The Strange World at the Venezuelan Border

A recent trip to the Venezuela-Colombia border had some good and bad surprises for VA columnist Jessica Dos Santos.

A couple of weeks ago I went to Táchira state, on the border with Colombia. It had been six years since I had last flown by airplane. This flight reminded me how much I enjoy traveling, how wonderful it was to fly when ticket prices were reasonable compared to wages or the times I got to do it on journalistic assignments.

A flight to Táchira these days costs US $100. Going by bus is at least $50 but it takes a whole day. To take one’s own car is nearly impossible because a full gas tank is not enough for the whole trip and filling up along the way can be a rollercoaster. Carrying jerrycans or securing black market suppliers would drive my anxiety up way too much.

Still, I retained hope that upon arriving at San Cristóbal (Táchira capital), one of my friends would offer to drive me around. After all, people from the Andean region are renowned for their generosity. But this did not happen. Reality was no match for whatever goodwill there might have been.

In Caracas fuel supply has stabilized, though at international prices (50c per liter), but away from the capital the situation is much different. Queuing for gas is part of the routine because of a supply that is sporadic and unpredictable.

In that regard, Táchira has been an extreme case. Because it borders Colombia, it was the main hub for the lucrative smuggling of subsidized fuel. After several efforts to crack down on it, the current model sees people having to wake up at 5 am and look up on social media which plate numbers have been chosen that day and which pumping stations are open. But no one knows how the plate numbers are assigned.

It is also unclear if this “fuel lottery” has had any real effects. The entrepreneurs who sell gas at double or triple the legal price are alive and well.

With Andean hospitality out the window, I decided to move with public transportation, and this is where a string of surprises began. Turns out buses do not accept bolívars, not even US dollars. In Táchira state, transportation and virtually everything else is paid in Colombian pesos.

In those days, one dollar was worth some 4,500 Colombian pesos. Urban bus fares were between 3,000 and 3,500 pesos, so more than double what they cost in Caracas.

The hegemony of the peso means that making payments in bolívars, in the few and far between shops that do take them, becomes a whole ordeal. These many pesos mean that many dollars which in turn have to be multiplied by the (black market) exchange rate. As you can imagine, all these conversions get rounded to favor businesses. Only the largest supermarket or pharmacy chains accept bolívars at the “official” Central Bank rate.

But there are more unusual features in the border economic ecosystem. For example, Colombian debit cards are accepted everywhere but Venezuelan ones are not. This is terrible for teachers, public employees, pensioners and all those who get paid in bolívars. They have to exchange to dollars and then to pesos with all the commissions along the way.

Still, this is so normalized that it was my astonishment that surprised the locals.

It wasn’t just at the moment of paying bills that I found myself momentarily asking “in which country am I?” but in everything that has to do with food, clothes or even services like cable, the landscape is almost entirely Colombian.

On a more positive note, some other expectations I had were, fortunately, proven wrong. In Caracas it is very common to hear Colombians referred to in a hostile fashion, especially if it’s politically useful. Though Colombia’s closeness to the US in recent decades is no secret, we have heard officials almost attribute phenomena like violence to Colombian genetics. It was by no means exclusive. On the other side Venezuelan migrants have been blamed for any and all tragedies.

The point is that at the border I felt none of that, no hostility or xenophobia. The Colombian and Venezuelan peoples come from the same “historic birth,” and around these parts the climate is as bi-national as it gets.

My trip was also timely because just days before Venezuelan and Colombian authorities reopened the Atanasio Girardot International Bridge, known as “Tienditas,” which has the Cúcuta metropolitan area on the other side. This vehicle bridge had been closed for years ever since the two countries broke ties.

To cross the Tienditas bridge, if you don’t have a car, you can hire certain taxis that have a special permit. The on-foot alternative is the International Simón Bolívar Bridge that connects Cúcuta to a nearby town.

Cúcuta is a much bigger city than its Venezuelan counterparts. Though it’s one of the Colombian cities with the highest levels of poverty and inequality, it remains a source of opportunities for Venezuelans. More than a few work on the other side, or just come and go on a regular basis to bring merchandise to sell.

Crossing back on foot, I finally got to see a firm presence of the Venezuelan state: the National Guard stopping people coming back with large packages or trolleys. The goal was not necessarily to look for suspicious content, since people mostly bring food or personal hygiene products. Instead, guardsmen look to “squeeze” a small bribe out of people or decommission some items.

My short time in the border region was not enough to make overly bold statements, but there are some clear tendencies in play. The “Venezuela is fixed” motto has a very different meaning in these parts. The crisis has meant a retreat of the state’s presence, and that vacuum ends up being filled with options coming from the other side.

At the same time, after years of tensions, the normalization of diplomatic relations and the reopening of border crossings has been a relief. Lots of people told me about a feeling of calm and peace of mind, even optimism all things considered. The Venezuelan government now faces a challenge to ensure that new trade ties don’t end up bankrupting producers on this side, especially campesinos that have been ringing alarm bells.

All in all, there’s a lot to be done, although everyone is happy to move past a reality of accusations, violence and smuggling. The Venezuelan state needs to gradually take back its responsibilities. But, throughout this process, it is important to take into account the opinions and feelings of those who have resisted all this time. That’s the only way to avoid repeating past mistakes.

Jessica Dos Santos is a Venezuelan university professor, journalist and writer whose work has appeared in outlets such as RT, Épale CCS magazine and Investig’Action. She is the author of the book “Caracas en Alpargatas” (2018). She’s won the Aníbal Nazoa Journalism Prize in 2014 and received honorable mentions in the Simón Bolívar National Journalism prize in 2016 and 2018.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.

Translated by Venezuelanalysis.