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Patients die as Venezuela's politicians fight over medical aid stuck at border

An escalating confrontation between President Nicolás Maduro and the country's opposition has resulted in severe shortages of crucial supplies of food and medicine

Mothers wait for hours for their children to be admitted to the emergency room at the government-run Central Hospital in San Cristobal, Venezuela.

"The challenge is to keep the human needs in sight while this political battle unfolds." - Feliciano Reyes (above), director of Venezuelan non-profit Acción Solidaria.

San Cristóbal, Venezuela

One moment, the Casique family was piled on a motorcycle, on the way to school: the mother, a son and Nora, the eight-year-old daughter. A fraction of a second later, a truck had barrelled into them.

The accident landed the family in the hospital - and condemned the father, Israel Casique, to scour pharmacies and the black market, or travel to Colombia, in an endless search for the medications and supplies they need to survive in a country where the healthcare system is in collapse and hospitals lack even basics like soap and alcohol.

The arrival of American donations of food and medical supplies to the Colombian border with Venezuela appeared to be a lifeline for the family and dozens of other patients in critical condition or with serious chronic diseases interviewed by The New York Times last week.

But the delivery of aid has become the epicentre of an escalating political confrontation between President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela and the country's opposition, and the impasse has kept the supplies stuck in a converted customs warehouse in the Colombian border town of Cúcuta - and out of Venezuela - for nearly two weeks.

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Dire consequences

Venezuela's chronic patients say the political theatre is eclipsing their needs - with dire consequences. In the paediatric wing of San Cristóbal's Central Hospital, desperate mothers roam the corridors with lists of out-of-stock medicines needed for their children's surgeries. Others sit in helpless torpor by the intensive care ward, where their babies struggle on life support against preventable bacterial diseases.

Irianny Baute Marin, a diminutive 2-month-old baby with bronchitis, gets respiratory treatment from a device patched together with tape. Her parents had to dispatch someone to Colombia to get the antibiotics she needs, because they are not available in Venezuela. "I feel so much anguish and desperation," said her mother, Irene Marin, 21. "She is so innocent."

Many other families with no access to hard currency to buy imported supplies see the humanitarian aid as their last chance to save their children. "Please let it through, because we really need it," Yuritza Montero, grandmother of a month-old boy fighting a life-threatening bacterial infection, pleaded while holding back tears. "I know this aid can save lives."

Mr Maduro has denied there is a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela and said on Monday that the country can export medication. He called American aid a "Trojan horse" aimed at overthrowing his government and blocked the bridge between Venezuela and Cúcuta with barricades and soldiers.

On the other side of the bridge, Venezuelan opposition leaders, along with American and Colombian officials, have described the delivery of the aid as part of a plan to oust Mr Maduro. They hope to break his hold on medication and food - one of the tools he has used to ensure loyalty. They also hope that the Venezuelan military, a key pillar of support for Mr Maduro, will turn against him if forced to stand between the population and lifesaving supplies.

In this, they have the firm backing of the United States. President Donald Trump warned the Venezuelan military on Monday that if they continued to block the aid from entering the country in support of Maduro, they would "lose everything."

Juan Guaidó, a leader of the opposition who has been recognised by the United States and around 50 other countries as Venezuela's interim president, has vowed to get the convoys through and has set out for the border himself.

Top Latin pop stars, including Maluma and Juanez, will perform at a hastily organised Venezuela Aid Live concert in Cúcuta on Friday. The Venezuelan government will stage its own countershow across the border.

Political battle

As the political theatre on the border escalates, some opposition leaders admit not enough is being done to ensure the supplies get through and reach the right people.

"The challenge is to keep the human needs in sight while this political battle unfolds," said Feliciano Reyes, director of Acción Solidaria, a Venezuelan non-profit that imports small quantities of donated medicines and distributes them directly to patients and doctors.

On Saturday, a San Cristóbal education official, Aurelio Galán, undertook an exhausting journey over winding mountain roads in triple-digit heat to Cúcuta to join a rally demanding the release of medical supplies. His wife, Luz Marina, stood by his side clutching a plastic bag of dialysis solution, which she has had to buy in Colombia since their state-run clinic stopped providing it a month ago.

A week's supply equals her husband's entire monthly salary. He won't be able to buy them for much longer, he said.

"This is some sort of political show from all sides," said Mr Galán, 53. "If they wanted to, they would have passed that aid already."

Like many other dialysis patients and their families, the Galáns heard on social media and local television that the aid containers in Cúcuta have materials for dialysis, as well as medication for hypertension and diabetes, which many kidney patients also need.

At the Cúcuta rally, opposition speakers amplified the expectations. "We're going to bring to Venezuela the medication, the medical materials, and to bring liberty," said Gonzalo Ruiz, a Venezuelan doctor and an organiser at Aid and Freedom Venezuela, an activist group.

The Cúcuta aid depot painted a different picture. Since Feb 7, the US Agency for International Development has delivered about 190 tons of aid to Cúcuta. The vast majority of it is food.

Relief work in jeopardy

International relief organisations like the Red Cross and Caritas, as well as dozens of small healthcare groups working in Venezuela, fear the growing political stand-off will jeopardise their low-profile work in the country.

Critics of the opposition have asked why they and their Colombian allies have not distributed the stored aid to the thousands of struggling Venezuelans who have sought refuge in Cúcuta, or allowed Venezuelans to cross into Colombia to get the aid themselves.

Some relief workers worry that the opposition's desire to topple Maduro is overtaking humanitarian needs. "One side is trying to score political points, and the other is trying not to lose them. What they are interested in is power," said Venezuelan migrant Deixol Saavedra.

He, like a majority of Venezuelans in the region and the chronic patients, laid much of the blame for the aid blockade on Mr Maduro. By denying a crisis, he is condemning thousands to death, many said.

During a dialysis session this month, a 17-year-old kidney patient, Steffany Villamizar, sat up with a tube in her neck, surrounded by dying, bloated patients, and watched as the president toured a pharmaceutical plant on state television, laughing with his ministers.

"Everything was normal to them," she said. "It made me so mad." NYTIMES

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