Venezuela Hovers On The Brink Of Conflict — Many Fear The Situation Will Escalate
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The situation in Venezuela is combustible. The U.S. recognizes a president who is not in power, Juan Guaido. Venezuela's sitting President, Nicolas Maduro, refuses to leave, and he has heavily armed backers - the military and paramilitary groups called colectivos.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Guaido says today preparations for Operation Liberty begin, and the tactical phase begins April 6. It's unclear exactly what that means. It could be another large demonstration. The concern is it could mean violence. Our co-host Ari Shapiro has spent the last week on the border of Colombia and Venezuela looking at this possibility. Hey there, Ari.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.
CORNISH: So what makes the border with Colombia specifically such a tinderbox?
SHAPIRO: Well, this is the biggest border crossing point from Venezuela. More than a million Venezuelans have crossed into Colombia recently, and every day, thousands of people go back and forth from Venezuela to Colombia to find food or make money. Because Venezuela's economy has collapsed, inflation has made people's savings worthless, and there's no medicine in Venezuela. People cross the border to find food, education, work - for all of those reasons.
CORNISH: All right, let's dig into this more. Where do you want to begin?
SHAPIRO: We're going to start right at the border that separates Venezuela and Colombia. It's the semen Simon Bolivar Bridge, the main artery leading to the Colombian city of Cucuta. For the last month, this bridge has been totally closed to vehicles and to most foot traffic, but people still use illegal crossings, sometimes wading across a river, holding their stuff over their heads, to get into Colombia. As you approach this border from the Colombian side, you're surrounded by a crush of people, many of them Venezuelan.
SHAPIRO: There is a huge throng of thousands of people selling everything from cigarettes to medicine to mango. Some are offering to sell bus tickets. Others are offering to buy hair. As taxis pull up to the border area, there are literally hundreds of young guys lining the street. And as the taxis slow down, the guys just sprint alongside them, shouting in the window, asking for a few coins to carry luggage.
These taxis carry Venezuelans who crossed into Colombia to run errands. And one of the guys chasing down those cabs is a 20-year-old named Luis. He told me these young men have a lot of time to stand around and talk and also to plan. We're only using his first name because, well, he wants to overthrow his government.
LUIS #1: (Through interpreter) We're all on the same page. The government that's in power needs to go. It can't stay this way.
SHAPIRO: People will hear this and say you are arguing for a civil war; you want a civil war in your country. Is that what you are pushing for?
LUIS #1: (Through interpreter) No, it's not that I want a civil war. It's that we want everyone to come together and the current government to leave.
SHAPIRO: He tells us he'd be eager to make that happen through force. Give him a gun, and he will charge across the border with it. A lot of people will say that's a pipe dream. Maduro has heavily armed supporters, including near the border. So if a bunch of Venezuelans try to charge in from Colombia, those young men could easily get massacred. But that alone could start a chain reaction. And I met a lot of Venezuelans who are afraid that that chain reaction could even lead to U.S. military involvement.
LIJIA BLANCO: (Through interpreter) People say Donald Trump will invade Venezuela, take oil and all the riches.
SHAPIRO: Lijia Blanco is a 72-year-old who walks with a cane. She describes her fears of war, comparing Venezuela to Libya. And tears roll down her cheeks.
BLANCO: (Through interpreter) They say that they'll come in with bombs, and it'll be like how they killed that guy Gadhafi and the Arabs. I don't want that for Venezuela because it's the people who will suffer.
SHAPIRO: If you could say something to the Trump administration, what would you say?
BLANCO: (Through interpreter) I tell him, look, mijo; help Venezuela in some other way because we're dying. The children are dying.
SHAPIRO: Blanco is eating lunch at a Catholic soup kitchen on the border that serves up to 8,000 hot meals a day mostly to Venezuelans who can't find food on their side of the border. The plates are full of beans and rice, potatoes, eggs and tuna. Father David Cana is the priest who oversees this shelter.
DAVID CANA: (Through interpreter) Just as people in a hospital see blood every day, we see sadness, despair and hunger.
SHAPIRO: Cana wears an apron that says in Spanish, beautiful mother, quench our thirst, with a picture of the Virgin Mary. But even in this place of peace, people dream of war.
LUIS #2: (Through interpreter) In my state, armed groups are forming to go confront the government of Nicolas Maduro.
SHAPIRO: This is Luis, a 58-year-old construction worker eating at the long tables of families.
LUIS #2: (Through interpreter) It's happening in secret, but I was invited to participate.
SHAPIRO: What did you say when they invited you?
LUIS #2: (Through interpreter) Yes, yes, I'm going to do it.
SHAPIRO: So what do you need from the United States?
LUIS #2: (Speaking Spanish).
SHAPIRO: "We'd like them to put their hands in our country." Luis says he would go. He doesn't have any experience fighting, but others in this border town do.
This is a street that was once full of high-end hotels that were popular with Venezuelan tourists. One of them has a billboard outside with a picture of pink dolphins jumping out of the water. But most of these resorts and hotels are now closed because the Venezuelans on the other side of the border no longer have the money to come spend to stay here. One of these shuttered resorts is now being used to house high-level military defectors from Venezuela. They're only allowed out of the hotel a couple of hours a day, and they've agreed to spend those hours with us to talk about their hopes for a violent overthrow of the Maduro regime.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hola.
