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This Is Not Humanitarian Aid: A Maduro Critic in Venezuela Slams U.S. Plan to Push Regime Change

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We go to Caracas, Venezuela, for an update on the escalating standoff between President Nicolás Maduro and opposition leader and self-proclaimed president Juan Guaidó. Guaidó claims he is preparing to deliver humanitarian aid from the Colombian border Saturday. Maduro has rejected the plan, saying the effort is part of a broader attempt to overthrow his regime. This comes as Trump’s special envoy to Venezuela and right-wing hawk, Elliott Abrams, is leading a U.S. delegation traveling by military aircraft to the Colombian border, supposedly to help deliver the aid. The United Nations, the Red Cross and other relief organizations have refused to work with the U.S. on delivering that aid to Venezuela, which they say is politically motivated. We speak with Venezuelan sociologist Edgardo Lander, a member of the Citizen’s Platform in Defense of the Constitution. “This certainly is not humanitarian aid, and it’s not oriented with any humanitarian aims,” Lander says. “This is clearly a coup carried out by the United States government with its allies, with the Lima Group and the extreme right wing in Venezuela.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Venezuela, where a standoff is escalating as opposition leader and self-proclaimed president Juan Guaidó claims he’s preparing to deliver so-called humanitarian aid from the Colombian border Saturday. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has rejected the plan, saying the effort is part of a broader attempt to overthrow his regime.

This comes as Trump’s special envoy to Venezuela and right-wing hawk, Elliott Abrams, is leading a U.S. delegation traveling by military aircraft to the Colombian-Venezuelan border, supposedly to help deliver the aid. It’s been one month since the U.S. recognized Guaidó as Venezuela’s new president, in an attempt to oust Maduro from power. Since then, it’s placed sweeping sanctions on Venezuela’s state-run oil company and rejected calls for an international dialogue to resolve the crisis. The United Nations, the Red Cross and other relief organizations have refused to work with the U.S. on delivering that aid to Venezuela, which these groups say is politically motivated.

This is Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó speaking to Fox Business.

JUAN GUAIDÓ: [translated] We will have a fantastic opportunity this Saturday to accept important humanitarian aid that the government in Venezuela has forbidden. And we have a fantastic example to pull our country out of this crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: On Thursday, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro announced plans to close the border with Brazil, and possibly also with Colombia, ahead of the Venezuelan opposition’s plans to bring in the aid despite his objection.

PRESIDENT NICOLÁS MADURO: [translated] Starting at 8 p.m. today, Thursday, February 21st, the land border with Brazil will be completely and absolutely closed until further notice. It is better to prevent than to regret, to take all the measures for the assurance and protection of our people. I am considering a complete closure of the border with Colombia. A prepared man is worth two. A prepared people is worth two.

AMY GOODMAN: Tonight, the Venezuela-Colombia border will be the site of dueling concerts—one organized by the British billionaire Richard Branson, the other by the Venezuelan government. This comes as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to visit Colombia Monday to demand President Maduro step down. Pence will deliver remarks to the Lima Group. Mexico is the only country in the group of 14 nations that has refused to recognize Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s new president.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., Medea Benjamin, the co-founder of the peace group CodePink, disrupted an event there, where Guaidó’s envoy to the United States spoke.


MEDEA BENJAMIN: Excuse me. Just as you are trying to take over the Venezuelan government, I want to say these people are a fraud. They don’t represent the Venezuelan people. They are representing the U.S.-orchestrated coup. This is a very dangerous situation. They want to create a crisis at the border that would be a justification for U.S. intervention. This has nothing to do with a humanitarian situation. Indeed, for a humanitarian situation, the U.S. would lift the economic sanctions that have exacerbated the crisis. The issue at the border now is something that is politicizing humanitarian aid. That is why the Red Cross, the United Nations and all the legitimate humanitarian groups have insisted that they will not touch this aid.

