The Colombia-Venezuela border crisis: the civilian backdrop

The Colombia-Venezuela border crisis' media coverage should focus on the affected populations rather than in a Maduro/Santos dispute. Structural development policies should be deployed to build a future for the crossborder region. Español.

Annette Idler
2 September 2015
PuenteInternacional_Simón_Bolívar (1).jpg

«PuenteInternacional Simón Bolívar» de Andrés Urdaneta. Own work. GFDL via Wikimedia Commons.

On 21 August, Venezuelan president Maduro decided to close the border between Colombian Norte de Santander and Venezuelan Táchira, declare a state of emergency and deport Colombians illegally living in Venezuela. Thousands of troops were deployed. This crisis confirms a sad reality: civilian borderlanders suffer most from such measures.

Why did these people leave Colombia in the first place? Many fled the war that Bogotá wages against guerrillas. This is a triple tragedy: they flee violence, are expelled from where they sought refuge and return to State neglect in Colombia: to overfilled shelters, insufficient food and inadequate institutional capacity to cope with an influx of people who return to where they came from. After all, Colombia holds the record for the second biggest displacement crisis world-wide.

The media’s focus on Maduro’s behaviour misses the issues at the core of the crisis.

First, the Colombian-Venezuelan borderlands have been historically neglected. All along the border, I met people embittered by the State’s abandonment.

In Colombian Catatumbo, locals told me that, after several years of waiting for their government to rebuild a bridge destroyed by a guerrilla attack, former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez assisted in building a new bridge. No wonder I saw Chávez pictures in Catatumbo’s living rooms. In large parts of Colombia’s border zone, Colombian radio cannot be received, yet Venezuela’s channels work perfectly. Informed about Venezuela’s affairs yet alienated by Colombia, people feel more “Venezuelan”. Opting to live in Venezuela seems sensible.

Also further south in Arauca (Colombia) people feel abandoned. A villager explained: “You can only get sick on a Thursday because this is the only day when the doctor is here”. On the Venezuelan side, in Apure, a farmer praised Colombian and Venezuelan leftist armed groups’ that impose rules of coexistence, tell people to clean the streets and keep animals inside at night. Neither State takes responsibility for ensuring order. A local priest complained: “If a cow gets lost, people run to the guerrillas. They always run to the guerrillas! They intervene to provide even Solomonic solutions”.

When travelling with indigenous Wayúu to Venezuelan northern Zulia, I was told that no international organisation would go there. This is in spite of a significant increase in the number of Venezuelan tanks stationed along that area of the border and an intensified Colombian military presence on the other side. Moreover, the starting points of the major cocaine trafficking routes towards the US and Europe are located in this region. Yet the local population is left to its own fate.

Second, attention generally focuses on ad hoc crises rather than on tackling structural causes. A friend from Cúcuta described Norte de Santander as a “social laboratory”. Organisations - government bodies, UN and bilateral development assistance agencies - come in and try out new policies. Their efforts are laudable, but should not be limited to Norte de Santander, when other border departments suffer similar problems.

Venezuelan Apure is an example. No state of emergency exists in Apure, but a local contact in Guasdualito told me that Colombians are being pushed over the border to Colombian Arauca, one of the “red zones” of Colombia’s civil war. What about the traumas of these people who return to where they witnessed their spouses being killed, daughters being raped and are still threatened by the presence of armed groups, visible through their graffiti sprayed on the walls of houses?

Displacements across the border have been taking place for decades, yet in a less visible, drop-by-drop manner. People don’t move to the country’s heartlands because family ties across the border facilitate making a living. Many people don’t register as refugees because they don’t know how to do so, or fear that their torturers might persecute them across the border. Anonymity is preferable.

Deportations did not start on 21 August. According to the Colombian “Espectador”, between January and May this year, 2,276 Colombians were deported. Why was there no media outcry before 21 August?

Finally, civilian borderlanders pay for the large-scale criminal activities. Those who suffer under the current closure of the border smuggle staples from Venezuela to Colombia, often for their own consumption, or are “pimpineros”: they sell Venezuelan gasoline in Cúcuta. Colombian police permit this because they know that stopping this practice would deprive thousands of Colombians of their livelihoods. Last October, I discussed this issue with students in Cúcuta. Many of them work as pimpineros. Devoid of economic alternatives, “switching business” is impossible, they said. Therefore contraband may be illegal, but is considered legitimate.

Meanwhile, powerful organised criminals traffic large amounts of gasoline to be sold in Bogotá or to process coca into cocaine in laboratories along the border. Those cargoes don’t enter Colombia via Cúcuta, but further north or south. Local political elites often protect such traffickers. A religious leader from La Guajira highlighted: “Here you can’t distinguish the illegal from the legal actors, because here there is no State. State actors belong to the State apparatus, but most of their activities are illegal.” The arrest of La Guajira’s Governor in 2013 is just the tip of the iceberg.

Tackling the borderlands’ structural problems and transforming them into an economically vibrant region requires a sustained approach rather than quick fixes. It must go beyond humanitarian assistance in a region used to “asistencialismo”. Developing local capacity must be prioritised in all neglected border areas.

Government policies need to take into consideration what is happening on the ground in these regions, because the socio-economic dynamics can only be understood from a perspective that considers borderlands as a transnational unit rather than from a state-centric perspective that starts in the capital and ends at the frontier. Governments don't know these regions well enough. Colombia’s proposed post-conflict strategy moves in this direction, but still misses the point. In a speech in London earlier this year, Sergio Jaramillo, the Colombian High Commissioner for Peace, argued that “territorial peace” must include youth in marginalised regions so that they don’t hang out in billiard rooms and get into mischief. The sad irony of this statement is that in many of these regions there are no billiard rooms.

Most importantly, Colombia and Venezuela must jointly support their borderlanders. In cities like Cúcuta, civic structure is weak. The social fabric has been torn apart through fear and mistrust after decades of violence and neglect. Yet most of these people are resilient and hard-working. They have launched civil society initiatives to help each other. This potential for change must be supported.

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