On the Venezuelan-Colombian Border, the Tide Has Turned

Most days, Gina Prada leaves her school on the outskirts of Cúcuta, Colombia. The wispy-thin ninth-grader walks down a littered dirt road and buys a little flour or a few pieces of bread. Then she stuffs the goods into her bookbag, boards a bus to ride across the border to Venezuela, and walks home to share the bounty with her family.

Dressed in the wilted skirt of a well-kept red-and-gray uniform, Gina is one of 1,500 Colombian children living in Venezuela who are allowed by both governments to study in Cúcuta. In this mountain town of about a half-million residents, located smack on the border, there are no bread lines and the goods are cheaper than those on the black market back home.

She uses just two words to describe Venezuela: "mucha fila." There are lines for food, the bank, and medicine. But the bigger problem, Prada says, is there's no reward once you reach the front. "You can spend hours in line to do grocery shopping and then have nothing in your bag," she says.

Gina lives on the cusp of two crises. One, in Colombia, is supposed to be ending. After a half-century of war, the country has signed a peace agreement with the largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The deal will be voted on in a national plebiscite October 2.

The other, in Venezuela, looks increasingly like it is just beginning. Years of economic micromanagement and nationalizations have left shelves barren, incomes devalued, and millions of families destitute. Prada's classmate Guiani Bustos says she wouldn't dare walk outside at night in an informal settlement where both girls live near the frontier town of San Antonio. Pursing her lips and twisting her braids in her fingers, she elaborates: Armed gangs "come and kill people anytime," she says.

Facing hunger and insecurity, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans are fleeing abroad. There is no official count of migrants from the recent crisis, but 57 percent of Venezuelans say they would leave their country if they could, a recent poll by the Caracas-based Datincorp found. The migrants go where they have family and cultural ties. As many as 260,000 have come to the United States, to communities such as South Florida, where hundreds of families have recently arrived destitute. Others have scattered across Latin America and Europe.

Yet there is no landing point so close and fragile as Colombia, where fallout from Venezuela's churning disaster could unravel decades of progress. In Cúcuta, migrants are straining the job market and stirring resentment among locals, who can easily pick up the outsiders' elided accents on the streets and in stores. More alarming to the millions of Colombians preparing to vote on the FARC deal is the range of armed groups that have taken advantage of Venezuela's crisis to grow and regroup.

The risks are on display at the Institución Educativa de la Frontera, just a two-minute drive from the Simón Bolívar memorial bridge that separates the two countries. Students such as Gina stock up on food during lunch and recess. They aren't alone. Each day, thousands of Venezuelans cross the border on foot to buy items such as rice and toilet paper that aren't available back home.

A growing number flee permanently to Colombia. The Colombian government is making contingency plans to receive up to 1 million arrivals in the coming months.

As recently as only two years ago, such a scenario seemed impossible. With its vast oil wealth and generous social handouts, Venezuela had long been a land of opportunity for Colombians. Throughout Colombia's half-century-old conflict, hundreds of thousands left to the promise of a safer, wealthier life in Venezuela.

But the intervening years have seen Venezuela and Colombia switch places. The Colombian government decimated — and then negotiated with — FARC. The country's income per capita has grown 250 percent since 2000. Caracas, meanwhile, nationalized local industries and expanded social handouts. When the oil price collapsed in 2014, Venezuela's budget dwindled. Today that country produces almost no consumer goods and lacks the foreign currency to import them. Shortages are rampant.

"In Venezuela, the message is that they have killed the chicken and they are eating the last eggs," says Father Francesco Bortignon, a priest who heads a migrant reception center for the Catholic Church in Cúcuta.

As the flow of migrants and money has begun to run backward, even those caught in its midst find it difficult to fathom. At Bortignon's center, new arrival Libardo Alucema Gallo leans over his bony knees, puzzling over the circumstances. The quietly deliberate 37-year-old Colombian construction worker took his wife and children to Venezuela to seek better prospects nearly a decade ago. "With all our hopes, we went," he remembers.