What we need now is negotiations. These people here want to take Venezuela to a path of civil war and U.S. intervention. What the Venezuelan people need is negotiations mediated by Mexico—I’m almost finished—mediated by Mexico, by the Uruguayans and by the Vatican. So, let’s say that if you indeed care about the people of Venezuela, you will be calling for negotiations. You will not recognize these people who are willing pawns in a Trump-orchestrated coup d’état. Thank you for listening to the voice of reason.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Medea Benjamin [inaudible] Venezuela news conference in Washington, D.C.

Well, for more, we go to Caracas, Venezuela, where we’re joined by Edgardo Lander, a sociologist who’s part of the Citizen’s Platform in Defense of the Constitution. Lander is a retired professor at the Central University of Venezuela. Because it’s in Caracas, there is a long audio delay, so please bear with us.

Edgardo Lander, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you describe the situation in the country right now and the effect of the pressure on the border?

EDGARDO LANDER: Good morning, Amy. Glad to be with you.

The situation in Venezuela right now is really quite, quite tense. The 23rd—that is, Saturday—when the so-called humanitarian aid is supposed to come into the country, according to Guaidó’s people, no matter what, presents a very, very serious threat to Venezuela, a very serious threat in terms of the possibilities of violence. This is certainly not some humanitarian aid; it’s a humanitarian intervention.

If the United States were really interested in democracy—the government, of course, were interested in democracy and human rights and the humanitarian situation of the Venezuelan population, the first thing they will have to do is stop the blockade that’s impacting the Venezuelan people enormously, as the Venezuelan government has extreme difficulties in gaining access to foreign markets. Its trade is made extremely difficult because the whole financial system is, in one way or another, controlled by the United States. And this blockade limits the possibilities of access to trade partners, etc.

On the other hand, enormous amounts of money, billions of dollars in Venezuelan assets, have been taken over by the U.S. government. And it’s absolutely cynical that the U.S. government is claiming to be worried about the humanitarian situation of Venezuelans, offering a few million dollars, when billions of dollars are being kept away from the Venezuelan government’s capacity to respond to the deep crisis that the Venezuelans are facing.

There is this threat of going into Venezuela no matter what. The hawks and the neocons that accompany Trump in these policies are well known. These are people like Abrams or—Elliott, or Bolton, that have had well-known trajectories of military interventions in different places of the world. And obviously there’s no concern whatsoever for the lives of Venezuelan people. The situation is so tense that the 23rd could be the spark that starts a violent, even civil war situation in the country. So, the absolute need to find some sort of solution, some sort of negotiation, that would stop this escalation of violence, is absolutely critical. And this has to be done soon, because Saturday is a very critical day.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can talk about the role of Venezuelans themselves in negotiating a solution? The possibility, the calls for the pope to be involved—of course, the pope is originally from Argentina—the pope to be involved, Mexico to be involved, with the new president, AMLO, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. And what about the people themselves in Venezuela? Your group—what is Citizen’s Platform calling for?

EDGARDO LANDER: The Citizen’s Platform in Defense of the Constitution is calling for a referendum that has been established in the Venezuelan Constitution when issues of critical national importance have to be faced. This is a situation where we face a deep constitutional crisis. We have a struggle between the National Assembly, on one hand, and the executive, on the other hand. They don’t recognize each other as legitimate. And as a consequence, there is this tug in which politics is seen as an enemy-friend confrontation in which the purpose of policy is to destroy the enemy, to completely squash it. There’s no will on either hand today to enter into some sort of agreement that would allow for the Venezuelan people to decide what they want their future to be.

The Citizen’s Platform in Defense of the Constitution, as well as other groups—mainly from the left, but not only—have been arguing that we need this consultative referendum in order to have the Venezuelan people decide if they want to have new authorities overall in the country—that is, all the national powers, including the executive and the National Assembly. But that requires an agreement, because we need a new National Electoral Council. The current Electoral Council is completely controlled by the government, and it’s not trustworthy for the majority of the Venezuelan population. So we would need, as a first step, some basic agreement, a consensual National Electoral Council, and then this call for a referendum in which the Venezuelan people can actually give their own opinion and decide whether they want to keep the present authorities or if they want to completely renew the political system—not the structure of the system, but who’s the president today, what’s the Assembly.

