Venezuela crisis: Deadly clash at Brazil border reported as benefit concerts begin
Some 1,200 km from clash, anti-Maduro benefit concert happening in Colombia
Heightened tensions in Venezuela have left one woman dead and a dozen injured near the border with Brazil on Friday, the first deadly clash related to the opposition's plan to deliver humanitarian aid that President Nicolas Maduro has vowed not to accept.
Emilio Gonzalez, mayor of the Venezuela border town of Gran Sabana, identified the woman killed by a gunshot as Zoraida Rodriguez, a member of an Indigenous community.
He said members of the Pemon ethnic group clashed with the Venezuela National Guard and army, who were moving tanks to the border with Brazil a day after Maduro ordered the closing of the international border crossing.
Friday's violence came just hours before duelling concerts were expected to begin on the country's western border with Colombia, where tonnes of donated food and medicine are stored, and a day after Maduro announced closure of the border.
There was no immediate information on the condition of those injured in the clash along the Brazil and Venezuelan border, but Gonzalez said they were taken for medical treatment after soldiers fired rubber bullets and tear gas.
British billionaire Richard Branson was sponsoring a Live Aid-style concert featuring dozens of musicians including Latin rock star Juanes on one side of a crossing that Colombian officials have renamed the "Unity Bridge," while Maduro's socialist government is promising a three-day festival deemed "Hands Off Venezuela" on the other.
3.4 million have fled, UN says
Several thousand people were already gathered in a large field three hours before the concert in Colombia was set to begin. As crowds wore white and carried Venezuelan flags, several uniformed officers on horses and foot were on guard near the border.
"This government is going to fall," people began chanting, in reference to Maduro's government. "It's going to fall."
The concert kicked off with an artist singing a song about her struggles as a migrant.
Strumming her ukulele, Reymar Perdomo on Friday sang I Left, which has become the unofficial anthem of Venezuelans fleeing their country's economic and political crisis.
On Friday, UN refugee and migration agencies said some 3.4 million people have now fled Venezuela, up from a November estimate of three million.
Eduardo Stein, the joint envoy for refugee agency UNCHR and the International Organization for Migration, praised the "tremendous solidarity" shown by Venezuela's neighbours to people leaving the country.
The agencies said Colombia hosts the highest number of Venezuela emigrants — more than 1.1 million — followed by Peru with 506,000 and Chile with 288,000. Brazil has taken in 96,000 Venezuelans.
As Venezuela's political turmoil drags on, allies of Juan Guaido, who is being recognized by over 50 nations as the country's rightful president, hope the massive concert and aid push mark a turning point from which a transitional government is consolidated. But Maduro 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.
"I think one of the government's aims is to confuse the whole thing, possibly to create some kind of chaos that makes the opposition look bad," Phil Gunson, a senior analyst with the Crisis Group based in Caracas, said of Maduro's rival concert. "It's a propaganda war."
Aid shipments held up
Branson agreed to back a concert in early February after being approached by Guaido, Leopoldo Lopez, an opposition leader under house arrest, and others including Colombian entrepreneur Bruno Ocampo, who said the magnate is now so committed to getting humanitarian aid into Venezuela that he will personally stay until Saturday to help ensure that food and medical supplies make it across the border.
Similar to the original 1985 Live Aid concert, which raised funds to relieve the Ethiopian famine, Branson has set a goal to raise $100 million US within 60 days.
"We didn't know what we were getting into at the time," Ocampo said Thursday. "But in less than 24 hours we are going to witness something historic."
Over 540 tonnes of aid, largely donated by the U.S., has been sitting in a storage facility at what is widely known as the Tienditas International Bridge for two weeks. Even as several million Venezuelans flee and those who remain struggle to find basic goods like food and antibiotics, Maduro denies that a crisis exists. He contends the aid is a ploy by the Trump administration to overthrow his government. The military has placed a large tanker and two containers in the middle of the bridge to block it.
"Trump should worry about the poor in his own country," Maduro said this week.
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 over 20,000 boxes of food for poor Colombians in Cucuta Friday and Saturday.
The sharp rhetoric from both sides has put many in this border city of 700,000 on edge.
Paola Quintero, an activist for Venezuelan migrants, said that while the concert has had a positive, short-term impact on Cucuta's economy, many are worried about what might happen Saturday when thousands try to move aid across the border.
"What awaits those who will be on the bridge, trying to get aid through?" she said.
Brazilian authorities, meanwhile, were moving humanitarian aid to the country's northern border with Venezuela even though the international crossing has been closed.
Brazil's air force on Friday sent a plane with food and medicine to Boa Vista, the main city in the northern state of Roraima.
Authorities will then truck the goods three hours north to Pacaraima, the city that borders Venezuela.
Brazilian authorities have said they will not engage militarily with Venezuela over the aid. Still, it's unclear how it might be delivered since the border is closed.