Media hype confronts reality on the Venezuela-Colombia border

By Marco Terrugi 
February 15, 2019

The original article posted in Spanish on was translated by Michael Otto.

Feb. 10 — The cameras are pointed at the border between Venezuela and Colombia. The stage is presented as a gate about to collapse. Everything seems ready, just waiting for the appropriate day that, according to the declarations of presidents and newscast headlines, is just about to happen. Narrative immediacy has been a central point ever since Juan Guaidó proclaimed himself president: the impending fall of Nicolás Maduro, the imminent transition government and the resolution of all of Venezuela’s problems.

What you see when you reach the border, however, is different. Particularly at the point that has been presented as a critical zone: the municipalities of Simón Bolívar and Ureña in the state of Táchira across from the city of Cúcuta, Colombia. There we would expect to see a region in turmoil, militarized on the Venezuelan side and transformed into a massive depository of humanitarian aid on the Colombian side. The reality is different: an overlapping of normality in one of the continent’s most complex borders and the climate of a work in progress.

Understanding border dynamics demands that you cross-reference some variables.

First, there is the historical development of this territory as a binational trade zone, which is based on the relationship between the Venezuelan bolivar and the Colombian peso.

Second, the implementation since 2013 — with earlier warning signs — of contraband smuggling as part of a plan to bleed the Venezuelan economy.

Third, the presence of key actors, such as paramilitary groups, in command of smuggling operations.

Finally, the three aforementioned elements coexist within the current economic scenario. The variables intersect and mutually reinforce each other.

Within that context, the cameras focus on two crossings, the Las Tienditas bridge and the Simón Bolívar bridge. The first bridge made the headlines on the front pages of newspapers, which portrayed containers that were placed on the Venezuelan side as closing the crossing. That bridge was never open.

Its construction was a Venezuelan initiative, but was sabotaged by Colombian policies that sought to expand the illegal smuggling of gasoline instead of mandating a system of mutually agreed-upon price controls in  border gas stations.

The question of gasoline is key to understanding the border: A liter on the Colombian side costs about 60 cents, while on the Venezuelan side a full tank costs less than a dollar.

Smuggled gasoline supplies impoverished Colombian border areas. They also enabled the Colombian company Ecopetrol to divert its produced fuel elsewhere. The paramilitaries can amass millions of dollars in profits and those who manage the control of cocaine — paramilitaries and cartels — can count on cheap gasoline for its processing. The Colombian government has passed laws that authorize the smuggling of gasoline.

The second bridge in the crosshairs is the Simón Bolívar. It’s open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. for pedestrians and from 9 p.m. to 12 p.m. for vehicular passage. About 30,000 people pass through there daily, about 2,000 of whom have their passports stamped — meaning that all the rest cross and return on the same day.

It has a photographic advantage: It is narrow, so a long line of people can be generated just by slowing things down for a few minutes. The Colombian authorities do just that when the media campaign needs photos that show masses of people. Otherwise the transit of people is smooth.

The two-way flow is both commercial and family related. On the Colombian side, certain products are available at cheaper prices, so many Venezuelans cross over to buy them for personal consumption or to resell them at a higher price on the Venezuelan side. Other products, regulated or subsidized, are cheaper on the Venezuelan side, so that flow is in the opposite direction.

The economy involves thousands of people from the border area and from other states in Venezuela — for example, people from Barinas or Barquisimeto. Their number is increased by economic difficulties caused by the combination of the financial blockade, the attack on the currency and the difficulty in stopping hyperinflation, among other factors.

Superimposed on this drama of everyday life is the constructed humanitarian narrative, including aid and possible foreign intervention. These factors have turned the border into a grand stage where the major communication agencies, spokespeople of different governments and international organizations meet. The objective is to show it as the critical point through which the door will open.

Everyone knows, for example, that the Las Tienditas bridge was never opened, even though [the media] claim that the Venezuelan government blocked it when the crisis unfolded. A tour offered by Freddy Bernal, named by Maduro as protector of the state of Táchira — the governor belongs to Acción Democrática, an opposition group — was attended by Colombian media and international agencies. It doesn’t matter that they know the truth about the bridge; they claim the opposite.

The active campaign to isolate Venezuela requires the construction of a network of agencies, government officials, organizations, presidents, social network engineers, among others.

In this context, humanitarian aid has been engineered as the battering ram to break down the gate. With several particularities: First of all, what has arrived so far is insignificant — two truckloads of food, when 40 are distributed in Táchira through the Local Supply and Production Committees in a single day.

Second, it doesn’t really matter what impact aid could have. It is rather the construction of the stage, which will show on one side the aid, while on the other that Venezuelans go begging for it — for which the right wing will mobilize its forces — and in the middle the government will be seen blocking the way. That is the image they will apparently seek to create.

Within this framework some hypotheses can be generated. One of the scenarios is that this is the territory where the assault strategy can find a trigger point and the operation mounted to justify new attacks of greater force. The opposition need to heighten the impact on public opinion, get the U.S. Senate to agree and stipulate in writing that military intervention can be considered, to create internal chaos.

The situation seems to be far too normal for them to achieve their objectives. That’s because some moves didn’t work out for them. For example, García Palomo, who was going to lead a series of military actions in Caracas, was instead arrested.

This week could be the one chosen to trigger the border scenario. It would be the point at which the international front would unite with the national front to create a “breakthrough.” For the time being, on the surface all remains calm.