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Eight months in isolation

Border closure and state of emergency were imposed to 4 states and 24 municipalities along the Colombian border. Eight months later conflicts continue unabated

The border closure was ordered by the government of Nicolás Maduro on August 19, 2015 (Handout photo / Natacha Guevara)

Handout photo / Natacha Guevara

29 de abril de 2016 23:59 PM


Eight months in isolation

Eight months into the border shutdown with Colombia and results appear to be unfavorable for border residents - insecurity, smuggling, shortages and economic stagnation have deepened in those municipalities, while smuggling and clandestine trails into Colombian territory have multiplied. Additionally Venezuela removed itself from the Andean Community of Nations, while countries in the region are looking to trade blocs that seek to advance economic integration and free trade.

The border closure ordered by the government of Nicolas Maduro on August 19, 2015and the imposition of a “state of exception,” that was to last six months but was extended by the Supreme Court, were measures taken in response to an attack on Venezuelan soldiers by alleged paramilitaries on August 19.

At that time the government argued that the measure was aimed against alleged Colombian paramilitarism and border smuggling. International Law expert María Teresa Belandria suggests that it was just a crisis created to divert people's attention towards an external enemy. The government first stoked conflict with Guyana, reviving the Venezuela-Guyana territorial dispute, but since it failed to work for them because this is a complex and highly technical issue, they found it much easier to turn their gaze to the border with Colombia.

Citizens’ lives thrown into turmoil

The border shutdown proved too disruptive of daily life for people on both sides of the border, says Belandria.

A few days into the closing, a “humanitarian corridor” carrying the sick in and out of the country was opened up, with some patients being allowed to travel from Ureña and San Antonio del Táchira to Cúcuta on the Colombian side, where they normally receive medical treatments like dialysis or chemotherapy.

NGO United Nations Community reported in mid-March that 22 people had died trying to cross the Táchira River to seek medical treatment.

As an example of this upheaval, Belandria cites the case of schoolchildren who live on the Venezuelan side but study on the Colombian side, or vice versa, for which a channel was opened so they could attend classes.

Any goods purchased in Colombia carried by those who cross into Venezuela are seized by National Guard officers. During the first days of the closure 1,200 deportations of suspected undocumented Colombians occurred. Of course this led to an outcry by prominent international figures, particularly because of the harshness of the crackdown. As a result, some families were split, with some of their members stranding in each country.

Some 1,600 Colombians who were living on the Venezuelan side of the border chose to flee the country using trails and alternative crossings out of fear of being targeted.

The Zulia state border

The northern border, on both sides, is home to the Wayuu indigenous group. The Wayuu used to move freely across the border, but now they are required to have and produce on demand proof of residency and an indigenous identity card. The Wayuu tradition of burying their deceased in their clan old burial grounds has been disrupted, since they are no longer free to bury one who dies on the Venezuelan side in their ancestral lands on the Colombian side. In that case they should request permission from the military authorities in Maracaibo, identify the vehicles accompanying the remains of the deceased, the number of people, their ids etc. Clashes between Wayuu communities and military authorities are common as a result of extortion, unlawful entry into dwellings and seizure of goods, as denounced from time to time.

Amazonas state

Mauligmer Baloa, a deputy of the Legislative Council of Amazonas state and a member of the Baniwa ethnic group, says that the closure of the border has not brought any benefit to the citizens of Amazonas and Puerto Ayacucho. The measure has failed to make food or gasoline materialize. On the contrary, these goods are sneaked into Colombia in larger volumes. Life conditions are worsened by the lack of electricity and the almost total absence of drinkable water. Illegal mining and gold smuggled into Colombia have increased.

She notes that in Puerto Ayacucho, even under the state of emergency ending last December, the region has experienced a higher crime rate, characterized by theft, murder, drug trafficking and trafficking in gold and other minerals. A virtual curfew exists and people carrying grocery bags are frequently targeted for robbery.

Thirty five homicides were recorded in March in Puerto Ayacucho. That figure is equivalent to the entire number of people who died violently in 2014, and this is a city of just 100,000 inhabitants, says Baloa.

By March 1, 2016, 61 homicides had been recorded. Baloa notes that armed groups from across the border are active in Amazonas and that they are killing criminals to try and take their place. She describes a life of terror, in which people lock themselves in their houses from four in the afternoon on.

According to Balboa, these armed gangs are allegedly made up of former guerrillas. In view of the ongoing peace talks with the Colombian government, in which Venezuela plays an “accompanying” role, guerrilla members or fronts who refuse to demobilize - from the FARC, the ELN and paramilitaries -are moving into Venezuelan territory to continue their lucrative drug-trafficking trade, extortion, kidnapping, and especially their traffic in gold, diamonds, coltan and gasoline.

Balboa points out that indigenous communities have come to Puerto Ayacucho to report with trepidation that the “pata de goma” (so named for the rubber boots guerrillas wear) are getting into indigenous communities to take Indian wives and settle on the Venezuelan bank of the Orinoco. About 4,000 irregulars are estimated to be in the territory.

Just another routine incident

Maria Teresa Belandria thinks that the border closure is just another routine incident in “this divorce with children-like relation with Colombia,” with its share of high and low moments.

At first Colombia reacted very angrily to the deportation of around 1,000 Colombians and thousands more fleeing.

But later it toned down its remarks, as Colombian officials were entering into secret negotiations with Colombia's second-largest guerilla force, the ELN, in Caracas, with the support of the Government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela as facilitator of logistics and companion.

According to data released by Colombian-Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce (Cavecol), trade between Colombia and Venezuela plunged 44%, in 2015, recording USD 1.352 billion at year end, including the four and a half months of border closing. The figure was reported by the Colombian National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE).

During the month of January 2016 Venezuela’s imports from Colombia dropped by 5%. This is the latest figure released by the DANE.

Venezuela left hanging out to dry

Given Venezuela's withdrawal from the Andean Community of Nations and the almost continual political conflicts between Colombia and Venezuela, including the severance of diplomatic relations in 2010, Colombia has joined, along with Chile, Peru, and Mexico, the Alianza del Pacífico (Pacific Alliance), a trade bloc that seeks to advance economic integration, free trade, and free movement of people. Colombia has also expressed its interest in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement that would create a free-trade zone among 12 nations around the Pacific, making it the world’s largest. Venezuela is no longer Colombia's largest trading partner, which can explain why there has been no political pressure over the closing of the border.

Taken as a whole, the Pacific Alliance is the world’s eighth largest economy and seventh largest exporter. Argentine president Mauricio Macri has expressed his desire to bring his country closer to the Pacific Alliance. Before stepping down, Uruguayan president Jose Mujica declared that Mercosur was dead and that we must look toward the Pacific.

As Belandria notes, when you look at what is happening globally we see how Venezuela remains excluded from all trading dynamics, unable to compete.

twitter: @folivares10

Translated by Sancho Araujo

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