Venezuela's Guaido calls for 'million volunteers' in aid standoff

Venezuela's Guaido calls for 'million volunteers' in aid standoff

CARACAS - Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido set a goal Sunday of enlisting a million volunteers within a week to confront a government blockade that has kept tons of humanitarian aid, most of it from the United States, from flowing into the country.

Venezuelan opposition leader and self declared acting president Juan Guaido gestures to supporters at the end of a rally with volunteers

Guaido has given February 23 -- one month to the day after he proclaimed himself acting president -- as the date for a showdown over the aid with the government of President Nicolas Maduro.

Food supplies, hygiene kits and nutritional supplements have been stockpiled near the Venezuelan border in Cucuta, Colombia.

Additional storage centers are supposed to open this week in Brazil and Curacao, a Dutch island off Venezuela's northern Caribbean coast.

"Our principal task is to reach a million volunteers by February 23," Guaido said in a message to the 600,000 supporters who have signed up so far for the push to bring aid in.

He said the volunteers would gather at designated points, or participate on social media.

Caravans of buses are being planned to carry volunteers to border entry points to meet and transport arriving cargo, but Guaido has kept to himself how he plans to overcome the obstacles put up by the Venezuelan military, on Maduro's orders.

Volunteer groups have already begun meeting in so-called "humanitarian camps" in several Venezuelan states to organize and prepare for the arrival of aid. Sometimes working under awnings or tents, doctors, nurses, dentists and pediatricians have attended to local residents in need.

An imploding economy has driven an estimated 2.3 Venezuelans to migrate, while those who remain have been punished by hyperinflation that has put scarce food and medicine out of reach for many.

Maduro, who denies the existence of a humanitarian crisis, dismisses the opposition moves as a "political show" and a cover for a US invasion.

- 'Humanitarian avalanche' -

"Venezuela is preparing for the humanitarian avalanche," Guaido told about 4,000 supporters clad in white T-shirts and green scarves who gathered Saturday to sign up as volunteers.

Coromoto Crespo, 58, told AFP he volunteered because of the urgent need for supplies.

"To find medicines requires a miracle. I need tablets for high blood pressure, and what I find, I can't pay for," Crespo said.

"One of my relatives died because of a lack of antibiotics."

Andrea Hernandez, a physical therapy student whose mother is a pediatric nurse who was also volunteering, said her mom often "cried from seeing her patients die from lack of medicine."

So "humanitarian aid is the best thing for Venezuela at this time," Hernandez said.

Another woman, who went by Jessenia, added she took advantage of a roving dentist's office to finally get treatment she was otherwise unable to afford for her son who had cavities.

- US senator arrives -

US Senator Marco Rubio, meanwhile, arrived Sunday in Cucuta for a first-hand look at the aid operations. He met with officials at the collection point and visited the Simon Bolivar international bridge linking Colombia and Venezuela.

Guaido, in a tweet, thanked Rubio for his "noble effort to achieve humanitarian aid."

Three US military cargo planes delivered several dozen more tons (tonnes) of food assistance to Cucuta on Saturday.

Another US aircraft is due in Curacao from Miami on Tuesday, and a collection center for Brazilian aid will open Monday on the border, Guaido's team said.

Saturday's shipment was accompanied by a delegation led by Mark Green, head of the US Agency for International Development.

Venezuelans based in Miami held their own drive, putting together 1,000 crates of food to send to their homeland.

On Friday, Maduro instructed his army to prepare a "special deployment plan" for the 2,200-kilometer (1,370-mile) border with Colombia.

Maduro has poured scorn on the aid, spurning it as "crumbs" and "rotten and contaminated food" while blaming shortages of food and medicine on US sanctions.

He said six million families had benefited from subsidized food boxes and he claimed to have bought 933 tons of medicines and medical supplies from China, Cuba and Russia, his main international allies.

On another front, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza confirmed having held two meetings with special US envoy Elliott Abrams. Arreaza, who traveled to New York on February 13, said he held the talks with Abrams at the request of the State Department. He declined to comment on the substance of their discussions.

Guaido repeated his call on Venezuela's military -- whose support for Maduro has been crucial -- to let the aid pass.

He also announced that British billionaire Richard Branson was organizing a concert for February 22 in Cucuta with renowned international artists to raise money for the relief effort.

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