Maduro’s Mad Refugee Gambit on the Eve Of Venezuela’s Vote

The shaky Venezuelan strongman struggling to hold on to power has found Colombian refugees convenient scapegoats.

Nacho Doce/Reuters

CÚCUTA, Colombia — The streets of La Esperanza—a barrio on the outskirts of Cúcuta, on the Venezuelan border—are steep and bleak and crumbling.

There’s little sign of any kind of commerce here: a few pushcart vendors, fewer open shops, and even fewer people with money to buy anything. Feral slum hounds roam these post-apocalyptic-looking streets in packs, snapping and growling among themselves over whatever edible trash they can find. Shy-smiling, hollow-eyed children peep out from behind the sashes of the glassless windows.

La Esperanza (which ironically means “The Hope” in Spanish) is now home to scores of families who’d once sought refuge in Venezuela from the violence of Colombia’s ongoing civil war.

Many of them had lived for a decade or more across the nearby Rio Táchira, which marks the frontier—only to be forced back across at gunpoint by the Venezuelan Guardia in recent months, part of a massive, general clampdown by President Nicholas Maduro along the 1,451-mile border between the two nations.

Now, on the eve of Venezuela’s highly controversial parliamentary vote Sunday—in which Maduro has already sworn not to concede defeat, even if his socialist Chavista party is ousted from power for the first time since 2000—many of the uprooted families in La Esperanza are hoping for an outcome, any outcome, which might allow for a prompt return to their adopted homeland.

One such family, the Villas, live now in a second-floor apartment on a hilltop in La Esperanza. Their tin-roofed home is furnished with little more than a few plastic lawn chairs and a small wooden table. A narrow and twisting staircase leads up from the street. Naked rebar juts from the concrete walls and floor. The family of four sleeps together on a pile of thin ticking in a stiflingly hot room at the back—their collective bedroom about the size of a walk-in closet.

They had gone to Venezuela “to escape the violence in Colombia,” said Antonio Villa, 40, when I visited the family’s new quarters. “But what we encountered over there was even worse.”

In 2001, Villa’s father, uncle, and two cousins were killed by leftist guerrillas in Colombia who accused them of collaborating with pro-government forces in the Colombian state of Antioquia. Fearing for his life, Villa fled first to Bogotá, and then across the frontier into Venezuela’s Táchira state, where he was eventually granted political asylum by the government in 2010.

“We bought a little land, built a house, and little by little we made it into a home,” says Villa, who has a stocky build and is dressed today in a plain black T-shirt and jeans. Villa found work as a security guard in the border city of San Antonio, and his wife, Andrea, soon gave birth to their second child, a baby girl. For the first time in years, the family was at peace.

“All that time in Venezuela and I never had a bad thing to say, nobody ever discriminated against us for being Colombian, and we always had enough to eat,” Villa’s eyes suddenly well with tears. “But then they gave the presidency to that madman—and he destroyed everything.”

Villa isn’t the first to question the Venezuelan president’s mental health. Since winning the post-Chavez presidency by the slimmest of margins in 2013, Maduro has overseen the startlingly swift implosion of the Venezuelan economy. Historic inflation rates—similar to those seen in Weimar Germany after World War I—coupled with soaring crime and mass scarcities of consumer goods now threaten to turn Venezuela into a failed state.

Meanwhile, Maduro has responded to any and all political opponents with an increasingly hardline approach: jailing opposition leaders, killing dozens of protesters, and systematically dismantling the free press.

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“This is a government that really believes in control,” says David Smilde, a senior fellow with the Washington Office on Latin America. “They believe in a controlled economy,” Smilde says. “They think they can have a currency that’s a hundred times over-valued, they think they can expropriate industries and run them better themselves —and they seem relatively impervious to evidence.”

But controlling Venezuela’s rugged and porous western border has provided a stiff challenge to President Maduro’s domineering instincts.

The border is a key transit point for narcotics shipments that move east from Colombia into Venezuela, before passing on to the U.S. or Europe. At the same time, government subsidies on gasoline and other consumer goods in Venezuela have led to an extremely lucrative cross-border smuggling network flowing west into Colombia.

“The Maduro government has a huge problem with scarcities,” explains WOLA’s Smilde. “And part of the cause of scarcities is contraband. . . On just about any price-controlled good you can make a 2,000 or 3,000 percent gain [in Colombia]. So there’s a huge incentive for contraband because of the foreign exchange chaos.”

According to the Maduro regime, the military clampdown that pushed 20,000 Colombians back across the border was aimed at crushing the region’s thriving black market.

Smilde disagrees: “Closing the border was like a big theater production to demonstrate that crime was coming from Colombia and the government is fighting crime and all the problems with scarcities are because of contraband,” says Smilde.

Smilde and many other observers contend that the border lockdown was actually instigated for political motives—intended to stifle the opposition in the mid-term elections this Sunday—elections in which Maduro’s Chavista party is widely expected to take a beating.

