Venezuela’s Crisis: Memories of a Neglected Border

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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. The neighborhood is situated minutes away from my home and my elementary school. They are wearing light shirts to overcome the heat of Cúcuta’s afternoon sun. They are surrounded by reporters from many different countries, locals, and people who traveled from other towns. A concert was also being organized to bring awareness to the Venezuela’s crisis in neighboring the country.

Mixed Feelings and Childhood Memories

Estefania Palomino’s Family

The photo of the politicians, together with the images I see on T.V.or social media come with mixed feelings. On the one hand there are the common places such as 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 dry town, Cúcuta has always maintained its trees. It was under the shadows of those Ceibas and Mango trees that I learned to walk, read, and smile. I can see those familiar faces next to the President. They are excited to be there despite Colombian politicians never being known to care about remote areas. 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.

A Brief History of Neighboring Countries

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 political turmoil.

When supplies were unaffordable or unavailable, my family would make the 15-minute, hassle-free trip to San Antonio or Urena. There, where we would find everything we needed. Having an open border was good for our communities, businesses, and for families. Many familiess, like mine, had members living on both sides.

My Colombian family often would visit my aunt and uncles in Venezuela. They in turn would drive to visit my grandmother in Colombia. We would make stops along the way. Not because the trip was long, but because we wanted to eat fresh cheese or strawberries. We wanted to feel the cold air of the Venezuelan Andean mountains, and perhaps buy a loaf of sugary bread to bring back to Cúcuta.

Fond Early Memories

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 past the Venezuelan flag would they say “now we are in a different country”. I would start giggling loudly and the entire car would laugh with me.

I kept this same joke well into my early teens. even Chavez’ government guards started enforcing border controls. Their their faces looking harsher, more violent, more xenophobic. I kept asking the same question in my mind, until it wasn’t funny anymore. Until uttering these words out loud, next to a Venezuelan soldier, would reveal my Colombian accent. This would get us all in trouble.

Chavez and Today’s Starkly Different Reality

Chavez’s military aggression 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.

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. 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 is that the Venezuelans who cross the border to Cucuta find it disappointing. This is largely due to the uncoordinated humanitarian response by the Colombian government. Many are unable to obtain the basic they were seeking and what brought them to Cucuta in the first place.  

Venezuelans crossing the border into Colombia Source: Fox News

Venezuela Today

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 Venezuela’s crisis, the lack of essential vaccines and medicines even in major hospitals. 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 Venezuelans who cannot access impartial media that everything is alright. He emphasizes that Venezuela’s crisis is due to a plot orchestrated by the United States. 

Venezuela is now at a decisive point in its history. National Assembly Speaker Juan Guaidó was recognized as interim president of Venezuela by multiple governments including 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. This despite the fact that declaring an interim President in circumstances of democratic disruption was included in the Constitution crafted during Chavez’ government.

Fear and Suspicions of Humanitarian Aid

Others fear military intervention. They oppose the entry of humanitarian aid because they see the trucks loaded with medicines and food as trojan horses to initiate a U.S backed revolt. Many people fear the same old war, but now with Russian or U.S soldiers in their backyards. They fear the violence that they have already been through on both sides of the border under the grip of paramilitaries, guerrillas, or the Venezuelan regime. Who can blame them?

Venezuelan refugees carry their national flag after crossing the border into Cucuta Colombia

The partisan connotations of the humanitarian aid sent to Venezuela are clear. I can therefore understand why people are weary of the good intentions of U.S politicians and billionaires who a few years ago didn’t even know Cúcuta existed. I share those concerns and I wish there was someone ready to bring change to Venezuela without some ulterior motive. I fear that even with a transitional government, the same misery of the most vulnerable will persist. The only difference would be that Venezuela would be called a”democracy” and more suits would roaming the streets of Caracas. Just like in the “good ol’ days” of Rafael Caldera.

Yearning for Change

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 and unplanned because 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 being turned away 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 fleeing or dying next to him. I cannot stress enough the incredible importance of what a democratic transition would mean for Venezuela right now.

I may feel this because half of my heart is Venezuelan. Or maybe it’s because I have wonderful memories, some of which I have the humbling honor of sharing with you. But I also believe that this gut feeling, comes from my unwavering commitment towards democracy and human rights. Because it’s easy to talk about impeaching leaders that violate human rights and separate families whilst seeking personal gain. It should be equally as easy, important, and pressing to speak out against Maduro’s murderous regime. To demand the freedom of the Venezuelan people, and to unite around compassion for those who are hungry, desperate, or dying of preventable diseases.

If you would like to contact Pionero Philanthropy or Estefania, contact us!

By Estefania Palomino

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. She served as a visiting professional at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Estefania also co-founded the public interest law firm, IVO Legal.

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