SAO PAULO — Tensions were high in Pacaraima, Brazil, and Santa Elena, Venezuela, with the announcement by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro that he had closed the border between the two countries.
“I’ve spoken this morning to my counterparts in Santa Elena, and they say that people arriving from other parts of Venezuela to cross the border are insecure, they don’t know what to do now,” Scalabrinian Sister Valdiza Carvalho told Catholic News Service Feb. 22, the day after the border closing.
Carvalho, who works for the Brazilian bishops’ department for migrants, said the church in Santa Elena is also very concerned about the Pemon indigenous community that lives near the border. The Venezuelans told Carvalho that the indigenous are very concerned with the increased number of Venezuelan military personnel on their lands.
“I’ve been told that they are getting ready for a possible confrontation with Maduro’s army,” she said. Brazilian media reported Feb. 22 that at least two indigenous had been killed due to clashes with the Venezuelan army in the region of Santa Elena.
Carvalho said that, in February, with the increased political tension in Venezuela, the flow of people coming and going across the border has surged.
“Yesterday we had about 700 people coming across the border,” she said, adding that most do not stay in Pacaraima or even Roraima state.
“There are many who come across the border to purchase food and medicine to take back to Venezuela. Others already have a plane or bus ticket from Boa Vista (capital of Roraima) to other states in Brazil and even Argentina,” she said.
Carvalho said Maduro’s latest decision is likely to lead to overcrowding, at least temporarily, in both Pacaraima and Santa Elena.
She also said plans by the Brazilian government to send aid across the border to Venezuelans may not be successful.
“Along the Venezuela-Colombia border there are a lot of Venezuelan towns, and aid from there may be plausible, but from Pacaraima I don’t think it will work,” she said.
First, she said, the city of Santa Elena is just a stopover to the thousands of Venezuelans crossing the border.
“They don’t need aid in Santa Elena, they need aid in other cities, 10 … 15 hours away,” she said.
To get the aid to these towns, the trucks with humanitarian aid would have to pass “many, many military checkpoints” controlled by Maduro supporters, said Carvalho.
“To successfully get this food and medicine to the people who need it, we would need an international agreement with the Maduro government for the safe passage of the goods; without it I don’t think it (aid) will reach them,” she said.
The Brazilian government announced Feb. 22 that it was going ahead with the scheduled delivery of humanitarian aid for Feb. 23. The original plan was for supporters of opposition leader Juan Guaido to pick up the aid in trucks in Pacaraima and drive back to Venezuela.
For the past few years, church groups — including Venezuela’s bishops — have urged Maduro to let humanitarian aid into the country, to relieve the suffering of millions of vulnerable Venezuelans. Tens of thousands of Venezuelans have fled to other countries because of food shortages, hyperinflation and crime. Organizers worry that the situation could get worse if Maduro does not allow the aid, but the president argues that it will be used to meddle in the country’s affairs.
Brazilian officials have reiterated that Brazil does not intend to intervene in the political crisis faced by its neighbor, only to offer humanitarian aid to the Venezuelan people.