CARACAS, VENEZUELA - Billionaire Richard Branson said Monday that he hopes the concert he's throwing to rally humanitarian aid for Venezuela will help draw global attention and save lives by raising funds for "much-needed medical help" for the crisis-torn country.
Branson told The Associated Press that up to 300,000 people are expected to attend Friday's concert on the Venezuela-Colombia 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 his home 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's spoken to Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido and hopes that the armed forces, until now loyal to Maduro, allow the aid reach Venezuelans suffering from chronic shortages of food and medicine.
"We want to make it a joyous occasion," Branson said about the concert. "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."
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.
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 it 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?"