Pressure ramps up in Venezuela

President Iván Duque of Colombia in DC.

Before President Trump spoke at FIU on Monday about the ongoing crisis in Venezuela, he met in Washington, D.C., with President Iván Duque of Colombia, and both leaders called on countries around the world to recognize Venezuela’s National Assembly President Juan Guaidó as that country’s legitimate president.

They called for pressure to get the current leader, Nicolás Maduro, to resign.

“Both countries will work with the Guaido government to restore freedom, democracy, and prosperity to Venezuela,” the two presidents said in a joint statement. “The United States and Colombia stand side-by-side with many other nations in the face of any provocation by the illegitimate, former dictator of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, and those who work on his behalf to undermine the security and safety of the region.”

Colombia is uniquely situated: As the neighboring country it has taken in the largest number of Venezuelans. The United Nations reports that more than three million people have left Venezuela and that about one million of them are living in Colombia.

“People are searching for hope in Venezuela,” Duque said at a forum in Washington, D.C., while criticizing the Venezuelan government for not allowing aid in. “Blockading international aid, humanitarian aid, for me, is a crime against humanity.”

The U.S. is amassing a trove of humanitarian aid in the Colombian border city of Cúcuta to start distribution efforts on Feb. 23, a deadline the Trump administration and Guaidó set for aid to begin flowing into Venezuela. Maduro vows to continue blocking any attempts.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, visited Cúcuta on Sunday, telling the crowd that gathered that it would be an international crime against humanity to block aid and that those who do so would “spend the rest of their lives hiding from justice.”

Meanwhile, billionaire Richard Branson announced a concert planned for the day before to help raise humanitarian aid funds that will feature Carlos Vives, Juanes and Luis Fonsi, among other artists. Maduro responded by saying he would stage an “even bigger and better” concert.

President Duque, who was sworn-in last August, says he wants to open up diplomatic channels with Venezuela, and is optimistic that Guaidó will prevail.

“This is the first time in many years that the Venezuelan people are seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. And it is up to us to continue strengthening the diplomatic blockade and now making a clear request to the Venezuelan members of the military so that they no longer pay loyalty to Maduro. They recognize that the only legitimate power is in the National Assembly and that they recognize Juan Guaidó as president of Venezuela. So I think this is the moment to put an end to the most brutal dictatorship we have seen in years in Latin America.”

In addition to President Trump and his Colombian counterpart, legislators in Washington continue to put pressure on the Venezuelan government. Among other initiatives, U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala, Democrat of Miami, recently introduced the Venezuelan Arms Restriction Act of 2019, which would restrict the transfer of defense materials and services, and crime control articles – tear gas and riot gear included — to Venezuelan security forces controlled by Maduro. The legislation has bipartisan support.

“We cannot allow Nicolás Maduro to continue to steamroll democracy and act with impunity. The people of Venezuela have spoken and demanded that Maduro to step down, but their peaceful efforts have led Maduro’s security forces to resort to violence in the streets of Venezuela, as they often have since Maduro took power,” Shalala said in a statement. “Our bill will ensure that crowd control items, like riot gear and tear gas, will not be placed in the hands of Maduro’s cronies and security forces and used against peaceful protestors.”

Ymaris Tejeda is a reporter in the South Florida Media Network’s Washington, D.C., Bureau.