Santa Elena, Caracas (VA)– Venezuelan and Colombian foreign ministers will meet today to discuss the issues surrounding Venezuela’s border closure and the crackdown on smuggling and undocumented Colombian immigrants in Tachira state, amid rising controversy.
Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos advocated yesterday for diplomacy after senator and former leader Alvaro Uribe called Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro a dictator on Twitter and accused him of “torturing Colombians.”
Maduro closed the border between Tachira and Santander after three Venezuelan soldiers were attacked by alleged paramilitaries last week. The closure was soon extended to a 60-day state of exception- similar to a state of emergency but without the suspension of human rights- after Venezuelan authorities assessed an alarming level of smuggling and paramilitary-related violence in the region.
Santos also warned of politicians using the situation as a political platform, as Uribe visited the border area and fanned the flames of resentment in communities that were economically dependent on contraband gasoline and Venezuelan goods.
“Its not the time to sound the trumpets of war,” Santos rebuked, “It’s time for firemen to step in, not pyromaniacs.”
Colombian media has also lashed out at Venezuela for closing the border, pointing to a “humanitarian crisis” in the region.
Venezuelan National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello responded yesterday saying it was not the country’s fault if the region was dependent on illegal smuggling, and that it was up to the Colombian government to remedy any shortages caused by the disappearance of Venezuelan goods.
“40,000 cars would drive into Colombia every day bringing Venezuelan food and gasoline[…] and long lines [in Tachira] for people to have access to food items that are already difficult to get due to the current economic situation…” said Cabello, emphasizing that smuggling mafias and paramilitary groups had additionally created a climate of fear and intimidation in the region.
Indeed, since the border was closed, Tachira governor Jose Vielma Mora has received multiple threats against himself and his family, who have been removed from the region for their safety.
“The Bolivarian government has made its decision and we assume responsibility for our decision to defend the people of Tachira,” Cabello added.
Still, Venezuelan authorities have deported over 1,100 undocumented Colombians since Saturday, contributing to genuine distress in the Colombian border city of Cucuta.
Cucuta mayor Donamaris Ramirez has declared a state of emergency in order to release necessary funds to provide support for the incoming deportees, the majority of whom are now in makeshift shelters in the city.
Santos responded to claims made by deportees in a warning to Maduro, “Raiding homes, removing people by force, separating families, not letting them remove the few goods they own and marking their homes for demolition are totally unacceptable practices.”
While Venezuelan authorities have insisted the deported Colombians have been treated with respect, xenophobic comments increased on social media as Venezuelans showed their support for the crackdown.
Maduro took the opportunity during his weekly broadcast to remind people that the aim of the state of exception is to break the cycle of border smuggling, not to rid the country of Colombian immigrants.
“The Colombian people are fleeing war, paramilitaries and misery, and they have come here by the millions,” he said, referring to the five million Colombian immigrants currently living in Venezuela.
The Venezuelan leader also pointed to the country’s free education and undiscriminating healthcare systems as unique opportunities for those refugees of violence.
Hundreds of Colombian citizens have also crossed the border to their home country on foot and of their own accord, to avoid confrontation with the military.
Since the state of exception was called, Venezuelan authorities in the region have discovered subterranean passages where goods were hoarded, and evidence of human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of minors.
Meanwhile, in an official statement yesterday, the spokesperson for the US state department, John Kirby, supported Venezuela’s “sovereign right to control its borders.”
This report was prepared by Z.C. DUTKA for Venezuelanalysis.com