Alex Weisman, JHU:
For the past month, the once bustling border towns that connect Venezuela and Colombia have been lifeless. Where restaurants, shops, hotels and streets once teemed with patrons, there are now rows of shuttered businesses. In the past, the western regions of Tachira, Zulia, and Apure benefited from a dynamic economic relationship with Colombia; today, the area resembles a police state.
In late August, Nicolás Maduro, president of Venezuela and the leader of the United Socialist Party, implemented border closures and declared a state of emergency in several of the country’s regions that border Colombia. Maduro claims that these actions are in response to the violent and criminal behavior conducted by Colombian paramilitary groups and smugglers operating in the borderlands. Since August, Maduro’s measures have led to warrantless searches, the demolition of homes, the restriction of public gatherings, and rampant deportations. Over 1,300 Colombians have been deported and over 15,000 have voluntarily left the country. Due to the closed borders, many of these individuals and families have fled across the Tachira River carrying their luggage and home appliances on their backs. The situation has devolved to such a level that the United Nations Mission in Colombia has described it as a “humanitarian crisis.”
Maduro defends the recent government actions as a justified purge against what he calls the cancerous cells infecting his country. Focusing on Venezuela’s recent economic crisis, Maduro argues that the government measures will crack down on Colombian paramilitaries who smuggle fixed-price goods and traffic drugs along the 1,400-mile border. He further claims that Colombians have been benefiting from the lucrative black market trade between the two countries by purchasing Venezuelan-subsidized flour, milk, fuel and other goods at favorable exchange rates and then reselling them in Colombia for a higher price. Maduro has attempted to blow up the size of this “exploitation” by arguing that it is the root of all of Venezuela’s economic problems.
Maduro’s second defense for the harsh crackdown is based on security. Citing the recent attack on three Venezuelan border patrolmen by Colombian paramilitaries, Maduro claims that the new measures in the region protect Venezuelans from wanton violence. During a recent press conference, Maduro explained his strategy: “First you apply the tourniquet to stop the bleeding and then you cure the wound. This will protect our people from the attacks of paramilitaries, smugglers and drug traffickers.” Although Maduro has gone through great pains to try to convince his people of the necessity for the crackdown and its “genuine” goals, there is no hiding his true political motives. Maduro is in a desperate position. Venezuela currently confronts a collapsing currency, extreme hyperinflation and crippling food shortages. A recent poll conducted in July found that Maduro boasts a 24% approval rating. With elections coming up in December, the incumbent needs some way to distract and unify his country. Rather than opt for the usual and convenient “blame America,” Maduro has found a more local scapegoat.
He has chosen to blame a neighboring country for sending in illegal immigrants and promoting illegal trade. It is true there is an influx of migrants and illegal activities, and that many Colombians benefit from this reality. Yet Venezuelans also benefit from this trade by gaining access to goods that would otherwise be unavailable. Ultimately, Maduro’s decision to target this issue for political reasons exemplifies his ignorance toward Venezuela’s broader economic problems. The reality is that Venezuela’s autarchic economy has been spiraling downward for some time. Falling oil prices have made it impossible for the country’s closed economy to maintain price controls on food. While Venezuela’s artificial means of controlling prices make food more affordable for families, they also make production unprofitable. As a result, many farmers have gone out of business and the government has had to use oil money to import food. The recent fall of oil prices has proven this practice to be unsustainable. This tragic cycle was started by Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, and has been continued by Maduro to little effect. Now, Venezuela’s ignominious leader searches for scapegoats instead of genuine answers to his country’s systemic problems.
Even as the rest of world looks on in confusion, President Maduro still claims his efforts are genuine. But if Maduro’s intentions were in fact honest, then why is he focusing so much on deporting families and shutting down official border crossings? The preferred route used by smugglers is not official border crossings but through hidden tunnels and roads. Rather than “curing the wound,” all Maduro has done is deport families, cut off commerce and infringe upon what remains of his citizens’ personal liberties. Since the beginning of Hugo Chavez’s presidency in 1999, Venezuelans have been subjected to fraudulent elections, repression of free speech, torture, and intimidation. In his time as president, Maduro has championed the very same policies.
Last week, Venezuelan news interviewed Maduro as he sat on a shoulder press machine. Maduro looked into the camera, smiled and challenged an important Colombian politician to a fistfight. Some might find his prizefighter routine charming, but if Mr. Maduro does not recognize that his next battle is not with Colombia, but rather with his underwhelmed constituents, he may well be knocked out of the presidency. In the meantime, it appears Venezuelans will continue to struggle, in spite their pugnacious and oblivious leader.