Cucuta, Colombia- I’m the last foreign journalist in Cucuta. All the sensible freelancers took flights home days ago when Colombia started shutting down. As I sit inside under police imposed curfew, all I can think about is how the Venezuelan border today is a lot darker than the one I remember from when I lived here a year ago.
The unannounced closure of the border on March 14th was chaos, as thousands of Venezuelans and Colombians woke up to find themselves trapped on either side of a suddenly impenetrable invisible wall. The loud panic from that first day has since faded to a more ominous and silent fear. And though the rules keep changing by the hour, that fear expresses itself as a deep resignation.
Darkness is not new to this border, whichever side people live on, but a year ago the chaos was merely a white-noise background to a vibrant and bustling life. The border violence or passing political crisis could previously be banished with jokes, or a few beers with the neighbors and some dancing. But now there is fear of a new foe, one not so easily banished. An enemy currently shared by the world. An epidemic has arrived.
In some ways, this common enemy has also brought reconciliation. The government of Maduro in Venezuela and the Colombian government are cooperating and communicating for the first time in over a year to contain the spread of Corona virus and in theory to provide for the people here.
Despite their efforts, the border closure is theoretical at best. The daily tightening of the rules, expanding checkpoints and now a nightly curfew, do little to prevent informal crossings along a 1000-mile frontier that is controlled more by armed groups than either of the states involved.
The goal seems to be to make passage more difficult at the major crossing points, and to slow down what up until a few days ago was the largest mass-movement of people in South American history.
Venezuela and Colombia share a very long cultural, economic and fraternal bond. Immediately after their independence from Spain they were even the same country, “Grand Colombia”, and their situations were not long ago the complete opposite of what they are now. Fifteen years ago, when Venezuela was the richest country in South America and Colombia was in the grip of a civil war, the migration was going the other way. People here remember that, and everyone in Cucuta has family living on the other side of the border.
The Colombian state of Norte de Santander, where Cucuta lies, was one of the most dangerous regions of Colombia during the 50-year civil war, which for many Colombians who live outside of the cities, never completely ended. Armed splinter-groups from the war still control most of the border areas and the same forces that once clashed in a failed revolution continue their eternal battle, now over smuggling trails and coca territory.
When the Venezuelan economy collapsed, Cucuta became the main port of entry for the millions fleeing. For 5 years, Colombia kept its border open to Venezuelans, 30,000 of which crossed daily into this small city for work, school, medical attention, to buy goods unavailable in Venezuela or to flee their failing country.
That period of fraternity came to an end on March 14th when Colombia officially closed its doors due to Corona virus. It took months, but the panic that started on the other side of the globe finally arrived, bringing with it an end to the most inspiring example of openness to refugees in the modern world.
Colombia, along with 10 other Latin American countries closed its borders completely to the outside world, and will remain that way until April 30 at the earliest.
Each day the measures on the frontier become more stringent, just as in the rest of the world. The first day, the irregular paths across the border, called trochas, were booming. Thousands crossed, most carrying large bundles of goods not available on the Venezuelan side- medicine, diapers, toilet paper, food, electronic goods; virtually every good imaginable.
The second day of closure, the most obvious trochas were blocked by mounted police and a slow stream of Venezuelans crossed across the Simon Bolivar bridge, one of two official crossings between the two countries in the city.
The third day saw roadblocks and police revising passengers at checkpoints throughout the city. Cabs were ordered by the city to only pick up passengers who had proof they live in Colombia, utility bills, identification or a note from employers.
There is no longer public transportation along the border, leaving the townships of La Parada, Villa Rosario and Juan Frio isolated. I cancelled an interview about violence by armed groups today for fear of getting stuck on the frontier. Everyone assumes those communities will be under full lockdown at any moment.
The entire region is under mandatory curfew from 8pm-4am every night. Shops close and the only sign of movement in the street is the occasional police patrol car. Bogota imposes a complete lockdown this weekend, and Cucuta is considering doing the same.
The invisible walls between the two countries is tightening, as they are in the rest of the world. As they most likely are for you as well, as you read this.
But here on this particular border, I fear that things might get ugly if these measures go on for long.
A Vulnerable People
The world is reacting to a crisis that affects everyone on the planet, and is taking measures never before seen in human history to do so. But border towns here on the Venezuelan/Colombian border are some of the most vulnerable communities in South America. In Western Venezuela, there is no law. There is no medical system. For most of the frontier there is no potable water and the region is hotbed of criminal activity as guerrilla groups the FARC and the ELN battle against Colombian paramilitary groups like AUC and the Rastrojos over smuggling trails and coca production territory.
Outside of a few major checkpoints, the situation is basically identical on the Colombian side. Areas like Norte de Santander and Guajira are by no means under control by the Colombian State.
It is a border a 1000 miles long, filled with desperate people and fought over by incredibly violent thugs. Amidst all that chaos however, live a few million people whose nations were once one nation, who wish merely to survive; from penniless refugees who until this shutdown worked daily in the streets for just enough to eat, to subsistence farmers in Norte de Santander and Tachira, to indigenous communities in Guajira who have long been ignored and neglected by both Venezuela and Colombia, to hundreds of thousands of working poor with no savings at all.
Things are about to get very bad on the frontier, even if the Corona virus isn’t as bad as we fear. In the US and Italy, the government talks about measures to alleviate those without work.
The people here have been ignored by both Venezuela and Colombia even when there was no global crisis. That is extremely unlikely to change now. Each day that passes for them is a day without critically needed food or medical care in an economy frozen by time, and restrictions for the entry of aid workers or emergency food supplies are more dangerous than the epidemic.
I very much fear that things will get much worse before they get better for the most vulnerable, who have already suffered so much.
A year ago on the border there was chaos as well, but there was hope that things might change and the unquenchable capacity for joy so common in South America. For now at least, on the most dangerous border in the Americas, I sense only an incredibly brave yet desperate resignation.