“Maduro declared a State of Exception in all the municipalities along the border—which means that basic civil and political rights are no longer guaranteed,” Smilde says. “That means you don’t have fundamental guarantees of freedom of movement, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly—all the things you need during a campaign.”

The State of Exception exists, says Smilde, “because it complicates the opposition campaign.”

And as for those 20,000 Colombians refugees?

“In times like this, foreigners are always the ones that get scapegoated,” he says.

The anti-Colombian pogrom began in late August, when a Venezuelan patrol came under fire from unknown forces. Despite a lack of evidence, Maduro claimed Colombian “paramilitaries” were responsible—and, under that pretext, he promptly closed and militarized the border.

“About 1,100 [Colombians] were deported in the first three to four days of the crisis,” said Hans Hartmark, regional director for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), when The Daily Beast talked to him in his office in Cúcuta.

“The Venezuelan military rounded up people in a football stadium to check their papers” before deporting them, says Hartmark, a ginger-haired Norwegian with more than 17 years of experience with the UNHCR. “On the basis of this massive deportation, people got very scared.”

The initial round-up touched off a wave of panic that led to 18,770 Colombian migrants racing back across the border with their worldy goods on their backs, according to Hartmark.

“They either fled due to fear or they were actually forced to leave. These were not formal deportations,” he says.

WOLA’s Smilde agrees.

“International law and Venezuelan law suggest these things have to be on a case-by-case basis,” he says. “You can’t collectively judge people, families and communities because they’re Colombian and then deport them. You just can’t do that—it’s a violation of human rights.”

Antonio Villa, in his sweltering room, paints a disturbing, graphic picture of just what those violations looked like in real time:

“The soldiers came to our house one night at about eight o’clock,” Villa says, proudly showing this reporter his Venezuelan cedula (his ID card) and his guarantee of asylum. “They entered our town like they were ready for war—there were trucks, tanks, even helicopters. Everyone was terrified.”

Because he was a respected leader within the expatriated Colombian community, Villa went down to speak with the officer in charge.

“I asked the colonel: ‘Why are you doing this?’—and I showed him my cedula. But he said my card was not worth anything, and that we had to go. He told me it was by order of the president himself.”

Villa and his wife were given just three hours to gather up their belongings. They packed what they could into jute bags and fled, but most of their household goods were lost.

“All of the children’s clothes, our beds, the mattresses—we had to abandon everything,” Antonio’s wife Andrea says. “The soldiers even shot our dog when he barked at them,” and now it’s her turn to tear up.

The family escaped on foot, wading across the Táchira River in the dark, with Villa carrying the family’s small refrigerator upon his back, and nothing but a tumpline around his forehead to ease the load. The ground they had to walk that night is widely known to be controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)—the same leftist guerrilla group that had killed four of Villa’s family members and threatened his life back in 2001.

“It’s highly unfortunate if people with refugee status are forced to go back to the country where they are endangered,” says UNHCR’s Hartmark. “But nobody gives a damn about these people. They were victims in Colombia—and now they’ve been expelled from Venezuela.”

The Venezuela-Colombia border has now been closed for the last four-and-half months, at the cost of about $400,000 per day to Venezuela’s already slumping economy.

Nevertheless, subsidized Venezuelan gasoline is still sold by “pimpineros” (illegal gas sellers) on street corners across Cúcuta, for about 7,500 pesos ($2.40) per gallon.

“The highway is closed, so now they use mules,” says pimpinero Jose Efrain Rangel, 45. “There are many secret trails through the mountains. It’s like a chain, passed from one person to another, until it gets to us,” says Rangel, who’s worked for the last seven years selling illegal Venezuelan gas on the streets of Cúcuta. The pimpineros even have their own union, Rangel says, to which they pay monthly dues.

Such a thriving black market operation suggests that Maduro’s border clampdown has less to do with stopping crime than he’d like the Venezuelan people to believe—and furthers speculation that the State of Exception was always more about political gamesmanship and scapegoating than anything else.

Even worse, Maduro’s attempt to garner support in the run-up to the election, and perhaps to quash the opposition vote in border states like Táchira—continues to have very real consequences for the tens of thousands of vulnerable and displaced Colombians.

“We’re highly concerned that there seems to be no medium- or long-term response to the crisis,” UNHCR’s Hartmark says. “Reintegration is not happening. And they are still trickling in. More and more are coming back. We don’t have the resources to help all these people.” The UN aid worker shakes his head wearily.

When asked about Venezuela’s rapidly approaching elections, in relation to the Colombian refugees caught up in the border crisis, Hartmark shakes his head again.

“More and more people hope that the elections pass without any big problems so they can go back.”

A temporary Colombian government subsidy for refugees will expire at the end of December, leaving families like the Villas with nowhere to turn.

“We don’t know what will happen when the rent comes due next month,” Antonio Villa says, as a battered television plays “Deck the Halls” in the background. Villa says the landlord has already threatened to shut off the electricity in an attempt to drive them out.

“What will I tell my children when there’s nothing left to eat?” he asks. “What do we do when there’s nowhere else to go?”