CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Billionaire Richard Branson said Monday that he hopes the concert he's throwing to rally humanitarian aid for Venezuela will save lives by raising funds for "much-needed medical help" for the crisis-torn country.
The founder of the Virgin Group told The Associated Press that up to 300,000 people are expected to attend Friday's concert on the Colombia-Venezuelan border featuring Spanish-French singer Manu Chao, Mexican band Mana, Spanish singer-songwriter Alejandro Sanz and Dominican artist Juan Luis Guerra.
Branson said it is not funded by any government and that all artists are performing for free, hoping to raise donations from viewers watching it on a livestream over the internet.
"Venezuela sadly has not become the utopia that the current administration of Venezuela or the past administration were hoping for, and that has resulted in a lot of people literally dying from lack of medical help", Branson said in a telephone interview from Necker, his private island in the British Virgin Islands. "I think it will draw attention to the problem on a global basis."
The concert is being held in the Colombian border city of Cucuta, a town of some 700,000 people that has been swollen by hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing hardship in Venezuela. The city is the staging point for foreign humanitarian aid — much of it from the U.S. government — that is being blocked from entry to Venezuela by socialist President Nicolas Maduro.
Branson said he hopes that the armed forces, until now loyal to Maduro, will allow the aid to reach Venezuelans suffering from chronic shortages of food and medicine.
"We want to make it a joyous occasion," Branson said in his first interview since he announced the concert on a brief video posted online last week. "And we're hoping that sense prevails and that the military allows the bridge to be open so that much-needed supplies can be sent across."
He said he opposes bringing the aid in by force, but clearly favors opposition leader Juan Guaido in his standoff with Maduro.
"I don't personally feel that force should be used at all by either side," he said.
"If they (Venezuelan troops) stop the aid coming through and there are pictures of hundreds of thousands of people wanting to come through from both sides, that will send out a potent message, a very powerful message to Venezuela, to everybody, that there is aid that is trying to get across, but the army is stopping it," he said. "That hopefully will mean that Juan Guaido and his people will have a better chance to have another election where sense can prevail."
Guaido declared himself interim president of Venezuela on Jan. 23 with the backing of the United States and most South American and European nations who argue that Maduro's re-election was fraudulent. He has announced that humanitarian aid will enter Venezuela on Saturday, the day after Branson's concert.
Branson said the initiative follows his involvement with Live Aid and years of work with "The Elders," a group of elder statesmen and political leaders that he helped establish to avoid conflict and assist in humanitarian situations.
"I talked to Juan Guaido, and the team, the people around him to see what could be most helpful," Branson said. "And they said that the thing that Venezuela needed the most was medical help in particular, money to be raised to try to keep doctors and nurses in Venezuela, not leaving Venezuela, and just basic medical help."
Meanwhile, Venezuela's Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez on Monday announced a rival concert for Friday and Saturday on the Venezuelan side of the border.
Rodriguez did not announce the artists that are expected to perform, saying only that the concert would be massive.
"People from all over the world want to take part in this message of love, solidarity and denunciation against the aggression that they're trying against the Venezuelan people," Rodriguez said.
Guaido said the move by Maduro's government was "desperate" and showed its indecision.
"They're debating whether the aid should come in or not ... They don't know what to do," Guaido said Monday. "They're now making up a concert. How many concerts are they going to stage?"
Rodriguez also said the government on Saturday will distribute 20,000 boxes of subsidized food.
Maduro's government has been providing residents with deeply discounted boxes of cooking oil, flour and other items, while coming under accusations it is using food as a political tool.
Associated Press writers Christine Armario, Jorge Rueda, Scott Smith and Joshua Goodman contributed to this report.
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