Transitions

How Colombians Are Paying to Save the Venezuelan Regime

Venezuelan President Maduro is driving out Colombians by the hundreds to prop up his faltering rule.

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Over the past week, an unprecedented crackdown has been underway in the Venezuelan state of Tachira, where a mass expulsion of unnaturalized Colombians has been undertaken by Venezuelan authorities with uncharacteristic efficiency — if with a tragically characteristic lack of due process. To date, nearly 1,100 individuals — including small children and the elderly — have been summarily deported across the two countries’ shared border: their possessions denied to them, their homes bulldozed to the ground to prevent them from returning. To avoid losing everything, many more Colombians have attempted to salvage what they could of their belongings and cross over on foot, fording the narrow river dividing what, in Simón Bolívar’s day, had been a single, united country. Families have been separated, businesses abandoned, and communities shattered. The sheer number of dispossessed has all but overwhelmed the capacity of local Colombian authorities. In nearby Cúcuta, a Boston-sized city just across the border, refugees are now being housed in tents grouped into makeshift camps – their broken livelihoods mere collateral damage for Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro’s latest manufactured crisis.

The area where Venezuelan Tachira’s border meets the Colombian state of North Santander is a bit of an oddity for South America. While Spanish and Portuguese colonial boundaries were usually set along major natural obstacles such as the Andes, major tributaries of the Amazon, or impassable jungles, the Tachira River runs only around a meter deep and can be crossed easily at multiple points. For locals in Cúcuta, cut off from the rest of Colombia to the west by the imposing Cordillera Oriental mountain range, this has long rendered Venezuela more accessible than Colombia itself. Tachira, too, has long been a distinct cultural entity from the rest of Venezuela: a no-man’s-land that once birthed most of the country’s military Caudillo strongmen, and now breeds its most adamant anti-government uprisings. Given the porous national border and the many price distortions caused by Venezuela’s arcane multi-tier exchange rate and heavily subsidized staples, a vibrant illicit trade has flourished among the region’s entrepreneurial population, including gasoline smuggling and food arbitrage. Even in faraway Caracas, the street value of black market dollars is referred to as the “Cúcuta price.”

Yet while borderland shenanigans have undoubtedly long undermined the Venezuelan subsidy system, what supposedly triggered the current crackdown was a mysterious non-lethal shootout that took place on August 19, leaving three Venezuelan military personnel wounded. President Maduro immediately blamed the incident on a shadowy Colombian paramilitary force he alleges to be in league with former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe — the perennial nemesis of his late predecessor, Hugo Chávez. This was not, in itself, unusual. The regime has fingered Uribe cabals for a wide panoply of sins, including coup attempts, the murder of Venezuelan pro-government legislator Robert Serra, and ongoing efforts to sabotage the national infrastructure. But the scale of this response soon went far beyond the norm. The next day after the shootout, Maduro unilaterally shut down the border and began the deportations — ostensibly to defend the lives of Venezuelans under threat from Colombian crime — declaring a regional state of emergency that suspended several key constitutional rights (such as the need for a warrant for police to enter private homes).

The perceived mismatch between the relatively minor, and tragically common, event that triggered the crackdown and the scope of the Venezuelan government’s response has raised concerns among the regime’s many critics. Javier El-Hage of the Human Rights Foundation noted that reports “evidencing the hasty expulsion of thousands of Colombian citizens (including dozens of children separated from their parents) under threat of incarceration over ‘contraband,’ followed by the bulldozing of the houses they leave behind, [make it] very apparent that the government of Venezuela’s actions violate every human rights standard meant to protect undocumented migrants and their children.”

Maduro’s hard-handed reaction can perhaps best be understood in context of his precarious political position. With money tight due to plummeting oil prices, and recent polls predicting almost certain electoral defeat for his unpopular government in upcoming December legislative elections, Maduro seems to be engineering this crisis in hopes of stirring nationalist passions sufficient to bring around public opinion to his side, galvanize his sagging base, or — at the very least — distract Venezuelans from their country’s economic collapse. (Should the crisis continue long enough, and the “state of emergency” remain in place, there’s talk that the government might even use it to justify postponing the elections.)

This wouldn’t be the first time Maduro has put on a show. Thirty months, twenty-six alleged coup attempts, and thirty-two hundred inflationary percentage points into Maduro’s first term, Venezuelans are finding themselves increasingly short of bread and long on circuses. In April, the regime began a series of stylized military/civilian exercises doubling as anti-invasion parades after alleging to have foiled a plot by Joe Biden to aerially bomb the presidential palace. In June, Maduro’s government spearheaded a sudden escalation of Venezuela’s centuries-old territorial dispute with neighboring Guyana. When neither prospective bogeyman gained enough traction, government rhetoric began to shift steadily towards vilifying Colombians – Venezuela’s largest immigrant population. “We will soon cut away these malignant tumors, what Colombian paramilitism has brought us,” Maduro promised on television the day deportations began.

As we say in the Caribbean, “it takes two to salsa.” If Maduro’s response has rightly earned him unflattering comparisons to Donald Trump, then the feeble response from his Colombian counterparts has proven worthy of Trump’s hypothetical Mexico (a land that happily pays for border walls and stands idly by as its citizens are summarily rounded up.) On Wednesday, following a five hour emergency meeting (lunch included) that failed to reopen the border or stem the expulsions, the two countries’ respective foreign ministers gave a press conference. Venezuela’s Delcy Rodríguez characterized the harrowing images flooding out of the area as mere “media manipulation,” to which her Colombian counterpart María Ángela Holguín, looking visibly uncomfortable, ceded lamely that border criminality and smuggling hurts Venezuela’s economy, but that closing the border was not the answer. Both agreed that closer cooperation would be necessary.

According to Federico Hoyos, an opposition Colombian congressman who traveled to Cúcuta at the outset of the crisis, what he saw there was “an insult to Colombian institutions.” “There was essentially no government presence,” he told me, “the victims were helpless and abused.” According to Hoyos, the cause of the border shutdown had more to do with furthering the interests of the Soles cartel — a narcotrafficking operation alleged to exist within the upper echelons of the Venezuelan military — than it did with protecting the local Venezuelan population.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos demurred several days before visiting the affected area on Wednesday. Despite offering a few qualified criticisms of Venezuela’s actions, he has largely sought to distance himself from the crisis. Saddled with relatively low approval ratings, and an economy struggling to hang on despite anemic commodity-export prices and rising inflation, his political viability is increasingly dependent on whether he can fulfill his promise to broker a lasting peace with Colombia’s violent guerilla forces. As peace talks in Havana have dragged on, Venezuela’s crucial role in keeping the nominally Marxist FARC, its ideological and political ally, at the negotiating table, has made Santos wary of incensing his erratic neighbors lest it undermine this signature goal.

South America has long been prone to both natural and unnatural disasters. The victims of this most recent humanitarian calamity are caught in a political perfect storm, trapped between Venezuela’s populist revolution, attempting in its death throes to buy itself time whatever the cost; and a Colombian government unwilling to place the interests of its most vulnerable citizens above its own.

In the photo, Colombians deported from Venezuela return for their belongings and carry them across the Tachira River on August 25, 2015.

Photo credit: LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images

Correction, Sept. 2, 2015: The FARC is a nominally Marxist group. An earlier version of this article mistakenly described it as “nominally Maoist.”

Daniel 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.