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Dashed hopes: Venezuela’s Volunteers Stranded in Cúcuta

Hundreds of Venezuelan volunteers came to Colombia to support a humanitarian aid effort had no Plan B. After the border was closed many now find themselves stuck on the other side of the border.
28 Feb 2019 – 12:31 PM EST

CÚCUTA, Colombia – Carolina Domínguez was convinced that plan by Venezuela’s interim president, Juan Guaidó, to deliver humanitarian aid would finally fix things and end the country's political nighmare.

That conviction led the 34-year old women to leave the town of San Cristóbal in the border state of Táchira with a group of friends last week. She parked her car at the border town of Ureña and crossed a bridge into Colombia to participate in a protest concert in Cúcuta. She also volunteered to help in the delivery of trucks loaded with food, medical supplies and hygienic items.

Days later, Domínguez is stranded at an improvised camp in Colombia, separated from her 18-month old daughter whom she left back home in San Cristóbal, sleeping on the floor, on cardboard, next to dozens of fellow Venezuelans who, like her, arrived to Cúcuta responding to Guaidó's cry for help.

“I’m speechless. I didn’t expect this. I thought this would have a happy ending,” she said. Although she has a business administration degree, she earns a living in Venezuela selling homemade donuts and cakes.

Domínguez came to Cúcuta after signing up for ‘Volunteers for Venezuela’, a website created by Guaidó’s team for those who wished to participate in the delivery and distribution of humanitarian aid. She did it thinking mostly about her daughter’s future, and the future of a cousin who suffers from seizures and needs medication that’s unavailable in her country.

What she didn't count on was the frustration of Guaidó’s plan to use the aid effort to force a political transition and bring down Venezuela's de facto Presisent Nicolás Maduro. Saturday's plan to truck in the aid was met with a phalanx of Venezuelan riot police and national Guards blocking their path across the border bridge, ending in clouds of tear gas, blood and tears.

Now, Domínguez and hundreds of volunteers camp at an improvised, private site, waiting for the government’s order to reopen the border so they can get back home.

Prior to the concert, Maduro’s government announced that the border would be closed indefinitely. Bogotá also ordered the temporary closing of the bridges that connect Cúcuta with Táchira, to assess damages caused by the confrontation, and is yet to reopen.


“We didn’t have a plan B”


Frustrated by not being able to deliver the aid to Venezuela, and now far less hopeful for the sought-after transition, hundreds were forced to seek shelter inThe Colombian-Venezuelan border is usually a riot of humanity, a 1,274-mile stretch of frontier where some 40,000 people flow back and forth each day going to work, looking for food or fleeing Venezuela’s economic and political collapse.. Domínguez spent Saturday night at the campsite, baptized The Light of Liberty. Many volunteers are desperate because they have run out of money, food and clean clothes. They were also unable to contact their families to report on their situation.

Some are mothers like Domínguez who dream of a better future for their children. There are also people from the anti-Maduro 'resistance', active in the opposition strikes of 2014, when they were still teenagers. There are also those with chronic medical conditions looking for somewhere where they can get the treatment need; and local Venezuelan public officials loyal to Guaidó who crossed the border to safeguard the supplies risking their state jobs.

Border trails


The Colombian-Venezuelan border at Cúcuta is usually a busy crossing where some 40,000 people flow back and forth each day buying and selling goods, or fleeing Venezuela’s economic and political collapse.

With the border closed, the only option to travel between Colombia and Venezuela by land is via the ' trochas', dangerous, unofficial trails usually guarded by armed groups and smugglers who collect tolls from those who want to pass.

More than 50 volunteers chose to exit this route on Sunday afternoon. “There are people who work and people who study. There are also sick people who have a right to return to their country. Crossing the border and returning home is our right,” said José Rojas before leaving with the group.

Those who stayed fear falling victim of repression by Maduro’s security forces, or armed groups who might identify them as members of the 'resistance'.


Stranded


There are no official figures indicating how many people have been affected by the border closing. Armando Sánchez, from the Venezuelan Foundation of Cúcuta, which helped organize the aid, estimates that some 4,000 people could be stranded. Colombia's Civil Defense conducted a census of 450 people at the Light of Liberty camp. Other shelters, like Casa Venezuela, which helps Venezuelan migrants in Cúcuta year-round, are also taking in refugees.

On Sunday, some volunteers complained about lack of information from Guaidó’s team after the failed humanitarian aid attempt. Sánchez says Guaidó’s team is aware of the situation and is in contact with organizations coordinating help for those who are still stranded.

Sources from Guaidó’s team, who asked to remain anonymous, acknowledged that they are concerned about the volunteers’ situation. Univision contacted three people in charge of the volunteers to obtain more information but received no response.

“We were so sure (that the aid) was going to go through that we didn’t have a plan B in case it didn’t,” said Edduar Calderón, a 35-year-old musician who has lived in Boston for more than 10 years. Calderón, who is also stranded at the Light of Liberty camp, went to Cúcuta with his younger brother while on a trip to visit family in Venezuela, hoping to contribute to making a change. Now, he doesn’t know how or when he will be able to return to his parents’ house in the city of Maracaibo.

“Morale is a bit low. People don’t know what to do. We are stuck here and many people think it was not worth the struggle,” he added.


What next?


That uncertainty is part of the larger questions swirling over Guaidó's next steps. Many volunteers say armed intervention is the best, and only, way to bring about a change of regime. “I’m all for an invasion, but spare Venezuelans from harm. I don’t want any clashes. They should go straight for Maduro, straight for Diosdado (Cabello, the head of Venezuela's pro-Maduro's socialist party),” said Domínguez.

But that still seems like a remote possibility. Contrary to what many Venezuelans in Cúcuta were hoping for, the military option was not on the table at a meeting of foreign governments, the so-called Lima Group, on Monday in the Colombian capital, Bogota.

Lorent Saleh, who works with Guaidó’s foreign relations team, acknowledged frustration among the opposition. “We want to keep going, to advance, but there are times when we can't keep taking leaps,” Saleh told the stranded volunteers during a visit to the camp.

“We are entering a new phase after Saturday’s events and we need to understand that international support is needed, and that international strength is needed to guarantee the life and health of millions of Venezuelans. It’s about humanitarian responsibility," he added.

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