CÚCUTA, Colombia—While shipments of U.S. humanitarian aid containing food, medical supplies, and nutritional supplements wait at the Colombia-Venezuela border, José Carrea staggers across the international bridge connecting the two countries, a large bag stuffed with food slung over his shoulder.
Carrea, 35, is on his way back to Venezuela. A taxi driver from San Cristóbal, about 20 miles from the border, Carrea saves up enough money to cross into Colombia every two to three weeks to buy essential provisions– the very provisions that Nicolás Maduro, the military-backed president of Venezuela, now blocks at the border.
For the last year, Carrea has crossed seamlessly into Cúcuta to buy the basic supplies that he can’t find back home. But for those living further from the border, the shipments of aid now blocked by Maduro provided a glimmer of hope to also have access to these essential supplies unavailable in their country.
“Maduro says there is no humanitarian crisis in Venezuela,” said Carrea, holding a packed polka-dotted bag in his arms. He said the bag was full of food products including salt, butter, cooking oil, rice, and sardines, as well as hygiene items such as soap.
“But if there is no crisis, why do I have to come to Colombia to buy all of these things,” he asked rhetorically from a shaded area along the bridge, where he stood resting beside a shouting Venezuelan hawker selling 30 acetaminophen tablets for 2,000 Colombian pesos (65 U.S. cents). “Maduro pretends that none of us who cross the border exist.”
Every day, an estimated 50,000 Venezuelans flow across the bustling Simón Bolívar International Bridge into Cúcuta, Colombia, which has become the epicenter of the Venezuelan exodus. While most, like Carrea, come to the Colombia border city for the day to stock up on basic food and medicines, approximately 5,000 flee the crisis each day with no intention of heading back home.
The crisis is palpable here. People live it, breathe it, sweat it day in and day out. But there is also fear that any overt U.S. intervention in Venezuela will make the situation even worse.
The endless stream of migrants pouring into Cúcuta looking for basic necessities has given rise to a dynamic informal market serviced by Venezuelans for Venezuelans only a few feet from the border. Beneath the scorching sun, thousands set up makeshift tables selling everything from potatoes to toothpaste to diapers. As hawkers scream out prices into the suffocating air, crowds of buyers edge their way through the streets, lifting oversized bags or pushing handcarts, in order to stockpile the assorted staple goods that they cannot buy back in Venezuela.
Yany Gallardo, 26, is one of the thousands of Venezuelans who was forced to restart her life as a vendor in Cúcuta. Gallardo, who is due to give birth next month to a baby boy already named Marianyuli, arrived in Cúcuta in November 2017 with her 8-year-old son, Javier. Here, she sells coffee, water, and lollipops at the foot of the international bridge, and earns between three and four U.S. dollars a day.
“Life is very difficult here, and you have to pay for everything,” said Gallardo, who sleeps outside with her son near the border crossing, and often needs to pay to access simple services such as bathrooms and showers. She originally came to Colombia to seek treatment for Javier’s chronic kidney disease. “But at least you can work and find the medicine you need. In Venezuela, there is nothing.”
Amid the escalating economic crisis in Venezuela, where inflation rates have skyrocketed past 1,000,000 percent (yes, one million percent), and shortages of basic food and medical supplies are the norm, the U.S. and Venezuelan opposition leaders have organized for emergency humanitarian aid shipments to be delivered to the Venezuelan people.
But this move provoked a furious reaction from the government of President Maduro. In Venezuela, where the military manages the country’s diminished food supply, food aid is not only a humanitarian issue. It’s also deeply political.
Nearly all of Venezuela’s food is imported by the government, which creates lucrative opportunities for Maduro’s cronies to siphon off money from food contracts and for Maduro to use food distribution as a form of political patronage. In 2016, President Maduro introduced so-called CLAP boxes– which contain rations of staple foods such as rice, flour, and canned tuna– and has used the distribution of these boxes to reward his supporters and punish dissenters.
With this as motivation, Maduro’s National Guard set up a blockade at the Tienditas border crossing in Cúcuta on Wednesday, where the aid was due to arrive. Maduro publicly claims that there is no humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, and told the military earlier in the week “we are not beggars.”
The country has been embroiled in a political crisis ever since the opposition leader and president of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, invoked a clause of the constitution a few weeks ago to proclaim himself the legitimate interim president of Venezuela. Donald Trump, along with many other world leaders, quickly recognized Guaidó as Venezuela’s president and at his request coordinated $20 million worth of humanitarian aid to be delivered to the battered country.
For the U.S. and Venezuelan opposition, the humanitarian shipments are also about more than just emergency aid. The first shipment of aid contains only enough food kits to feed 5,000 families of five for one week–hardly sufficient to diminish seriously the humanitarian need in Venezuela.
