- By Daniel Lansberg-RodríguezDaniel Lansberg-Rodríguez teaches on Latin America at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and is a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Nacional. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.
Over the past two weeks, the Venezuelan government has expelled 1,000 Colombian migrants back to their homeland, producing a flood of harrowing images. The exiles give heartbreaking accounts of families separated, personal belongings seized, and of wanton physical abuse. Venezuelan National Guardsmen have even taken to spray-painting the homes of the soon-to be-banished, marking their dwellings with an “R” for reviewed, or else a “D” for demolition.
Nearly 5,000 other Colombians, hoping to salvage some of their property and avoid the brutal treatment befalling their compatriots, have fled preemptively, wading across the shallow river marking the porous border between the two countries with whatever possessions they can carry. The Colombian border city of Cúcuta, the regional epicenter of transit and trade, has struggled to handle this influx, housing refugees in makeshift tents set up in local schools and stadiums.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, who first sealed the border on August 19th with the declaration of a “state of emergency,” has justified his heavy-handed action in terms reminiscent of U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump. “They come here, and all they bring with them is needs and poverty,” Maduro said in a speech earlier this summer. “They all come looking for education, work, health and home.” He even accused Colombia of becoming “a net exporter of poverty to Venezuela.” This isn’t the first time he’s tried this trick. As Venezuela’s social and economic collapse intensifies, the Maduro regime has tried repeatedly to manufacture geopolitical crises in hopes of rallying nationalist sentiment – or, at the very least, distracting Venezuelans from their plummeting standard of living.
It turns out, though, that Maduro’s connection with this particular bogeyman is rather more intimate than he lets on. Although much of his past remains obscure, many Venezuelans, and more than a few Colombians, claim the self-proclaimed “son of Hugo Chávez” is actually from Cúcuta himself — which would make him a Colombian citizen. Revolutionary rhetoric notwithstanding, Maduro also had biological parents, and we know from Colombian records that his mother was actually born in Cúcuta in 1929. Maduro’s father was enrolled as a student at a Cúcuta-area secondary school in 1947 (though his precise birthplace is unclear). We also know that both of Maduro’s parents still resided in the city when they were married in 1956, and baptismal records show that his oldest sister María was born there soon after.
So at some subsequent point, the young family must have crossed the border — or, as Maduro himself might put it, “exported themselves” — in search of greener Venezuelan pastures. When exactly this all took place, under what circumstances, or whether Maduro was already with them, remains a mystery. He doesn’t talk about it, and as is so often characteristic of border regions and Latin American backcountry alike, there are simply no records available.
Since Venezuela’s constitution requires that the president be Venezuelan-born and bars dual citizens from the highest office, this question has generated considerable interest. The opposition’s accusations that Maduro is a crypto-Colombian have dogged him since before taking office, resulting in a robust “birther”-style movement championed by nearly all of Venezuela’s most visible opposition leaders, including twice-presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, as well as international allies such as Guillermo Cochez, a former ambassador to the Organization of American States from Panama.
Maduro himself has long claimed to be a Caracas native, since even before he could realistically have aspired to the presidency. Certainly by 2006, when he was first plucked from the national legislature and appointed foreign minister by Chávez, American embassy dossiers (available in Wiki-leaked version here) were referring to him as born in Caracas. Traces of Maduro’s early life in Caracas prior to his political rise, are scarce, however, and no credible records of his residence there have materialized. We do know that he studied in Cuba for a time (he remains close with the Castros) and that he first gained notice in Caracas during the 1980s and 1990s, when he was working as a public transport conductor and union organizer, playing bass guitar in leftist rock bands, and sporadically hiring himself out as a political bodyguard for various radical candidates: most notably Chávez himself in 1998.
Within the ruling socialist party, other leaders have also referred to Maduro’s birthplace as Caracas – albeit sometimes different areas of it — or else Tachira (as alleged by Tachira’s current Chavista governor). The Colombian government has thus far remained mum on the matter. In Cúcuta itself, though, many claim to have known the future leader as a child. On Saturday, Univision reporter Yezid Baquero visited what is alleged by locals to have been Maduro’s childhood home, interviewing an elderly neighbor who chortled that Maduro was “such a fat little boy” back then. It bears noting that other witnesses have contradicted this recollection, remembering Maduro, but in the context of his visiting an “aunt” who lived there.
Ironically for a country where young mothers are routinely required to bring their children’s birth certificates to market simply to procure strictly rationed diapers and formula, regime authorities have thus far failed to make Maduro’s birth certificate public. The head of the regime’s electoral authority did appear once on state television holding what was ostensibly a copy, at which time she declared it authentic, and Maduro legally entitled to govern.
Maduro’s opponents are still quick to point out various oddities, however, such as the fact that he and two of his sisters hold three consecutive national ID numbers, which could only have happened if they registered at the same time (as is more common among immigrant families.) But while it can be easy to get lost down such rabbit holes, in the end it is unlikely to matter. Venezuela’s revolutionary government has never been one to get hung up on legal technicalities, especially when this might prove inconvenient to those in charge.
Even so, there’s a certain poetic justice to the idea. After all, Colombia once had a Venezuelan president in independence hero Simón Bolívar (so an exchange, if hardly a fair one.) One still has to wonder, though: If Maduro had been in charge when his mother first came to Venezuela seeking a better life, would he have marked her door with an “R” or a “D” before having her unceremoniously shuttled back to Cúcuta?
In the photo, Nicolás Maduro — then still Venezuela’s foreign minister — visits Cúcuta in 2010.
Photo credit: GUILLERMO LEGARIA/AFP/Getty Images