Q & A on the Venezuela-Colombia Border Crisis

David Smilde and Hugo Pérez Hernáiz

What has actually taken place?

Since the closing of several border crossings in Táchira State last month, the Venezuelan government has deported more than a thousand Colombian citizens (1,381 up to September 3 according to the Colombian migration agency) and more than 15,000 have left Venezuela to avoid deportation. The Venezuelan government claims to have captured at least 32 “paramilitaries,” dismantled a child prostitution ring, discovered a common grave with 13 bodies, raided basements allegedly used for kidnapping, and recovered 385 tons of food products.

On September 8, Maduro announced his government is extending measures to the border in Zulia State: “I have decided, after an exact diagnosis of the construction process of the new border, to proceed to the closing of the Paraguachón border crossing in Zulia State, in order to continue our liberation from the criminal activities of paramilitary smugglers,” said the President.

What is motivating the Maduro government?

Contraband and the “infiltration of paramilitaries” into Venezuela have been the main reasons alleged by the Maduro government for the recent measures along the frontier. Maduro has said that he will not re-open the border crossing until the Colombian government puts an end to the contraband of Venezuelan products and to the “infiltration of paramilitaries.” The President of the National Assembly Diosdado Cabello says that Venezuela is suffering from a “silent invasion” of paramilitaries paid by Alvaro Uribe and in cahoots with opposition leaders, and that the measures along the border will continue until these activities are stopped.

A more concrete condition Maduro has recently mentioned for the reopening of the border is that Colombia stops the “attack on the Venezuelan currency.” Delcy Rodriguez and Táchira governor Vielma Mora also spoke recently along the same lines. They refer to the legal currency exchange establishments on the Colombian side of the border, especially in Cúcuta that freely exchange Bolívares for Colombian pesos. Government officials see this as the root cause of the wide disparity between the black market exchange rate, as reported by Dolartoday, and the official rate, and want the Colombian government to reign in these establishments. 

Vielma Mora goes so far as to claim that the “exchange differential” did not exist in Venezuela before the “Colombian government made laws and decrees that created three thousand exchange establishments right in front of Táchira state, in Cúcuta…and then this system was perfected by Dolartoday, and thus another currency [the dollar] also attacked Venezuela.”

Whatever their public statements, the government knows its fate in the December elections depends on resolving scarcities of basic goods and it knows that many of their low cost basic goods make their way across the border to Colombia. Given that this is a government that firmly believes in the effectiveness of controls, it is likely that they sincerely believe that closing the border will stop the torrent of contraband.

Is this an electoral strategy?

Other motivations have been proposed for the Maduro’s actions. The government faces legislative elections in December with levels of rejection hovering around 80% of the population according to several polls. 

The negative numbers of the government’s popularity are related to inflation, scarcities and crime. The government has shown no signs of changing, at least before the December elections, its model based on the direct importation and distribution of products, controlled prices, and an overvalued official currency exchange rate. The citizen’s security situation has been handled with a mano dura militaristic plans that have so far proven ineffective.

Given its unwillingness to change its policies the government has resorted to blaming conspiratorial external agents for the crisis. Ill-defined “paramilitaries from Colombia” with alleged links to local opposition leaders, fit the role of infiltrated agents guilty of everything from contraband, organized and common street crimes, and sabotage.

Pollster Luís Vicente León has argued that the border measures could stir xenophobic and nationalistic sentiments that may benefit the government in the polls. Indeed the numbers of pro-government pollster Hinterlaces suggests the measures have broad public support. Venezuela’s most reliable pollster, Datanálisis, will not have numbers for a couple more weeks.

Opposition leaders have also suggested that the state of exception on the border is designed to impede opposition campaigning in that region.

Finally, it should be noted that Chavismo has long enjoyed the support of Colombian-Venezuelans for its pro-immigrant policies, and many of them are able to vote. These moves could well undermined their support for the government. 

Is there any truth in the government’s claims?

For many years there have been claims of irregular groups from Colombia, both guerrillas and paramilitaries, operating on both sides of the Colombia-Venezuelan border. It is likely that some of these groups are involved in contraband, drug-trafficking, and other illegal along the border.

But “paramilitaries,” however broadly defined, do not bear the sole or even main responsibility of contraband and crime in the area. The incentives for contraband are the huge distortions within the Venezuelan economy. Therefore, many private citizens on both sides of the border make a living from contraband. There have also been constant accusations that the Venezuelan military is actively involved in smuggling and organized crime. Indeed the Venezuelan military has control of the border and it is hard to imagine mass contraband taking place without their active participation or at least implicit consent.

