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Colombia tells 800 Venezuelan soldiers to get a job instead of overthrowing Maduro

“We left everything behind — family, work, our lives — just to start here from zero?”

by Dylan Baddour
May 17 2019, 4:30pm

BOGOTA — Williams Cancino thought he had come to Colombia to join an army that would one day liberate his native Venezuela from embattled President Nicolas Maduro’s grasp. For almost three months, he waited alongside more than 800 fellow military defectors for the revolution to begin.

But it never did. Now, instead of worrying if he’ll ever receive his marching orders from Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, he’s scrambling to find a place to sleep.

This week, as representatives for Guaido traveled to Norway to hold talks with Venezuelan government officials, Colombia announced it was changing its policy towards the Venezuelan military defectors and their family members, who since February have been housed and fed in three hotels at a cost to the government of more than $10,000 per day. Cancino and his comrades were given eight days to leave the hotels and find somewhere else to stay.

“We feel defrauded,” Cancino said. “We left everything behind — family, work, our lives — just to start here from zero? This was something very poorly done, very poorly organized.”

Their stay in Colombia has encountered numerous issues, including the Venezuelan opposition often being late paying their share of the hotel bill, several defectors recounted, which led to them getting booted with their luggage into the streets outside one hotel until the debt was covered. The United Nations refugee agency, meanwhile, has balked at spending money on a small group of politically fraught men in the face of a vast migration crisis.

As a result of the change in policy, the defectors have lost their asylum seeking status and have been told to find a civilian job like the thousands of other Venezuelans living in Colombia, or to leave the country altogether.

Venezuela crisis
Colombian police escort Williams Cancino, a member of the feared Venezuelan special police, moments after he defected across a crowded border on February 23, 2019. (Dylan Baddour for VICE News.)

Cancino, an officer with Venezuela’s feared special police in Caracas, had crossed into Colombia in February after heeding the opposition’s calls for defection. He escaped from a Caracas base, and rode his motorcycle overnight to dart across the border and swear allegiance to his new commander-in-chief, Guaido, who aimed to use US-supplied humanitarian aid at the border as a way to break Maduro's grip on the military.

“The principle mission of coming from Venezuela to Colombia was to organize ourselves and return to Venezuelan to overthrow the regime of Nicolas Maduro,” Cancino said.

That plan collapsed into disorder and violence, but Guaido tried again in April, calling for the military to abandon Maduro. That uprising fizzled after just two days of fighting on the streets of Caracas.

“We left everything behind — family, work, our lives — just to start here from zero? This was something very poorly done, very poorly organized.”

These days the defectors follow the opposition’s moves like everyone else: through news reports online. Cancino said he thought the Norway talks amounted to negotiations with “criminals against humanity” and insisted that only violence would dislodge Maduro.

“These are people who believed in the opposition’s rhetoric about a military-led transition,” said Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela researcher with the Washington Office on Latin America. “Now that that route has failed, they’re feeling betrayed.”

The deserters’ letdown comes as Venezuela remains locked in a disastrous impasse. Opposition leaders, led by Guaido, have repeatedly failed to achieve the change they’ve promised. President Maduro, meanwhile, has only tightened his grip on power, sending more people streaming over Venezuela’s borders.

More than 3.4 million Venezuelans have fled the country in the last five years, according to U.N. estimates, and officials expect the figure to hit 5 million before the end of the year. In almost every Colombian city, Venezuelan families sleep in public places. Regional leaders have insisted that the exodus will only grow until Maduro gives up power and opens the way for dramatic reform and international intervention. But there’s no telling when that day will come.

For now, Colombia has offered all the defectors about $80 of monthly rental assistance for three months and granted them permission to work. Colombia will also help pay bus fare for anyone who wants to move to Ecuador.

“We don’t have any other choice but to start our lives from zero.”

“At one time they had refugee status, but eventually we realized this was going to last longer than we thought, so we have to evolve our plan,” said Felipe Muñoz, Colombia's presidentially appointed border manager.

Cancino and other defectors said they feared they’d be pursued in Colombia by loyalists to Maduro who call them traitors and conspirators. With the possibility of a revolution fading, they doubt that negotiations will end the political crisis. Cancino acknowledges that his dedication to the cause will fade as he faces the same struggle as the other 1.3 million Venezuelans in Colombia to find food and shelter each day.

When he defected three months ago, Cancino sent his girlfriend and mother into hiding, thinking he’d be back to rescue them in the near future. Now, he has no idea when he’ll see them again. He can’t go back to Venezuela.

“We don’t have any other choice but to start our lives from zero,” he said.

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Dylan Baddour is a journalist covering Venezuelan migration in Colombia.

Cover: In this Feb. 23, 2019 file photo, Colombian police escort a Venezuelan soldier who defected,at the Simon Bolivar international bridge, where Venezuelans tried to deliver humanitarian aid despite objections from President Nicolas Maduro, in Cucuta, Colombia (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara, File).