CUCUTA, Colombia — Venezuela's power struggle is set to become a battle of the bands Friday when musicians demanding President Nicolas Maduro allow in humanitarian aid and those supporting his refusal sing in rival concerts being held at both sides of a border bridge where tons of donated food and medicine are stored.
The dueling concerts will literally set the stage for a showdown between Venezuela's beleaguered government and opposition leaders who are pledging to draw masses of people to the country's western border Saturday to try to usher in aid that Maduro has vowed not to accept into the country.
British billionaire Richard Branson is sponsoring a Live Aid-style concert featuring dozens of musicians including Latin rock star Juanes on one side of the border crossing that Colombian officials have renamed the “Unity Bridge,” while Maduro's socialist government is promising a three-day festival deemed “Hands Off Venezuela” on the other.
“The eyes of the world will be on Venezuela,” opposition leader David Smolansky said in advance of the concert as he spoke with Venezuelan migrants at a soup kitchen in the border city of Cucuta where the aid is being stored. “We hope that everything that has happened these last few weeks is the beginning of the end.”
As Venezuela's political turmoil drags on, allies of Juan Guaido, who is being recognized by over 50 nations as the country's rightful president, are hoping the massive concert and aid push mark a turning point from which a transitional government is consolidated. But Maduro has shown no signs of backing down, and analysts warn that whatever happens over the next two days may not yield a conclusive victory for either side.
“I think one of the government's aims is to confuse the whole thing, possibly to create some kind of chaos that makes the opposition look bad,” Phil Gunson, a senior analyst with the Crisis Group based in Caracas, said of Maduro's rival concert. “It's a propaganda war.”
Branson agreed to back a concert in early February after being approached by Guaido, Leopoldo Lopez, an opposition leader under house arrest, and others including Colombian entrepreneur Bruno Ocampo, who said the magnate is now so committed to getting humanitarian aid into Venezuela that he will personally stay until Saturday to help ensure that food and medical supplies make it across the border.
Similar to the original 1985 Live Aid concert, which raised funds to relieve the Ethiopian famine, Branson has set a goal to raise $100 million within 60 days.
“We didn't know what we were getting into at the time,” Ocampo said Thursday. “But in less than 24 hours we are going to witness something historic.”
Friday's concert won't be the first time artists have used music to try and simmer tensions at the restive Colombia-Venezuela border. A concert known as Paz Sin Fronteras — Peace Without Borders — was held in 2008 after a diplomatic flare-up that drew Venezuelan troops to the Colombia border. That event was held on the Simon Bolivar International Bridge, which 33,000 people now use to enter Colombia each day.
“Throughout history, art has had a big role in fostering change,” said Miguel Mendoza, a Venezuelan musician who will be performing Friday and won a Latin Grammy in 2010 as part of the pop duo Chino & Nacho. “Music, above all, has a magnificent power.”
Six hundred tons of aid, largely donated by the U.S., has been sitting in a storage facility at what is widely known as the Tienditas International Bridge for two weeks. Even as several million Venezuelans flee and those who remain struggle to find basic goods like food and antibiotics, Maduro denies that a crisis exists. He contends the aid is a ploy by the Trump administration to overthrow his government. The military has placed a large tanker and two containers in the middle of the bridge to block it.
“Trump should worry about the poor in his own country,” Maduro said this week.
Days after Branson launched his concert, Maduro's government announced that not only would they hold a rival festival but that they would also deliver over 20,000 boxes of food for poor Colombians in Cucuta Friday and Saturday.
The sharp rhetoric from both sides has put many in this border city of 700,000 on edge.
Paola Quintero, an activist for Venezuelan migrants, said that while the concert has had a positive, short-term impact on Cucuta's economy, many are worried about what might happen Saturday when thousands try to move aid across the border.
“What awaits those who will be on the bridge, trying to get aid through?” she said.
Venezuelans like Rosa Mora, 40, said they were still debating whether to heed the opposition's call for a mass mobilization at three bridges in the Cucuta area Saturday, fearful that they might be met with resistance by the military.
“I'm terrified of what's going to happen,” she confided.
Still, when she thinks about her children and a sister with diabetes that has gone untreated for the last year, she leans toward participating.
“It won't be for me,” she said. “But for our children.”
On Thursday afternoon, organizers on the Colombia side of the border bridge were doing sound checks while in Venezuela a dozen workers sat idly in white plastic chairs chatting and listening to Venezuelan folk music on small speakers.
Riding by the bridge on his bike, college student Frander Duenas said he hoped to sneak into Colombia to see Branson's Venezuela Aid Live because he's a fan of the musicians performing. The government's festival didn't entice him in the least.
“This concert is for old people,” he said. “No one is going to come here.
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