Locked Out on the Venezuelan Border

The Bogota airport for domestic flights is surreal at five in the morning, especially after an all night flight. Downstairs is a shopping mall with automatic tellers, and an array of chain fast-food cafes and bakeries. At this hour the most popular is Juan Valdez, the Starbucks a la Colombiana, where bleary, red-eyed travelers line up in the hopes of staying awake another few hours. It’s t-shirt weather for an East San Francisco Bay Area voyager so the woman wrapped in a down coat, a scarf, a wool cap pulled down to her eyebrows, and heavy black wool gloves enters from a different world and walks quickly up the stairs, perhaps to warm herself up, perhaps to catch a flight.

I usually route my trips to Venezuela through Bogota to avoid the hundreds of dollars in taxes the Bolivarian government lays on air travelers to Venezuela: Bogota turns out to be half the price. Even including a round trip flight to Cucuta. From Cucuta it’s a couple of hours negotiating the border and six hours from San Cristóbal to Mérida by bus, so the travel time is nearly the same, or less routing through Caracas and taking a fourteen-hour bus trip to Mérida.

What I hadn’t counted on was the fact that the Venezuelan government would on an apparent whim decide to close the borders nearly a week before the elections. Arriving in Cúcuta, I hailed a cab and an old man who introduced himself as Geronimo loaded my suitcase in his trunk as I climbed in the back seat. I told him I was on my way to the border and he said it was closed.

“What do you mean, ‘closed,’” I asked.

“Si señor,” he said, “the Venezuelan government closed it yesterday. But we’ll go and see if we can get you across over the river. I have a friend who can do that.”

“Why did they close it off?”

“Because that Maduro doesn’t want Venezuelans to go in and vote.”

“You mean the Venezuelans living in Colombia?”

“Exacto. He knows they’ll vote for Capriles, so he’s locked them out.”

“How does he know they’ll vote for Capriles?” I asked.

Geronimo shrugged. “Well, if they left Venezuela, they probably didn’t like that process, right? So they’ll go back to try to vote out those scoundrels.”

I had no better theory to propose, among the many I would encounter in the next few hours, so I left it there and began asking about the price of the bolivar.

“It’s different prices for dollars than for [Colombian] pesos. But with 900 pesos ($5.00 US) you get 100 bolivars. But you shouldn’t change until you cross.”

“What will the elections do to the value of the bolivar?” I asked.

“Well, depends on who wins. If Capriles wins, the value of the bolivar will go up. If Maduro wins, it’ll keep going down.”

I decided to bet on Maduro and wait to change money if I wasn’t able to cross today. And as it turned out, that was the case. At the DAS (Colombian immigration) they refused to give me an exit stamp. The official smiled and said, “Sir, if we give you an exit visa you’re stuck, because the Venezuelan office of immigration on the other side is closed until after the elections.” I asked him why he thought Venezuela had closed their border and he shrugged. “They do things. Lots of strange things. I don’t know why. All I know is what they say, that they’re closing the borders for the elections.” He shrugged and smiled again.

Geronimo took me back into town and on the way I decided to go to Pamplona rather than spend time in Cúcuta. Cúcuta, when included in guidebooks, which is rare in itself, is described as “hot and dusty” and the writers go on to emphasize that “there’s really no reason to visit” this chaotic border city other than to see the ruins of Santander’s mansion near the border. Pamplona, on the other hand, was once described to me by a dear friend in Merida as something like a smaller version of Merida, tucked away in the mountains.

I arrived in Pamplona and got a hotel room and immediately called a friend who works in a Chavista media cooperative in Caracas to let him know I wouldn’t be arriving as planned. My friend is an independent sort, and one quite willing, in normal times, to question everything. But these are not normal times; this is electoral season and his theory of why the border was closed was even harder for me to swallow than Geronimo’s. We found each other on chat.

“The government has locked up the borders.”

“No, it was the CNE (the National Electoral Council).”

I didn’t buy that. They don’t have the power.

“Why?” I asked

“Because of the paramilitaries along the border. They’re trying to keep them out so they won’t come to Venezuela to vote.”

“Come on man. You don’t believe that do you?” I wrote. “Do you really believe the paramilitaries take out visas to cross the border?”

“Some do,” he replied.

I decided it was time to find some more credible theory for the sudden closure of the Venezuelan border nearly a week before the elections. I went a block down to the central park of Pamplona, the center of the city, and arrived just in time to buy the last copy of the local paper, “La Opinion.”

The border closing was front-page news. The lead article announced “The border closed until Monday” and beneath that read the headline, “Supply of Gas is Guaranteed.” The reference here is to the black market gas from Venezuela, where it sells for around US $.25 per gallon, which is smuggled across the border and sold all up and down the highway outside of Cúcuta for a few dollars a gallon (less than the actual price in Colombia where the price is higher than it is in the United States. This gets to the special nature of the “black market” that has near-official status in Colombia.

