Factcheck: did president Maduro block a bridge to prevent humanitarian aid from entering Venezuela?

International media reported around February 8 about a bridge connecting Colombia and Venezuela being blocked by orders of president Maduro of Venezuela. The purpose of the blockade was to prevent US humanitarian aid entering Venezuela.

By reading the mediareports the reader believes if Maduro did not block the bridge, there would be a crossing possible.

Is this true or was the bridge blocked much earlier?

A simple search on ‘Tienditas bridge’ found out the new bridge was never opened after completion because of a conflict between Colombia and Venezuela. The bridge was blocked in 2016 by a fence preventing the bridge to be crossed  long before Maduro blocked the bridge using a tanker trailer and freight containers in February 2019. The question is why the humanitarian transport wanted to use a closed bridge.

This btw. does not mean Maduro is happy to accept humanitarian aid. On February 8 he said:

“Venezuela will not allow the show of … humanitarian aid because we do not beg from anyone,” Maduro told reporters. “Venezuela is not suffering the humanitarian crisis fabricated by Washington over the last four years to justify intervening in our country.”

While the Tienditas Bridge has neven been open, the Simon Bolivar bridge, some 6 km from the Tienditas bridge is open! It is next to  Colombian border city of La Parada where over 25,000 people cross over from Venezuela on a daily basis, according to numbers provided by the Colombian immigration office.

Other than for migratory reasons, Venezuelans commonly cross the border to buy food and supplies from Colombia, where there is more variety and better value for the money.

So it is possible to bring in humanitarian food to Venezuela. It is unknown if the USAID convoy had the intention to cross the Tienditas Bridge.

The beginning

United States Agency for International Development  (USAID) is an independent agency of the United States federal government responsible for administering civilian foreign aid and development assistance. A convoy of  two large articulated lorries and seven smaller trucks organized by American USAID was heading to the Colombian-Venezuelean border early February. The trucks transported sacks of rice, canned tuna,  protein-rich biscuits, packaged corn flour, lentils and pasta sufficient  for 5,000 Venezuelans.

The destination of the convoy was a warehouse located next to the Tienditas bridge. In the warehouse food and hygiene kits were re-packed into individual white bags.

On February 5 the Tienditas bridge connecting Venezuela and Colombia was according politicians and media blocked on orders by president Maduro.

The incident got a lot of media attention after Tweets by Marco Rubio and Secretary Pompeo. He sent the Tweet shown below.

Mind Pompeo using the words ‘trucks and shipping tankers’. He did not use the word fence. As if he knew Maduro did not order to place a fence.

The earliest reports about the containers and tanker placed are from February 5. This article reports the containers and tanker were placed in the afternoon of February 5. It seems French pressagency AFP was the first of international media to report the blocking. This Chilean article dated Feb. 5 does mention the bridge was never opened after completion early 2016.

International media

AFP, the French press agency, in a now deleted article dated February 7 AFP writes:

Tanker trucks and shipping containers were moved into position late Tuesday on the Tienditas bridge, a key crossing point on the border with Colombia.

That is inaccurate. The Tienditas bridge could never be a ‘key crossing point’ as it was never opened. Luckily Archive.org was able to archive the mistake by AFP.

BBC reported at Feb. 6:

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has demanded Venezuela reopen a bridge on the Colombian border for an aid shipment organised by the opposition.

Wrong! Mind the reopen. The bridge was never open!

The Independant reported

Nicolas Maduro‘s regime blocked the Tienditas International Bridge with a giant orange tanker, two large blue containers and makeshift fencing.

Wrong as well. The fence has been at the middle of the bridge since 2016.

Dutch media

Multiple major Dutch media copied the news. Examples are AD, NRC and Parool. They all just copied the AFP article and did not do a simple verification themselves.

Dutch NOS Journaal made an error as well. In the 8 o’clock news on Friday February 8 the anchorwomen said “Containers are blocking the most important border crossing”. The news can be watched here (from a location in the Netherlands) starting 15:50.

