A contest of butter vs. guns in Venezuela

The military’s blockage of foreign aid should not be countered by outside force. Democracy’s future there depends on peaceful means to win over the armed forces.

To block aid from Colombia, Venezuelan security forces have placed a fuel tank on the Tienditas cross-border bridge.

In a clichéd sort of way, the tense crisis in Venezuela over who rules the country has come down to this: guns vs. butter. Almost literally.

Crates of food and other supplies from foreign countries that regard Juan Guaidó as the acting president are piling up at the border with Colombia, at his request. Millions of Venezuelans are desperate for humanitarian relief. Much of the West and Latin America want to help them. They also want to boost the legitimacy of Mr. Guaidó, who plans to distribute the aid as a display of his ability to govern. 

Yet the aid is being blocked by military forces still controlled by Nicolás Maduro. His legitimacy as president has faded since last year’s bogus election. And his main foreign backers are now only Cuba, Russia, and China.

In a test of loyalty, any army officer who allows the aid to cross the border is, in effect, abandoning Mr. Maduro. If enough officers side with the majority of Venezuelans who are hungry and protesting, a mass defection of the military could follow. Already, one air force general has switched sides.

To achieve such a “soft coup” without violence, however, will require that Guaidó and his foreign backers, which include Canada and the United States, ensure the aid continues to serve a humanitarian purpose only. As Luis Almagro, secretary-general of the Organization of American States, puts it, “It is essential that [the aid] comes with solutions for the people. That is the best way to fight against hatred and repression.” Mr. Almagro calls this the “Gandhian” way of letting the people choose their leaders by allowing a delivery of aid across the border, whether with Colombia or Brazil.

The pro-democracy Guaidó is already regarded as the “right makes might” leader while the dictatorial Maduro relies on might to stay in power. Any use of force to block the aid should not be met with force by outside powers, such as the US.

Food must not be used as a weapon, as Maduro is doing in refusing aid so far even as millions of people go hungry. More than 3 million Venezuelans have already fled the country. The United Nations says another 2 million could leave this year.

Venezuela has become a contest of ideas – violent authoritarian socialism versus peaceful democracy. The aid arriving along the border is now there for the people – and the military – to show which side they are on. Butter can win over guns.

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