Venezuela's Maduro closes Brazil border as Guaido sets out to pick up aid
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President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of Venezuela's border with Brazil on Thursday in an increasingly fraught power struggle with Juan Guaido, the opposition leader spearheading efforts to bring humanitarian aid into the country.
Recognized as interim president by more than 50 countries, he left the capital Caracas for the Colombian border in a convoy of several vehicles for the 900-kilometer (560-mile) trip.
Embattled Maduro has dismissed Guaido's humanitarian caravan as a "cheap show" and slammed aid as a precursor for a US military intervention in the oil-rich but crippled Latin American country.
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.
A separate caravan of buses and trucks containing opposition lawmakers had earlier left eastern Caracas bound for the border.
Several of the trucks were stopped by security forces and their drivers forced to get out, but the rest of the caravan was allowed to continue, lawmakers said.
"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.
Guaido scored important symbolic boosts Thursday as 11 Venezuelan diplomats based in the US declared their support for him.
Hugo Carvajal, a retired general and former military intelligence chief to Hugo Chavez, also recognized the opposition leader and called upon the armed forces to break from Maduro.
Fight over aid
Signaling his growing disquiet, 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.
Maria Teresa Belandria, Guaido's designated ambassador in Brazil, said aid deliveries would go ahead nonetheless. "The operation goes on. There's no going back," Belandria told AFP.
Guaido and opposition convoy heads to Colombia border
(VIDEO EXCLUSIVO) Caravana de Juan Guaidó avanza hacia la frontera colombo-venezolana pic.twitter.com/Nka1N8hNqdEl Nacional (@ElNacionalWeb) 21 February 2019
She said 100 tons of food, medicines and emergency kits were waiting to be trucked from Boa Vista to Pacaraima on the Venezuelan border.
Maduro also warned Thursday he was considering "a total closure of the border with Colombia" to Venezuela's west.
He has already ordered the military to barricade a major border bridge to prevent supplies from entering the country from Cucuta, Colombia, where tons of humanitarian aid are being stockpiled, most of it from the United States.
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.
He also announced on Thursday the arrival of another 7.5 tons of medicine and medical supplies from Russia.
Shipments of food and medicine for the crisis-stricken population have become a key focus of the power struggle between Maduro and Guaido.
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.
It remained unclear how he proposed to do so if the blockade continues, but experts have pointed to the notoriously porous 2,200 kilometer (1,360-mile) border, which is perforated by well-worn drug trafficking and contraband routes.
Guaido said the planned entry points for aid were the Brazilian and Colombian borders, the island of Curacao and the seaports of Puerto Cabello and La Guaira.
Venezuela's vice-president Delcy Rodriguez said the government was shutting down air and sea links between Curacao and Venezuela.
However Carlos Faria, one of the leaders of a group of Venezuelans organizing aid shipments via Curacao, told AFP a plane carrying 50 tons of food and medicine was expected from Miami on Thursday and would be loaded onto a Venezuela-bound ship on Friday.
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.
Meanwhile, the White House said Vice-President Mike Pence would visit neighboring Colombia on Monday in a show of support for Guaido.
The US has repeatedly said "all options," including military, are on the table.
But Brazilian Vice President Hamilton Mourao dismissed US threats of military intervention in Venezuela as "premature" and said it "wouldn't make sense."
"I think they're more in the realm of rhetoric than action," Mourao said of the threats in an interview with AFP.