With the recent measures the Venezuelan government has claimed it has captured 32 presumed paramilitaries along the border. If those arrested are indeed “paramilitaries,” it is an infinite fraction of the more than 16,000 deported or displaced from Venezuela since the beginning of the border crisis.

The government has also claimed that high profile crimes, such as the murder of the PSUV legislator Robert Serra a year ago, were committed by Colombian paramilitaries hired by opposition leaders. However, it has yet to show compelling evidence to back those claims.

More recently, the Operación Liberación del Pueblo, a militarized citizen security plan has used the symbol of paramilitaries as an explanation for common crime across the country (see our coverage here and here).

What are human rights groups and multilateral institutions saying?

On September 5 the Ombudsman Tareck William Saab visited the border in Táchira together with ACNUR representative Mónica Sandri. William Saab said that ACNUR had seen with its own eyes that what was being said in Colombia about human rights violations were “pure lies.” However ACNUR in a press release said that it had not made declarations about the issue and was still investigating claims in the area.

On September 4, Ligia Bolívar of the CDH-UCAB published this open letter for Maduro, Saab, and Luisa Ortega Díaz in which she reminds the government of the need to “respect the prohibition of collective expulsion of foreigners,” meaning the need to stop mass deportations and to look into each case individually.

The Oficina para la Coordinación de Asuntos Humanitarios de las Naciones Unidas (OCHA-Colombia) issued this report on September 3. The report states that up to date 1,355 persons have been deported, but that 15,535 have “felt forced to return” to Colombia.

After Colombia fell short by one vote of the 18 necessary 34 votes for the OAS to consider the crisis, Colombian Foreign Minisiter Holguin expressed disappointment for the vote and Santos has been talking of taking the case to the International Penal Court. OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro visited Colombia on September 5 and met with local authorities and heard complaints from deportees in Cúcuta.

WOLA’s Gimena Sánchez suggested that “A binational concerted effort between these two countries to address corruption, dismantle illegal armed groups and address the economic disparities that fuel illegal trade in goods, would be more constructive” than deportations and pointed to an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights statement from August 28 that argued “collective expulsions run contrary to international law”

Is there going to be a Maduro Santos meeting?

A meeting of the foreign ministers of Colombia and Venezuela in Quito on September 12 ended with a common announcement that the presidents of the two countries would meet in an undefined future date. Finally both governments have confirmed (here and here) that presidents Maduro and Santos will in Quito, Ecuador, on September 21.

Early attempts to organize a meeting through UNASUR failed as they coincided with Maduro’s trip abroad. Conditions for a meeting deteriorated after Maduro accused Santos on August 31 of at least “turning a blind eye” on a supposed plot to assassinate him. But on September 3 Santos said that he is willing to personally meet Maduro to discuss the crisis, something the latter has been asking for (see here as well).

Santos however put forth three conditions for the meeting: First, the opening of a “humanitarian corridor” in the border so that “more than 2000” children resident in Venezuela who study in the Colombian side of the border can go to school; second, that the Colombians that have exited Venezuela be allowed back to recover their things; an third, that Venezuela abides by the “minimum protocols and does not mistreat the Colombians deported from the country.”

On September 4 some of those conditions by Santos seem to have been met. The humanitarian corridor for students was opened in the two points of the border in Táchira. On September 5 from Jamaica, Maduro said again he was willing to meet face to face with Santos.

However Santos subsequently heated up his criticisms. On September 9 he declared that the “Bolivarian Revolution is self-destroying” and that Colombia is not responsible for Venezuela’s crisis. He also accused President Maduro of not responding to the offer of mediation for dialogue made by the Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez. Maduro responded to Santos’ declaration by stating that he is still willing to attend direct talks even as “Santos had emitted the worst offences against the Revolution.”

Will the situation get worse?

There were signs early this week that there might be a gradual de-escalation of the situation. Since a week ago, when deportees hit a high of around 1,300 or slightly more, there have been fewer reports of forced deportees (27 from Zulia on September 14, according to the Governor of that state.)

There has also been the opening of a “humanitarian corridor” in Tachira’s border points to allow for the crossing of students. President Santos said on September 15 that there have been advances in the situation along the border and that the time for a direct meeting with President Maduro is near. But the next day Maduro replied saying that he had “the sense that President Santos does not want to meet with me.” Maduro’s government also took the step of closing several more border crossings in the border states of Zulia and Apure.

In a sign of an escalation of tensions the Colombian government claimed on September 14 that Venezuelan military planes had flown over Colombian air space. A second violation of Colombia’s air space was reported the next day according to that countrie’s authorities. Venezuela has denied the accusations.

If the border closing proves popular with the broader population, works to reduce shortages and effectively complicates opposition campaigning in the region, the State of Exception and border closing could well be prolonged until after the elections.