CARACAS - Boosted by the backing of 19 European Union countries, Venezuela’s opposition leader, Juan Guaido, is plowing on with his bid to bring humanitarian aid into the country despite President Nicolas Maduro’s vow to block it.
Venezuela’s National Assembly, headed by self-proclaimed acting president Guaido, was to discuss the process of gathering badly-needed food and medicines in neighboring countries before bringing it in.
Guaido has pleaded with the military, the key power behind Maudro’s authority, not to block the aid, claiming that up to 300,000 people face death without it.
“Here in Venezuela nothing will enter, not one invading soldier,” said Maduro, who claims humanitarian aid would be a precursor to a U.S.-led invasion.
Maduro has repeatedly accused the United States of being behind an attempted coup by Guaido, who declared himself acting president on Jan. 23.
The U.S., which has not ruled out a military intervention in crisis-wracked Venezuela, was the first to recognize his claims followed by a dozen Latin American countries.
Britain, France and Spain were among 19 EU nations to side with Guaido on Monday after Maduro ignored a deadline they had set for him to announce new presidential elections.
Guaido is trying to force Maduro from power, set up a transitional government and hold a new presidential poll.
He thanked each EU country in turn on Twitter “for supporting all Venezuelans in this struggle we undertake to rescue our nation’s democracy, freedom and justice.”
But key Maduro ally Russia slammed what it called interference in the oil-rich but now poor Latin American country, saying it was an attempt to “legitimize usurped power.”
Guaido, 35, claims his legitimacy from the constitution and has been ramping up pressure on Maduro by calling his supporters out into the streets.
The next mass demonstration is due for Feb. 12.
Guaido and Maduro led rival rallies in Caracas on Saturday that brought tens of thousands of people into the streets.
Guaido must still find a way to bring in the humanitarian aid given the military’s loyalty to Maduro.
The young lawmaker accused the military on Monday of planning to divert aid being stockpiled in Colombia, Brazil and an unidentified Caribbean island, in order to distribute it through the socialist government’s subsidized food program for its own supporters.
Guaido appealed to the military’s “conscience” to let the aid reach those most in need.
Guaido knows he also needs the armed forces on his side to dislodge Maduro, although he was boosted on Saturday by the defection of a top air force general.
His fledgling alternative administration will also hold talks in Washington Feb. 14 on responding to “the largest hemispheric humanitarian crisis in modern history.”
Analysts Eurasia Group say the humanitarian crisis “represents a lose-lose gambit for Maduro as he will either have to allow the goods to enter the country, further bolstering Guaido, or force the military to block their entry, which would likely lead to more blowback in the streets.”
Maduro, though, remains steadfast.
“They want to send two little trucks with four casseroles. Venezuela doesn’t have to beg to anyone,” he said.
“If they want to help then end the blockade and the sanctions.”
The U.S. has stepped up the pressure on Maduro’s regime by imposing sanctions on state oil company PDVSA in a bid to starve the administration of its funding.
But on Monday, Guaido accused Maduro of trying to illicitly transfer up to $1.2 billion from public coffers to a bank in Uruguay, urging the Montevideo government “not to lend itself to stealing.”
Under Maduro’s stewardship, oil-dependent Venezuela has plunged into an economic crisis, suffering from hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicine.
Eurasia said U.S. oil sanctions are “set to have a broad impact” with the government facing “the prospect of running out of gasoline, which could serve as another social catalyst.”
Guaido branded Maduro illegitimate over his reelection in May, which the opposition boycotted after several of its leaders were either jailed, barred or forced into exile.
The U.S. and EU dismissed the elections as a fraud.
Maduro has flatly rejected demands for new elections, telling Spanish television he would not “cave in to pressure.”
He has supported plans for a meeting of Latin American and EU states in a “Contact Group” in Montevideo on Thursday, though, saying it would lead to “dialogue.”
The United Nations said 40 people were killed in clashes with security forces in a week of protests last month, coinciding with Guaido’s self-proclamation as acting leader. Local NGO Foro Penal said almost 1,000 people were detained between Jan. 21 and 31.