Uh! How can a border crossing which was never used as a border crossing be the most important border crossing”?

 

Factcheck! The bridge was never opened

So lets see what we can find out about this bridge. The bridge is located 7.876726,-72.452541 and called ‘Puente Binacional Tienditas’

Was this bridge indeed blocked by Maduro? The answer is yes, but the bridge was never opened in the first place. It always has been blocked by a fence since its completion.

A Wikipedia page on this bridge states “the crossing was completed in early 2016, but due to political tensions between Colombia and Venezuela since 2015, the bridge has not been opened to traffic”. Referring to a local newspaper which  reported in 2016 the bridge did not open.

This video published in November 2018 clearly shows the fence in the middle of the bridge. Also on the Colombian side some of the lanes are blocked by concrete barriers. The video was taken from Colombia, looking into Venezuela.

Additionally there are no videos and photos on internet showing people or vehicles using the bridge. Another strong indication the bridge was never open to traffic.

This photo shown by Google Maps was made in June 2017. It shows the fence as shown in pictures made in february 2019. Excluding the tankers and containers placed on the Venezuela side of the border.

 

Border

The fence seems to be the official border between Venezuela and Colombia, although Google maps shows a boundary line located more towards Venezuela. Openstreetmap does show the middle of the bridge is the actual border.

This image shows a meeting between a Colombian representative and someone of the Venezuelean armed forces. It took place exactly at the fence, another indication the fence is at the border.

It is not possible to determine who placed the fence which has been there since 2016. The tanker and two containers are clearly placed there by Venezuela as these are on the Venezuela side of the border. This suggests Venezuela did not place the fence. If this is true, why didn’t the Colombian authorities remove the concrete barriers and the fence to show Colombia is willing to pass the aid?

Bridge blockade from satellite picture

Using satellite images the fence blocking the bridge can be seen, including the four concrete barriers close to the fence. At the time the photo was made no tanker and containers can be seen which proves the bridge was blocked even before the blocking by Venezuela. The earliest photo in Google Earth showing the fence is of June 2016.

 

Is it the same fence?

Is the fence seen in the pictures made early February 2019 the same as the one seen in photos made much earlier in June 2017? That is the case! Which means that the bridge was indeed blocked for traffic long before the media attention. And the fence seen in the November 2018 video and photos is the same one as in photos made in February 2019.

Below we compare two photos. The one on the left made after blocking the bridge using a tanker and containers early February 2019. The photo on the right was made in June 2017. There are many similarities to be seen.

 

Other nearby bridges

According Bloomberg:

Cucuta has been swamped by Venezuelan migrants, but Colombia’s National Emergency Management Agency said in a statement that the aid wouldn’t be distributed there.

 

In Cucuta  the Simon Bolivar bridge , which is located about 6 km from the Tienditas bridge,  is open.  Many people from Venezuela cross it every day. At February 10, Ruptly did a live broadcast from the bridge. The bridge is not open for cars and trucks anymore. It is not clear why the humanitarian aid convoy did not went to the Simon Bolivar bridge to provide food and medicines to the people from Venezuela. It could be because avoiding distress of local Colombian salespeople selling food and medicines. This bridge used to be able to have large trucks cross as this photo shows.

Puente Francisco de Paula Santander is the name of the second bridge in Cucuta  connecting Venezuela and Colombia. Since 2015 this bridge is closed for vehicles. However on foot people can cross the bridge.

At the time this bridge was open it for sure could be used by large trucks as this photo taken in 2010 shows.

Conclusion

Maduro did not want humanitarian aid to enter Venezuala and blocked the Tienditas bridge. However the bridge was closed anyway since 2016. Media was not aware of it and reported about demands for reopening the bridge. The questions arise why the organizers of the aid decided to use this particular bridge knowing it was closed long before Maduro blocked it.


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