Instead, many allege that Guaidó hopes to use the international aid to establish a humanitarian corridor, allowing international aid groups to control part of the border. Many also view the aid as a political ploy to provoke top-level military officials, who have remained loyal to Maduro, to give up their allegiance to Maduro and support the opposition.
Earlier in the week, speaking to a group of reporters and government officials in Caracas, Maduro railed against the “imperialist plot” to destabilize his government, and repeated his claim that the humanitarian crisis is a fabrication cooked up by Washington. During his speech, the electricity cut out twice.
At the Tienditas border crossing on Thursday, after much anticipation, the convoy of U.S. humanitarian trucks carrying food, medicine, hygiene kits, and nutritional products finally arrived here on the border. A group of Venezuelan demonstrators welcomed the two semi-trailer trucks and six smaller trucks by protesting angrily against Maduro’s blockade. One held a sign saying that the best humanitarian aid Venezuela could receive would be the “extermination of the cancer called Nicolas Maduro.”
Back at the Simón Bolívar Bridge, the primary pedestrian border crossing in Cúcuta, rumors circulated about the arrival of the aid.
Carlí Torres, 21, who came to Cúcuta to find medicines and vitamins that weren’t available back in Venezuela, was infuriated that Maduro was stopping the aid. Her parents were still in Caracas, where they struggled to survive without work. The factory where Torres’s dad used to work had closed over a year ago due to the crumbling economy, and the country’s near-worthless currency made it difficult for them to find food. But they couldn’t afford to travel to Cúcuta.
“Venezuelans need that aid so badly,” Torres said, as she sold a small packet of water to an exhausted customer hauling two suitcases full of goods. “My family is dying of hunger back home. He needs to let in the aid.”
César Jil, a farmer from Maracaibo and member of the indigenous Wayuu ethnic group, overheard the conversation from his nearby stand and asked if he could say something to the camera.
“Maduro you are worse than the devil,” he shouted passionately, as nearby hawkers stopped to watch his speech. “Let in that aid for the kids who don’t have medicine, for the people who don’t have anything. You say that Venezuela does not have a crisis, but there is nothing there. You are a liar, and your time is finished.” A chorus of applause broke out from the smiling onlookers.
Aside from the Venezuelan migrants, leaders of local NGOs and nonprofits have also expressed their dismay with Maduro’s reluctance to let in the humanitarian aid.
Jean Carlos Andrade is the coordinator of a church-run kitchen in Cúcuta that serves 8,000 meals per day to migrants, free of charge. Jean told The Daily Beast that every child he sees from Venezuela that comes to the kitchen is malnourished. “You think initially that they are 4 years old, but really they are 9 or 10.” He added that he thinks children in Venezuela are in desperate need of nutritional supplements (the humanitarian aid blocked in Cúcuta contains nutritional supplements to treat 6,700 young children) in order to curb the pervasive malnutrition.
And the numbers corroborate his claim. According to a study conducted by three independent universities in Venezuela in 2017, at least 1.3 million people in Venezuela suffer from malnutrition. The study also found that nearly 60 percent of the population had lost weight in 2017 by an average of 11 kilograms. Today, someone on a minimum salary in Venezuela can only afford 600 calories per day.
But despite the undeniable need for humanitarian assistance in Venezuela, the aid is currently stuck on the Colombia side of the border until officials decide how to circumnavigate the two blue shipping containers and a large oil tanker barricading the pathway into Venezuela.
At a press conference on Friday, U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whitaker reinforced Trump’s recent claim that “nothing is off the table,” hinting at the possibility of a U.S. military intervention.
At the Simón Bolívar Bridge, most Venezuelans expressed concern over the idea of direct U.S. military engagement in their country’s affairs.
Lisbeth Rodriguez, 51, who is from Carabobo and arrived in Cúcuta five days before we met with her paraplegic son Daniel, doesn’t think the U.S. should use military force in Venezuela. Her concern? That violence will increase and a state of emergency will cause the Simón Bolívar border crossing, which so many people rely on to survive, to close.
“It will just make our lives more difficult,” Rodriguez said, in response to the possibility of the U.S. military intervention.
Twenty-one year-old Angie Pérez, who traveled for four days by herself from Guarenas, Venezuela to come to Cúcuta, is also worried about Trump openly discussing the possibility of a military invasion.
“Of course we want the country to go back to what it was before Maduro,” said Pérez, while cradling a friend’s baby in her lap. “But it’s not going to be easy.”
Perez has been in Cúcuta for four months, and, like many others, spends her nights sleeping on the streets adjacent to the Simón Bolívar Bridge. She works from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. selling juice and candies to migrants crossing the bridge. She speaks passionately and nostalgically about her country, but doesn’t have any delusions that the crisis will end anytime soon.
“Maduro has done so much bad for the country. Corruption and thieves are everywhere,” she continues. “If the U.S. comes and gets rid of Maduro, what happens next? There is still a long road ahead until Venezuela becomes Venezuela again.”