Inside, page eight carried a full-page article headlined “Venezuela Closes its Border for Six Days” with images of hundreds of people gathered in protest before the barbed-wire fence behind which stand Venezuelan national guard. In the article bylined Jairo Andres Navarro Camargo, Venezuela closed the border at five a.m. on Tuesday, April 9.  Nevertheless, he continued, “without regard for nationality, nor political preference, hundreds of Venezuelans and Colombians were caught by surprise by the expected closing of the border, which they qualified as unfortunate and arbitrary.”  The stories of people affected by the border closing were moving and often painful. “‘My husband is unable to stand up. We have an urgent need to get home,’ a Venezuelan woman cried at the soldiers who limited themselves to watching behind the barbed wire. And she added, ‘I’m Venezuelan. I’m a Chavista, but it hurts me that they’re doing this to us. We had to go to Cúcuta to buy medicine because here (in San Antonio) [on the Venezuelan side] we have nothing.’”

Camargo described a “human wave crying out and with signs, showing their identity cards (cedulas) to prove they were Venezuelan, and asking [the soldiers] to allow the elderly, the sick, and the children to be allowed to pass. Some were returning to their home country by canoe, as Geronimo had proposed to get me across until it was evident I wouldn’t be able to get a visa in Venezuela. Those crossing in canoes were paying 50 bolivars, according to many who had crossed.

The governor of the Venezuelan state of Táchira, which borders Santander on the Colombian side, said, “the Ministry of the Interior and Justice decided to secure the border between Colombia and Venezuela in the state of Táchira, to protect Venezuelan citizens from non-national (apátrida) votes.” The rumors put forth by the Chavista camp, then, are that Colombians in the pay of the opposition are being recruited to enter Venezuela to vote for Capriles on Sunday.

I call another friend in Venezuela to get his take on the situation with the border closure. He’s an honest Chavista, one of thousands. But a Chavista. “Yes, they caught thirty Colombian paramilitaries,” he tells me. I say when I see their faces and have their names, I’ll believe it, but that there are problems with the story.

I ask him, “when you go to vote, do they ask you for your cedula (national ID card)?”

“Yes, and you have to be on the rolls with your address and it all has to match up,” he says.

“So do you think the Colombian ‘apatridas’ are on the rolls? Do you think they have ‘cedulas’?”

“No, of course not.”

So much for that story. AFP reports that Maduro closed the borders with Colombia and Brazil due to a US plot to use Salvadoran hit men to kill him. It’s difficult to know what to believe since Maduro has referred to a number of plots for which he has offered no evidence, the most disturbing being that the US “infected” the late President Hugo Chavez with cancer. Surely he knows that creating paranoia rallies the masses around the flag and it’s a great way to get people to vote for you if they think you’ll defend them from the enemy. It worked for Bush (remember all those Al-Qaeda “sleeper cells” supposedly wandering zombie-like around the US, just waiting to be activated?) it worked for Obama (isn’t Iran preparing to attack us? Doesn’t, and maybe it will work for Maduro.

In his defense, at least Maduro has a credible enemy in the United States government, the largest Mafia-terrorist organization in history. If you need examples to back up that statement, you must be new to CounterPunch, and I’ll just refer you to William Blum’s books (like “Killing Hope”) or any number of other books to verify that statement beyond a doubt. Still, that Maduro would stoop to the level of Obama and Bush must in itself be disturbing to those who hoped the Bolivarian Revolution would be different. I am one of them. Yet it’s questionable whether or not Maduro could reach the depths of moral depravity of any one of our recent presidents in the US given Venezuela’s rather limited, and overall positive, role in foreign affairs. And he still represents a better choice than the prototypal fascist Enrique Capriles, the candidate of, by and for the Venezuelan oligarchy.

Theories, reasons and speculation of all sorts aside, the six-day blockade is having dramatic effects on the people used to walking back and forth without difficulty, people like Alicia Acevedo de Barajas and her husband Jose Vicente, 71 years old. They’re from Venezuelans from Caracas and, according to La Opinion, they went to visit a brother who is hospitalized in Cúcuta. Jose suffers from a cerebral illness and needs special care, as well as constant medical attention. They begged the military to let them return home for a doctor’s appointment. They had only enough money for one night in a hotel room. On Thursday the 11th of April they were facing a day and a night outdoors, sleeping on the bridge with others who don’t have the means to rent a hotel room. This couple evidently wasn’t present when the Venezuelan military allowed a final passing of some children, elders and infirm April 9 at nine p.m. Now they face days to fend for themselves along with hundreds of others as they wait for the next Venezuelan president, likely the one who ordered them kept there, to allow them to return home.

Clifton Ross is the writer, director and producer of the feature-length documentary, “Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out” (2008 PM Press) and co-editor with Marcy Rein of “Until the Rulers Obey: Voices from Latin American Social Movements” due out in November 2013 with PM Press. He can be reached at clifross1(at)yahoo.com.