venezuelan troops have been firing tear gas at crowds who are trying to push across the border. Opponents of Venezuela's authoritarian president, Nicolas Maduro, hope to get trucks full of humanitarian supplies, food and medicine into the country, but Maduro has closed the country's borders. We're going to go to now to correspondent John Otis, who's on the bridge that crosses into Venezuela, I gather. John, are you there?

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Yep, right here, Scott.

SIMON: And what's the scene at the border right now?

OTIS: Well, it's pretty amazing. Just about 20 minutes ago, a crowd of maybe 200 or 300 Venezuelan volunteers - they kind of pushed across the bridge, and slowly, they started taking down the barricades that the Venezuelan authorities had set up. They threw the barricades, which were kind of coils of barbed wire and metal poles and things. They tossed them over the side of the bridge into the river and pushed forward. They were asking Venezuelan police and - to the other side, and they've just kept pushing across. They've gone about 100 yards across the bridge now. And they have managed to persuade several Venezuelan police officers to defect. They came running across the bridge to a hero's welcome. It's quite amazing.

SIMON: So you have seen several Venezuelan police officers defect, go to the other side and offer no resistance.

OTIS: Correct. They came over to the other side. You know, all the crowd was welcoming them over. And they got lots of cheers, and they just came running across the bridge to the Colombian side.

SIMON: John, help us understand how this - the situation in Venezuela has become so focused in recent days on humanitarian aid.

OTIS: Well, basically, Scott, it's because, you know, there's a really terrible humanitarian crisis in Venezuela right now. There are food shortages, medical shortages. There's a refugee crisis. 3.4 million Venezuelans have fled the country in the past several years. And so the opposition and these volunteers are trying to get humanitarian aid into Venezuela, but the government of Nicolas Maduro says he doesn't want it. And he says it's kind of a pretext for a U.S. invasion of his country. So, you know, they're trying to stop it at all these different border points here in Colombia and in Brazil as well.

SIMON: And is Juan Guaido, who the U.S. and a number of other nations recognize as Venezuela's leader, trying to use - well, is he openly hoping to make humanitarian aid an issue?

OTIS: Very much so, Scott. I mean, it's become a great big political issue, really. I mean, humanitarian aid is something that the Venezuelan people really need, but it's really become mixed with politics. The opposition wants to get rid of Maduro, who's been in power, you know, for the last six years during this economic meltdown. He's a socialist. President Trump doesn't like him. And so the Trump administration is fully behind Guaido's efforts to try to get humanitarian aid across the border to sort of try to provoke a mutiny and, you know, bring down Maduro, really.

SIMON: This would be a mutiny of Venezuelan forces at the border who might openly...

OTIS: That's exactly right. They're trying - the key here is the Venezuelan armed forces because they're the ones who are really propping up the Maduro government. And the U.S. and the Venezuelan opposition are hoping to convince the Venezuelan armed forces with all this pressure on the border to sort of see the light and allow in humanitarian aid and turn against Maduro and that way they're hoping that the Maduro government collapses.

SIMON: Correspondent John Otis on the Colombian side of the Venezuelan border, thanks very much for being with us.

OTIS: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.