Venezuela’s Crisis: Memories of a Neglected Border

By Estefania Palomino

The city where I was born and raised now seems to be on international news every single day. One morning during a coffee break at work, I picked up a newspaper and noticed the name of my hometown and a photo of Colombia’s President standing next to the President of the Venezuelan National Assembly Juan Guaidó, in a neighborhood I don’t exactly remember, but that can be easily situated minutes away from my home and my elementary school. They are wearing light shirts to overcome the overwhelming heat of Cúcuta’s afternoon sun. They are surrounded by cameras, reporters from many different countries, locals, and people who traveled from other towns to watch a concert organized in support of Venezuelan people to bring awareness to the humanitarian crisis in neighboring the country.

Estefania Palomino’s Family

Estefania Palomino’s Family

The photo, together with the images I see every day on T.V. or social media come with mixed feelings. On the one hand there are the common places, the corners, the bridges and roads I can identify; the faces of people that look like my family, like me. The breeze that smells like recently cut grass, like trees. Despite being a very sunny, hot and somewhat dry town, Cúcuta has always maintained its trees, and it was under the shadows of those Ceibas and Mango trees that I learned to walk, read, and smile. I can see those tired, familiar faces next to the President, excited and in awe to be there, to see him, even though Colombian politicians, especially the head of the central government, were never known to care about, like, or even visit remote areas of the country. But this day is different. I felt confused in seeing the images of so many important stakeholders gathered in this small city of hard-working people, of resilient people, that never seemed to matter much to anyone else except to its next-door neighbor.

 For many decades Norte de Santander (Colombia) and Táchira (Venezuela) only had each other. Like two abandoned children, we walked hand in hand though civil wars and scarcity, and coup d’eats, and decades of political turmoil. When supplies coming from the center of Colombia were either unaffordable or simply unavailable in Cúcuta, my family would make a 15-minute, hassle-free trip to either San Antonio or Urena, where we would find everything we needed. Having an open border was good for our communities, it was good for our businesses, and was even good for families who, like mine, had members living on both sides. My Colombian family often would visit my aunt and uncles in Venezuela, and they in turn would drive to visit my grandmother in Colombia. We would make a stop during our drive, not because the trip was long, but because we wanted to eat fresh cheese or strawberries, feel the cold air of the Venezuelan Andean mountains, and perhaps buy a loaf of sugary bread to bring back to Cúcuta.

Estefania (centre) with her brother and father

Estefania (centre) with her brother and father

 One of my earliest memories of these weekly international trips was asking my parents “are we in a different country now?” They would say “not yet” but I would continue asking incessantly, until the car crossed over the international bridge. Only after driving pass the Venezuelan flag would they say “now we are in a different country” and I would start giggling loudly and the entire car would laugh with me. I kept the same joke of asking my parents if we were in a different country well into my early teens. I kept it even though guards allied with Chavez’ government started enforcing border controls; their faces looking harsher, more violent, more xenophobic. I kept asking the same question on my mind, until it wasn’t funny anymore, until uttering these words out loud, next to a Venezuelan soldier, would reveal my Colombian accent and get us all in trouble.

 Chavez’ military aggressions and human rights violations against Colombians trying to cross the border were a common occurrence. Still people would try to visit their family members, trade with Venezuelan business, or get affordable gas for their cars in the Venezuelan stations. Love, family, and access to basic supplies are compelling needs, too difficult to ignore just because a government has decided to shut its doors to the outside world.  

Venezuelans crossing the border into Colombia  Source: Fox News

Venezuelans crossing the border into Colombia Source: Fox News

Now most people are crossing the border the opposite way, dragging their malnourished  bodies from Venezuela to Colombia. Since the collapse of the Venezuelan economy, and the scarcity in food, medicines, and work, millions have traveled to Cúcuta, with others who have more resources or energy continuing their journey south to Peru, Chile or Argentina. For many, especially those from the most remote regions of Venezuela, Cúcuta is a promised land, a place with red cross responders, clean water, and food. However, the reality that those Venezuelans who cross the border to Cucuta find is somewhat disappointing. In large part to the uncoordinated humanitarian response by the Colombian government, many are unable to obtain the basic humanitarian aid that they were desperately seeking and what brought them to Cucuta in the first place.  

