URENA, Venezuela — Shelves lie empty in the few pharmacies left open in the Venezuelan border town of Urena. There are no medicines, just a few packets of cotton pads and boxes of Band-Aids.
A few kilometres away, on the eerily quiet bridge to Colombia, a fuel tanker and shipping containers, placed there by the military, sit across the empty lanes ready to block millions of dollars of U.S. aid.
In a sign of increasing desperation, residents in Urena say they are ready to turn on the security forces if the aid is not allowed in. “We are absolutely ready to resist if the government does not allow the aid to enter,” Unay Bayona, a chef and youth worker, said as the standoff continued to escalate.
Sixty tonnes of food and medicine began arriving from the U.S. Thursday and was placed within viewing distance of Venezuela in a high-stakes game designed to put pressure on Nicolas Maduro, the president — and stoke unrest among the local population.
Protests that have shaken the country since last month have failed so far to topple the socialist regime blamed for widespread shortages.
“The people will not hesitate to take to the streets and even take up arms if we have to,” Bayona said.
“There is no doubt they will deploy the army, but they are on our side. They won’t fire on their own people,” he said, underlining the stark choice security forces are likely to face if ordered to block the convoy.
The aid was called in by Juan Guaido, the opposition leader and self-appointed interim president, who has been recognized by 40 countries so far, including Canada, in a challenge to Maduro.
Urena is best known for its jeans industry, although with hyperinflation jeans are now much too expensive for most Venezuelans. Many of the factories are empty shells, symbols of the country’s economic decline.
Jorge Gonzalez, 63, used to work on one of the production lines. “This government is full of lies and corruption,” he said. “Look what they’ve done to the economy. It’s the workers who suffer most, but we are ready to fight back.”
There are increasing signs that even some of the most hardened pro-Maduro groups are beginning to turn on the regime. Kiki, in his 40s, who withholds his full name for fear of reprisals, belonged to a “colectivo,” an armed militia called on by the regime to suppress dissent. He left the group and moved to Urena two years ago.
“These guys say they’re promoting socialism, but they’re only interested in violence and making money,” Kiki said. “They will definitely be ready for any trouble that comes.”
Venezuelans from all over the country arrive in Urena every day to cross into Colombia and do their shopping, where products are affordable. The IMF has predicted that inflation in Venezuela will hit 10 million per cent this year.
Guaido’s gamble looks to be a lose-lose situation for Maduro.
If he lets the aid in, he tacitly acknowledges Guaido’s authority. If he doesn’t, he risks further inflaming unrest. But a successful blockade will prove the one thing Maduro is relying on at this point — that the military still remains loyal.
This is just laughable, to think that there isn’t a humanitarian crisis here
In Caracas, queues formed outside pharmacies Thursday as residents waited for dwindling supplies of medicines. “This is a criminal act,” said Javier Rondon, referring to the regime blocking aid, as he waited for an antibiotic to treat his five year-old daughter’s lung infection.
“We are eating up the little bit of savings we’ve saved in years and years of work, and our lives are being torn apart by a group whose only interest is to remain in power,” said Jose Pereira, 56, as he waited to buy Alzheimer’s medication for his 95-year-old mother.
“This is just laughable, to think that there isn’t a humanitarian crisis here. Look at this,” said Jose Betancourt, a 70-year-old retired bus driver queuing for an anti-inflammatory medication. “All we need now are for the armed forces to realize that we can’t continue like this.”
Back in Urena’s shops and supermarkets, there is produce, but it is simply too expensive for most people to buy. A carton of 30 eggs costs 14,000 bolivars and a kilo of cheese 20,000. The monthly minimum wage is 18,000 bolivars.
The border has been closed intermittently in the past year as millions of Venezuelans have fled.
A closure in 2016 to tackle illegal trafficking led to the formation of the Women in White, a campaign group from Urena that forced its reopening. “This is aid we desperately need,” said Lucero Varela, an activist from the movement.
“People are dying here. We’re ready to defend the town again and remove whatever they have on that bridge.”