Venezuela's Guaido heads to Colombia border to collect aid
Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido defiantly set out Thursday to personally collect US-supplied food and medicine stockpiled in Colombia, as President Nicolas Maduro announced he would close the Brazilian border to prevent the entry of aid.
Guaido, who has set a Saturday deadline for bringing in the aid, left the capital Caracas for the Colombian border in a convoy of several vehicles for the 900-kilometer (560-mile) trip, according to a spokesman.
"Confirmed - it's rolling," the spokesman said of the collection operation announced Wednesday by Guaido, who has been recognized as interim president by more than 50 countries.
Embattled Maduro has dismissed Guaido's humanitarian caravan as a "cheap show" and insisted aid is a precursor for a US military intervention in the oil-rich but economically crippled Latin American country.
Maduro announced Thursday that the border with Brazil -- which along with Colombia is one of the main potential avenues for aid delivery -- would be "completely and absolutely" closed from 8:00 pm (0000 GMT) until further notice.
The military has also beefed up security at the Colombian border, with security forces barricading a major border bridge to prevent aid from entering from Cucuta, where tons of supplies are stockpiled.
And the military said in a decree that it was banning vessels from sailing out of Venezuela's ports until Sunday to avoid actions by "criminal" groups.
A separate caravan of several buses containing opposition lawmakers had earlier left eastern Caracas bound for the border, after a delay of several hours.
The convoy was briefly blocked before being allowed to proceed.
"We know that the regime is going to put all obstacles to prevent us from reaching the border, but nothing is stopping us, we are going to continue," said opposition lawmaker Yanet Fermin.
Meanwhile, Maduro -- mirroring Guaido's move in an attempt to show his socialist government was able to look after its people -- ordered a shipment of thousands of food boxes to be distributed to the needy along the Colombian border.
Food Minister Luis Medina Ramirez said on Twitter that "20,600 boxes" of food from the government's long-running subsidized food distribution program had left for the Colombian border area from the port of La Guaira.
A video posted on the minister's account showed 11 container trucks exiting the port near Caracas.
"This is the real humanitarian aid of Venezuela," said Ramirez.
Shipments of food and medicine for the crisis-stricken population have become a key focus of the power struggle between Maduro and Guaido.
The 35-year-old leader of the Venezuelan legislature proclaimed himself acting president January 23 and wants to oust Maduro, set up a transitional government and hold new elections.
"This could be very soon, between six and nine months, once Maduro's current usurpation ends," Guaido told Mexican television station Televisa.
On Wednesday, he rallied bus drivers to go to the borders to collect aid for Venezuelans suffering shortages.
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.
Guaido, who says 300,000 people could die without an influx of aid, says he aims to rally a million volunteers to start bringing it in by Saturday.
Addressing supporters, he listed the planned transit points of entry at the Brazilian and Colombian borders, the island of Curacao and the seaports of Puerto Cabello and La Guaira.
However the pro-Maduro military has already blocked the Tienditas bridge across the Colombian border, and Vice President Delcy Rodriguez confirmed the government was shutting down air and sea links between Curacao and Venezuela.
Amnesty International's Americas director Erika Guevara urged authorities to "guarantee access" for those bringing in aid.
Underlining the swell of international support for Guaido, British entrepreneur Richard Branson plans to hold a pro-aid concert just inside Colombia on Friday, while Maduro's government stages a rival concert on its side of the border, around 1,000 feet (300 meters) away.
US Vice-President Mike Pence is to visit neighboring Colombia on Wednesday in a show of support for Guaido, the White House said.
During the one-day visit, Pence will address the Lima Group of Latin American countries and Canada, formed in 2017 to seek a peaceful resolution to the Venezuela crisis.
Wednesday's rally in Caracas gathered just a couple of dozen buses and pick-up trucks in Guaido's support.
Meanwhile, hundreds of state bus drivers rallied in the red shirts of the pro-government "Chavismo" movement, in a gathering convened by the authorities.
They yelled their loyalty to Maduro -- himself a former bus driver -- and the memory of his predecessor, the father of Venezuela's socialist "revolution," Hugo Chavez.