The Venezuelan government has tried to hide the jaw-dropping deprivation that it has subjugated upon its people. It denies the mere existence of a humanitarian crisis, the lack of essential vaccines and medicines even in major hospitals of Caracas. It denies its human rights violations, the people eating garbage on the streets, the dirty water now being consumed by Venezuelan children. Maduro would have even denied the blackout that left most of the country without electricity if it wasn’t because it interrupted his endless hours of verbiage on national TV. These are the hours that he spends trying to convince the Venezuelan people who cannot access outside, non-biased state-controlled media that everything is alright and that everything bad that is happening in Venezuela is due to a plot orchestrated by the United States. 

Venezuela is now at a decisive point in its history or at least we, the people who support change and democracy, hope so. National Assembly Speaker Juan Guaidó has been recognized as interim president of Venezuela by the governments of Argentina, Bahamas, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and the United States. Guaidó seems different to previous opposition leaders; a self-made politician with a humble background and a life story that most middle-class Venezuelans can identify with. Still, Maduro’s government wants to make him appear as an oligarch and a traitor, a puppet serving U.S interests.

 The Latin American left distrusts Guaidó and the people around him. Many see him as a self-proclaimed leader with no democratic backing, regardless of the fact that declaring an interim President in extreme circumstances of democratic disruption was included in the Constitution crafted during Chavez’ government and tailored to its needs. Others fear a military intervention. They oppose the entry of humanitarian aid because they see the trucks loaded with essential medicines and food as trojan horses to initiate a possible U.S backed revolt. Many people fear more of the same old war, but now with Russian or U.S soldiers in their back yards. They fear the massacres, the violence many of them have already been through on both sides of the border under the grip of paramilitaries, guerrilla, or the Venezuelan regime. Who can blame them?

 The partisan connotations of the humanitarian aid recently sent to Venezuela are very clear and I can understand why so many people are weary of the good intentions of U.S politicians and world-renowned billionaires that a few years ago didn’t even know Cúcuta nor most of Táchira’s cities excited. I share those concerns and I wish there was someone ready to bring change to Venezuela and support all the necessary reforms without some ulterior motive. I also fear that after a transitional government takes over, all that it’s going to be left of Venezuela’s vacant institutions is the same hunger and misery befallen amongst its most vulnerable people. Only now, it would be called democracy and there would be more suits roaming the streets of Caracas, like in “good ol’ days” of Rafael Caldera.

 But there is something more profound in me that needs to speak out, something more powerful than my fears and apprehensions, something that perhaps most of my friends from Bogotá or New York cannot feel. It’s a yearning for change and hope. And not a hope that is pure and devoid of corporate and political evils. It’s a hope to embrace change as flawed, as uncooked, as unplanned as possible, because any, and I mean any, change is better than Maduro’s status quo. I see Maduro dancing to salsa music while most of the trucks carrying humanitarian aid are turned away, detained at different ports of entry. I see a soulless leader, one that regardless of his political ideology sincerely couldn’t care less about its citizens. A person that would dance, eat, laugh, and embezzle millions of dollars while the majority of its people are either fleeing or slowly dying next to him. I cannot stress enough the incredible importance of what a democratic transition would mean for Venezuela right now.

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About the Author

Estefania is a global health lawyer and advocate who managed the Latin American portfolio of the women's rights and health division at the Wyss Foundation. Estefania worked as a staff attorney at one of the largest law firms in Colombia, Brigard & Urrutia, served as a visiting professional at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and co-founded the public interest law firm, IVO Legal.

Estefania holds a law degree from Universidad de Los Andes, an MA in International Law and Settlement of Disputes from the United Nations University for Peace, and an LL.M in Global Health Law from Georgetown University.

I may feel this because half of my heart is Venezuelan, or maybe its because I have all these wonderful memories, some of which I had the humbling honor of sharing with you. But I also believe that this gut feeling, this pressure I feel, comes from my unwavering commitment towards democracy and human rights. Because it’s easy, if you are on one side of the political spectrum to talk about impeaching leaders that violate human rights, separate families at international borders, and seek their personal gains while producing human suffering. So, it should be just as equally easy, equally important, and equally pressing to speak out against Maduro’s murderous regime, to demand the freedom of the Venezuelan people, and to unite around values such as compassion and empathy for those who are hungry, desperate, or dying of preventable diseases.