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story.lead_photo.caption Volunteers wait with Venezuelans to distribute water containers and purification tablets Tuesday in Caracas. “We’re very happy,” Sergio Guerra, a motorcycle taxi driver, said. “With these tablets we can defend ourselves a little better by drinking cleaner water.”

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Red Cross volunteers distributed the first shipment of emergency supplies in Venezuela on Tuesday after months of feuding between the government, which has denied the existence of a humanitarian crisis, and opponents who have been seeking to use the delivery of aid to force President Nicolas Maduro from power.

In the working-class neighborhood of Catia near downtown Caracas, government supporters fired a half-dozen gunshots in the air as trucks emblazoned with the Red Cross' logo arrived to distribute water purification tablets and empty plastic jugs, creating a small commotion on a major avenue during rush hour.

"We're very happy," Sergio Guerra, a motorcycle taxi driver, said as the sound of the shots cracked overhead. "With these tablets we can defend ourselves a little better by drinking cleaner water."

Police showed up to restore order, and volunteers agreed to close the van doors from which they were running the distribution operation. Elsewhere, trucks carrying the aid snaked through a Caracas highway, the drivers of several vehicles honking in support.

The delivery of international humanitarian aid has become a focal point in Venezuela's power struggle, now in its third month, after opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself interim president. Both the opposition and the government have been accused of politicizing the nation's crisis, which rights groups say continues to cost lives as hospitals struggle to provide even basic care.

Guaido has rallied the international community and amassed several hundred tons of aid, primarily from the United States, at Venezuela's borders with Colombia, Brazil and the Dutch Caribbean. But Maduro has steadfastly refused to allow it in, blocking bridges and repressing opposition leaders who in February organized a caravan to deliver the shipments.

"We aren't beggars," Maduro said at the time.

On Tuesday evening, Maduro sought to claim credit for the arrival of the first batch of Red Cross aid, saying on national television that his government coordinated it in line with "international protocols."

As hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets protesting his rule this year, Maduro has been pressed to address the nation's shortages of essential goods like food and medicine. He's selectively chosen to accept aid from allies like China, framing it as a necessary measure to confront U.S. economic sanctions.

The delivery of any aid is tacit recognition that his country is in the throes of a humanitarian crisis, a notion he has long dismissed as opposition propaganda to pave the way for a foreign military intervention.

In recent years, an estimated 3.7 million people have fled the South American nation for neighboring countries like Colombia, many seeking health care for everything from minor infections to cancer treatment that they can no longer obtain. Hospitals in Venezuela often operate without essential supplies, asking patients to provide surgical gear and medicine.

A recent report by Human Rights Watch and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health concluded that Venezuela's health system is in "utter collapse." It cited increased levels of maternal and infant mortality, the spread of vaccine-preventable diseases, and high levels of child malnutrition.

"The combination of medicine shortages and food shortages, together with the spread of diseases across Venezuela's borders, amounts to a complex humanitarian emergency," the report states.

In late March, the Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies announced that it would soon begin delivering assistance to an estimated 650,000 people and vowed that it would not accept interference from either side of the polarized country. Federation President Francesco Rocca said Red Cross workers would focus on the medical needs of hospitals, regardless of whether they are state-run -- a pledge repeated Tuesday.

"It will be distributed in conformance with the fundamental principles of our movement, especially neutrality, impartiality and independence," said Mario Villarroel, president of the Venezuelan Red Cross. "Don't allow the politicization of this great achievement."

Nonetheless, both sides made inferences seeking to claim the upper hand in the aid's arrival.

Health Minister Carlos Alvarado, dressed in a red hat and speaking from the airport where the shipment landed, stressed that the medical gear was coordinated "hand in hand" with Maduro. He said a total of 24 tons was delivered Tuesday, including 14 generators which have become vital as the nation suffers from consistent electrical blackouts.

"We've always said that when supplies are authorized and agreed upon with the Bolivarian government, that Venezuela doesn't have any problem in receiving a shipment, which also helps a bit in countering the international blockade," he said.

Guaido, meanwhile, lashed out at Maduro's government for letting Venezuela's health crisis spiral out of control and denying that an emergency existed.

"Aid is entering because they destroyed the health system," he said. "It entered because we demanded it."

Villarroel thanked both state and private institutions for their help, while reiterating the organization's focus.

"Our mandate is to help save lives," he said.

Photo by AP/ARIANA CUBILLOS
Volunteers wait with Venezuelans to distribute water containers and purification tablets Tuesday in Caracas. “We’re very happy,” Sergio Guerra, a motorcycle taxi driver, said. “With these tablets we can defend ourselves a little better by drinking cleaner water.”

A Section on 04/17/2019

Print Headline: Amid power struggle, aid finally reaches Venezuela

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