Thousands of opposition activists headed out into the streets of Venezuela on Tuesday to demand the military allow in desperately-needed aid, with President Nicolas Maduro\’s supporters due to rally against "imperialist intervention."
Opposition leader Juan Guaido called the Youth Day demonstration to honor 40 people killed in anti-government rallies and press for the food and medicine to be brought into the economically-ravaged South American country.
"We are going back to the streets to demand the entry of humanitarian aid that will save the lives of more than 300,000 Venezuelans," said Guaido, who stunned the world on January 23 when he declared himself acting president.
Taking his authority from the constitution as National Assembly leader, Guaido says Maduro\’s presidency is "illegitimate" as it was founded on flawed elections.
He is trying to force the socialist leader from power so he can set up a transitional government and hold new presidential elections.
Maduro meanwhile called a march of young leftists in the center of Caracas denouncing foreign intervention in Venezuela\’s affairs and collecting signatures of people who reject US President Donald Trump.
The fate of tons of aid that has been piling up in Colombian collection centers at the border with Venezuela has become central to the power struggle between Guaido and Maduro, who is backed by the powerful armed forces.
Venezuela is in the grip of recession and hyperinflation while millions of people are suffering from a shortage of basic necessities. The UN says some 2.3 million people have fled since 2015.
– Military exercises –
But the military has barricaded a border bridge linking the countries, with Maduro describing the aid as a "political show" and a pretext to a US intervention.
Guaido, recognized by some 50 countries as interim president, has offered amnesty to military personnel who dump Maduro and told them that refusing to allow in aid was a "crime against humanity."
He says almost 100,000 Venezuelans have signed up as volunteers to help bring in aid and distribute it to those most in need.
The Venezuelan government distributed food and medicine on Monday.
Guaido\’s envoys met Brazilian officials in Brasilia on Monday and announced plans to establish a second aid storage center in the state of Roraima, on Venezuela\’s southeastern border, from next week.
But Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino said the armed forces were deploying a "reinforced presence all along the border."
Although he has wide international support in his bid to oust Maduro, Guaido needs the support of the armed forces.
He has warned the military that it will be held responsible for any deaths among the protesters on Tuesday.
The US has presented a draft resolution to the UN Security Council calling for international aid deliveries and new presidential elections.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday dismissed the move as an attempt to "cover up planned provocations… to destabilize the situation in Venezuela and even gain an excuse for direct military intervention."
Speaking to AFP last week, Guaido refused to rule out asking for foreign intervention.
The Venezuelan military meanwhile announced it had started conducting exercises, set to run until Friday, to "reinforce the country\’s defensive capacity."
– UN offers talks –
Venezuela\’s financial accountability authority announced a probe into Guaido\’s income on Monday, saying he had "allegedly… received money from international and national bodies without any justification."
Two weeks ago, the regime-loyalist Supreme Court barred him from leaving the country and froze his assets.
More than 40 percent of Venezuela\’s oil, which makes up 96 percent of its revenue, is sold to the US, and Washington is using sanctions as an attempt to starve Maduro\’s regime of its funding.
"Venezuela is in the eye of a global geopolitical hurricane," said Maduro, who claims Trump is trying to force him out in order to take control of Venezuela\’s oil reserves, the largest in the world.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres renewed his offer on Monday to help broker talks to end the political stalemate.
Pope Francis has said he would also be prepared to mediate but Guaido has rejected negotiations with Maduro, believing he would use them to buy time.
While keen on papal mediation, Maduro was less impressed last week when a group of European and Latin American ministers called for new presidential elections, accusing them of bias.
He also rejected a call by European Union countries to hold elections, prompting them to recognize Guaido.