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The aid standoff has only made things worse for Venezuelans in the border zone

“Things were already difficult. How much worse can they get?”

by Dylan Baddour
Mar 7 2019, 4:36pm

VILLA DEL ROSARIO, Colombia — Eliomar Cardenas was pulling a little cart full of groceries down a bumpy dirt path and through tall brush when he stopped to gather himself.

“This is bullshit,” he said, before resuming his brief but rocky journey from Venezuela into Colombia on Tuesday. Weeks earlier he was among the estimated 40,000 people who crossed the Simón Bolívar International Bridge daily, looking for food and basic supplies, like toilet paper. Now, he was forced to walk under it, clumsily dragging his cart across rocks and stone on an improvised border crossing that popped up after the bridge was closed two weeks ago.

The items that were on Cardenas’ shopping list are the sort of badly needed aid Venezuelan opposition leader and self-declared president Juan Guaidó promised would move en masse into Venezuela and which President Nicolas Maduro vowed to block.

But Guaidó's highly publicized push to break Maduro’s blockade on Feb. 23 — which featured U.S. support and a Live Aid–style rock concert — was marred by violence, as protestors and troops clashed on the border under clouds of tear gas, rubber bullets, and Molotov cocktails.

Since then, access to basic food and aid has only grown more difficult for Venezuelans in this border zone.

“Things were already difficult,” said Cardenas, a 45-year-old mechanical engineer. ”How much worse can they get?”

Using shipping containers filled with dirt, Venezuelan authorities have blocked all four crossings in the region, stifling locals who rely on the robust cross-border economy, and pushing daily migration flows shallowly underground. Many who cross the border now are forced to pay small fees to armed groups who control the various makeshift paths into Colombia.

“All they did was make things more complicated,” said Colombian soldier Javier Ortiz, referring to the Venezuelan opposition. He was standing near the bridge, watching over a steady procession of people filing down paths through tall brush and across a riverbed to the border.

Colombian migration officials say they will still stamp passports for anyone who wanders over from hidden and illegal paths into their official facilities. But the border closure is already posing serious problems for officials trying to keep track of migration here.

"For us, the most important thing is identification and registration," said Christian Kruger, director of Colombia's migration authority. "The worst thing that can happen to a country in a migration situation is to have an unidentified foreign population."

“The failed aid delivery was a huge blow to opposition morale.”

Backed by the Trump administration, the opposition bet big on getting international aid into the country. Not only was it designed to bring relief to Venezuelans in the throes of an economic crisis, it was also billed as Guaidó’s best chance to weaken Maduro’s grip on the country’s armed forces. Opposition leaders promised that Venezuelan soldiers would join their side when they approached with truckloads of aid for hungry Venezuelans. They said the symbolic mass defection would lead armed forces across the country to follow suit.

Instead, the opposite happened.

“The regime demonstrated the undeniable: that they have de facto control over Venezuelan territory,” said Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela researcher at the Washington office on Latin America in Washington, D.C. “The failed aid delivery was a huge blow to opposition morale.”

Venezuela aid standoff
Venezuelans cross illegally into Colombia near the Simón Bolívar International Bridge, which Venezuelan authorities continue to keep closed, as soldiers start blocking some of the illegal crossings as well, in La Parada near Cucuta, Tuesday, March 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)

Now, the Venezuelan opposition has shifted gears, notching a political victory on Monday when Guaidó returned from a regional political tour to a Caracas airport in defiance of the travel ban Maduro placed on him. In Caracas, Guaidó addressed a cheering crowd and called for more labor strikes and protests across the country. But he failed to mention the border zone, whose occupants with each passing day despair over the broken promises of humanitarian aid and a new chapter for their embattled country.

“Look at all the tears of the mothers, look at all the old and sick people who need to leave and can’t. They are prisoners in their own country,” said Ana Teresa Castillo, who runs an association for displaced people at the Venezuelan border.

Recently, feelings of despair have turned to outrage. Thousand of Venezuelan children who usually commute to Colombian schools are now stuck at home, their parents unwilling to send them down illicit pathways often managed by armed groups. A video posted online Wednesday morning showed students and their parents protesting on the blocked border, chanting slogans like "We want to study."

Many more here want to know what’s going to happen with all the humanitarian aid that remains locked away nearby while thousands go hungry.

“They could distribute it here. Many people from Venezuela would come to collect it,” said Fidel Villegas, 64, a Venezuelan who had crossed into Colombia for a medical checkup.

Cover: Venezuelans cross illegally into Colombia near the Simon Bolivar International Bridge, which Venezuelan authorities continue to keep closed, in La Parada near Cucuta, Tuesday, March 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)