As it is right now, the National Assembly is calling for the need for presidential elections, and, on the other hand, President Maduro is calling for the need for new parliamentary elections. So, none of the sides is willing to reach an agreement. We would, of course, need some sort of accompaniment by some international actors. And as you mentioned, the possibilities of having the presidents of Uruguay, of Mexico, maybe the secretary-general of the United Nations and the pope, would be extremely critical in terms of the possibility of reaching such an agreement. So, this requires—there’s two things: on one hand, pressure and involvement by these people who are not interested in violence but trying to avoid a civil war, and this has been the statement of Uruguay, Mexico, the pope, and, on the other hand, pressure from the Venezuelan people to have this minimal agreement for a new Electoral Council and the referendum that would let people decide.

There are reasons why there is huge, huge, massive discontent in Venezuela in relation to the Maduro government. The crises that the Venezuelan people are facing are, to a great extent, the responsibility of this government, that has been extremely corrupt, inefficient, and has become increasingly repressive. But that in no way justifies a U.S. military intervention or this attempt to strangle the Venezuelan economy, which is of course doing much [more] harm to the Venezuelan people than to the Venezuelan government.

So, in this situation, where today, I would say, a majority of the people in Venezuela reject the Maduro government, and, on the other hand, a great majority also reject U.S. intervention, we need a negotiation that opens the way for Venezuelans to decide by themselves. And this is the option of both this negotiation with some international backing, on one hand, and this referendum that we are calling for, from the platform and other groups in Venezuela that think that the biggest threat for Venezuelans today is the threat of this escalation of violence, the possibility of a civil war and the possibility, that has been announced again and again, of a military intervention by the United States government.

AMY GOODMAN: During his speech on Monday, President Trump called Maduro a, quote, “Cuban puppet.” This is what he said.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Incredibly, there are members of the Venezuelan military still barely supporting this failed dictatorship. They are risking their future. They are risking their lives and Venezuela’s future for a man controlled by the Cuban military and protected by a private army of Cuban soldiers. Maduro is not a Venezuelan patriot; he is a Cuban puppet. That’s what he is.

AMY GOODMAN: During his speech on Monday, Trump laid out what he called a, quote, “ugly alliance” between Cuba and Venezuela.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: For decades, the socialist dictatorships of Cuba and Venezuela have propped each other up in a very corrupt bargain. Venezuela gave Cuba oil. In return, Cuba gave Venezuela a police state run directly from Havana. But this is a much different day, and those days are over. The ugly alliance between the two dictatorships is coming to a rapid end.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Trump speaking in Miami Monday. A new book out this week by former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe reveals Trump privately discussed going to war with Venezuela in 2017. McCabe writes, quote, “Then the president talked about Venezuela. That’s the country we should be going to war with, he said. They have all that oil and they’re right on our back door.”

So, Edgardo Lander, as you speak to us from Caracas, can you respond to what exactly the U.S. is doing, who Guaidó is, and this issue of humanitarian aid, the concerns of many? You have a plane that’s been flying in back and forth, or planes, from a company in North Carolina—apparently, about 40 flights. The Venezuelan government found weapons stash, perhaps from one of those flights. It’s a company that has previously worked with the CIA. The fact that the United Nations and the Red Cross have both said they won’t work on this so-called humanitarian aid, because it is politically motivated, and that it is not humanitarian aid. What you think will be happening on the border, with Elliott Abrams being flown in by military transport with his delegation to the Colombia-Venezuelan border? And the significance of Maduro closing the Brazil-Venezuela border and considering closing this border, the Colombia-Venezuela border?