We sit with these four young men near the ruins of a cathedral that was destroyed in an earthquake more than a century ago. One was in the special forces of the Venezuelan police. The others were in the equivalent of the FBI, the Navy and the Army. They range in age from 19 to 27, and they tell us they have only one mission.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) We are here to overwhelmingly attack the dictatorial regime of Maduro.
SHAPIRO: They use their leader Juan Guaido's phrase Operation Liberty. Williams Cansino seems to be the spokesman for this small group. He has a detailed understanding of who in the U.S. is making decisions on Venezuela.
WILLIAMS CANSINO: (Through interpreter) We're asking for help from President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Senator Marco Rubio, national security adviser John Bolton and special adviser for Venezuela Elliott Abrams. Please, it's time to act.
SHAPIRO: So many Americans remember what happened in Iraq with Saddam Hussein or what happened in Afghanistan where years later. The United States has no way out of the country. And they fear that that could happen in Venezuela.
CANSINO: (Through interpreter) That won't happen in Venezuela because 90 percent of the military and the police will support an operation by the United States.
SHAPIRO: But then why hasn't 90 percent of the military done what the four of you have done?
CANSINO: (Through interpreter) Out of fear, because our houses were raided.
SHAPIRO: He pulls out a photo on his phone. He says it shows a special forces raid on his family's house after he defected. Cansino says his stepfather was briefly detained. His mother and his girlfriend are now in hiding. These military defectors say they're getting impatient. Jose Acuna is tired of waiting.
How much longer can you just sit?
JOSE ACUNA: (Through interpreter) I think that time is running out. If it's not the United States or our interim president Juan Guaido doesn't give the order, we the military that are here will do something for our country.
SHAPIRO: Are you all willing to act even if Guaido and the United States do not say go?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Si.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Si.
SHAPIRO: As we leave this group behind, one of the men asks if we can help them find money and weapons. We decline. Pepe Ruiz Paredes is the mayor of the small town on the border Villa del Rosario. I ask him what will happen if violence does break out.
PEPE RUIZ PAREDES: (Through interpreter) We won't let that happen.
SHAPIRO: This is one reason Colombian police guard the military defectors in their hotel and only let them sign out a couple of hours each day. The hosts don't want the guests stirring up trouble, fighting to take back Venezuela from here at the border.
PAREDES: (Through interpreter) We want them to fight there. The problem needs to be solved in Venezuela.
SHAPIRO: They say they want to fight here.
PAREDES: (Through interpreter) Well, the people you need to overthrow are in Caracas, not here.
SHAPIRO: Caracas is more than 500 miles away. If there is violence on the border and it starts to spread, then this could grow into a civil war and even a regional or global conflict. Last month, Vice President Mike Pence issued this warning in Colombia's capital, Bogota.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Colombia is our strongest partner in the region, and any who would threaten her sovereignty or security would do well not to test the commitment to our ally or the resolve of the United States of America.
SHAPIRO: And the U.S. isn't the only world power staking out ground here. Moscow wants Maduro to stay in power. Just last weekend, Russia flew troops and equipment into Caracas. President Trump responded yesterday, saying, quote, "Russia has to get out."
FRANCISCO SANTOS: Venezuela can become sort of a Syria.
SHAPIRO: A Syria.
SANTOS: Yeah. It's imploding.
SHAPIRO: This is the Colombian ambassador to the U.S., Francisco Santos. Ambassador Santos insists there is still time for what we'll call plan A - international pressure and sanctions to force Maduro out. Venezuela would then hold elections, and Guaido would take power. But I kept pressing the ambassador.
SANTOS: And we still hope that that will happen. What...
SHAPIRO: I hear you arguing that plan A is not over yet, but I still...
SANTOS: No, it's not. It's just starting.
SHAPIRO: OK, but I still have the question. What is plan B?
SANTOS: Plan B would involve violence. I don't even want to think about it, to be very sincere. I don't want the continent to think, to have a plan B option. I'm very scared of what might happen.
SHAPIRO: This morning I went to the U.S. embassy in Bogota and sat down with Ambassador Kevin Whitaker to ask how real this threat of violence is. He's been U.S. ambassador to Colombia for five years and worked in Latin America much longer than that.
KEVIN WHITAKER: I think it's very important for us to show strategic patience now. Foreign Minister Trujillo, who's the Colombian foreign minister here, just said the other day that a dictatorship of 20 years is not going to crack at the first blow. So I can't really put a time limit on it. But what I will say is that even as frustrated as we are at the lack of immediate change on this, change will come.
SHAPIRO: He says all of these regimes look impenetrable, as though they'll last forever, until the moment they fall.
(SOUNDBITE OF ZOE KEATING'S "TETRISHEAD")
CHANG: That's our co-host Ari Shapiro. Tomorrow he follows the mountainous road that thousands of Venezuelans are walking as they flee their country.
(SOUNDBITE OF ZOE KEATING'S "TETRISHEAD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.