Venezuelan migrants are straining the job market and stirring resentment among locals in Colombia.
Venezuelan migrants are straining the job market and stirring resentment among locals in Colombia.
Courtesy photo

By this past August, when they left the coastal town of Yaracal in Venezuela, some 800 kilometers from Cúcuta, his children often ate only one meal a day. Thanks to spiraling inflation, Gallo rarely had enough money to buy food. And when he did, he had to plead with the local bakery to sell more than one or two pieces of bread.

"To live hungry in Venezuela — no one would have imagined that," he says.

Gallo turns his face from side to side to reveal the other reason his family left. Scars of recent bullet wounds trace a line from his left cheek to right ear. This past January, he recounts, armed robbers entered his home, shot him in front of his 12-year-old son, and left him in the street for dead.

"They were ready to react — ready to kill any person in the world," he says. Fearing another attack, the family fled.

Gallo's story sounds increasingly familiar to human rights groups here. As Venezuela's economy has plummeted, the murder rate has skyrocketed to one of the highest in the world. If that violence infuses the country's politics, "it's going to burn the oven," worries Father Bortignon, turning away with a tired gaze as he imagines the scenario few here want to articulate. "There will be millions trying to escape. Where do they escape? The border. That would also burn things here."

For many in this town, a way of life has already gone up in flames. Cúcuta's shop-lined streets were once a welcome mat to Venezuelans, who came with more money and richer tastes. Exchange houses still flash lighted signs advertising they will change Venezuelan bolívars to Colombian pesos.

In Cúcuta's gated neighborhoods, nearly every Mercedes and SUV has a Venezuelan license plate — not because the owners are citizens but because registering over the border was cheaper and made it easier to buy subsidized gas, which costs 69 times less in Venezuela than it does in Colombia.

It wasn't just the wealthy; in the old days, everyone from Cúcuta shopped in Venezuela. They stocked up on price-controlled supplies and returned. Any small-time trader with business sense could bring back a little extra fuel or flour and find a niche selling Venezuelan goods at a profit.

Now that livelihood is gone. So too is a growing number of unskilled jobs in fields such as construction, where desperate Venezuelan migrants accept a lower wage. Incomes in Cúcuta are drying up, and petty crime is growing.

"It's something that is invisible; only the local people living here will see it," explains a human rights lawyer working with the government, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Outside the city center, the crisis is more visible. A plethora of new illicit markets are emerging from Venezuela's economic free fall. And a plethora of small armed groups with links in both countries is taking advantage.

Drug trafficking is once again on the rise. Colombia ceased spraying coca crops in 2015, and cultivation has risen nearly 40 percent, according to United Nations estimates. Venezuela's porous border offers an obvious transit point. Armed groups have also begun charging a small fee to carry Venezuelan migrants over the border. Food and medicine get smuggled too.

Back in Cúcuta's La Parada neighborhood, where Gina and her school buddy Guiani study, an unintelligible array of gangs vies for control of the contraband. Taxi drivers are afraid to roll down the bumpy dirt roads, and strangers cannot stay very long.

"This neighborhood is really complicated," says school principal German Berbesi, seeming to revel in his understatement. Seven times in the past month, he sighs, police have come into the neighborhood to seize contraband. The merchants fight back: "They use pipe bombs and other explosives. We are in the middle of this situation, and when it occurs, there is panic among the children and parents."

Gina and Guiani speak of the crisis more jadedly. Exchanging glances and giggles, they breezily discuss the dire situation the way teens elsewhere might gossip about Taylor Swift. "Of course it affects us. Our parents don't have work, and the wages they earn are very little," Guiani says. "There is a lack of everything. Food — you don't find anything."

As they chat while walking through the school gate, they veer toward the shops outside — a small detour for life's essentials before returning home.


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