EDGARDO LANDER: Well, in the first place, I’d like to insist on the fact that this certainly is not humanitarian aid, and it’s not oriented with any humanitarian aims. This is clearly a coup carried out by the United States government with its allies, with the Lima Group and the extreme right wing in Venezuela. The opposition, the right-wing opposition, in Venezuela, the people who control Parliament and the opposition parties, have been weakened over the last few years, and they had not been able to agree on any single policy in relation to ways to confront the Maduro government. But now it’s obvious that this very extreme right wing has been in close coordination with the United States government for some time now. And this script that has been followed since Guaidó self-proclaimed himself as president is a script that’s basically a U.S. script. And this script is on the works right now.

There is no concern about the situation of the Venezuelan population, because, as I said before, if you take away billions from the capacity of the government in Venezuela to respond to the needs for medicine and food, on one hand, and you offer a few million dollars in food and medicine on the Colombian border, there is no proportion whatsoever, and it’s clear that the purpose is not to respond to the situation of the Venezuelan population, but to create a conflict in the border. As people have been called by the Guaidó—by Guaidó and his people to concentrate at the border, and this concert has been organized on the Colombian side of the government, this could lead to a confrontation between the two sides. The Venezuelan government has announced that it might close the border. It hasn’t been decided yet. But the possibility of the closing of the border means that, as there is now—there’s Venezuelan military presence in this side of the border, and there’s obviously all sorts of paramilitary groups, CIA representatives, members of the armed forces of Colombia on the other side. And anything could spark some violence that could lead to the beginning of a confrontation. I don’t think that Saturday will be D-Day, in which a great confrontation will start, but it’s a possibility that it could be the spark that could lead to increased violence and the possibility of a civil war.

So, we have to confront this supposedly humanitarian aid, which is not humanitarian aid. It’s just direct intervention in order to have regime change, which has been the purpose of the Trump government from the very beginning. And we know what regime change has meant in other places. We know the experience of regime change in Libya. We know the experience of regime change in Iraq. We know what the people in Syria are facing today as a consequence of these imperial attempts to have regime change. So, there is no possibility that this so-called humanitarian aid will make any positive contribution to the Venezuelan situation. It’s just going to make it worse, because it’s deepening the crisis in terms of medicine and food for the Venezuelan people, on one hand, it’s increasing the likelihood of an escalation of violence, and it’s opening up the doors to the possibility of a civil war.

So, the need for some sort of negotiation, for putting a stop to this escalation, and to put the blame, on one hand, on Maduro’s responsibility for having, throughout this six years of government, created such an incredible collapse of the Venezuelan economy—today, the economy is half of what it used to be when Maduro came to power, and this is basically the government’s responsibility. U.S. sanctions against Venezuela, Trump’s sanctions against Venezuela, started a year and a half ago, around mid-2017. But the crisis came from way before. U.S. sanctions have deepened the crisis, but they are not the main cause of the crisis. The main cause of the crisis is ineptitude and massive corruption by the Maduro government.

So, we in Venezuela are faced with these two evils, with these two confronting enemies that have the Venezuelan people in between, paying for their own ineptitude, for their own violence, for their own political purpose, which are not the purposes of the Venezuelan population. We need to have some sort of pressure on the U.S. government to stop this level of intervention, this threat of military intervention. And we have to call on the Maduro government to be willing to open up a negotiation, because there are a lot of reasons why people in Venezuela don’t really trust Maduro when he calls about his willingness to negotiate, because he always says the same thing. But when negotiations are always carried out, they are negotiations in which he has not been willing to do anything. He hasn’t been willing to cede on any one basic issue.

AMY GOODMAN: Edgardo Lander, I want to thank you—

EDGARDO LANDER: The Venezuela government today is—

AMY GOODMAN: —for being with us. Edgardo is a sociologist, speaking to us from Caracas, Venezuela, where he’s part of the Citizen’s Platform in Defense of the Constitution, a retired professor at Central University of Venezuela.

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