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Venezuela’s Walkers

Even if a negotiated political exit for Nicolas Maduro’s regime were to appear miraculously tomorrow, no one in Cucuta doubts that Venezuelans will keep walking.
John Feeley was US Ambassador to Panama and is a Univision political analyst.
Venezuelans cross the Bolivar bridge to Cucuta, Colombia. The United Nations says 4 million Venezuelans have fled the country. Crédito: John Feeley/Univision

The first thing you notice are the feet. They are gnarled, calloused and blistered. Most wear plastic Crocs or flip-flops. The more fortunate have dusty tennis shoes, most with holes and improvised laces. Hardly the appropriate footgear for people planning to walk long distances.

The images of the feet stay with you. They are the feet of Ghandi, the feet of Christ’s passion. They are the feet of the Venezuelan “ caminantes” or walkers, migrants who cannot be called refugees under the formalities of international law. But their brown and battered feet look the same.

Since the closing of the Colombian-Venezuelan border in 2015, an estimated four million Venezuelan have literally walked away from their homes, driven by an economic and humanitarian disaster brought about by the criminal regime of Nicolas Maduro and his drug trafficking ministers and generals. Inflation will reach 10 million percent this year. The Venezuelan currency, the bolivar, is literally not worth the paper it’s printed on. Food is scarce. The average Venezuelan has lost 17 pounds over the last year. Venezuelans die from treatable illnesses because there are no antibiotics available in the country. The Conradian litany of horror goes on, making Venezuela the Western Hemisphere’s Heart of Darkness.

So the people walk. They walk to get away from the world’s highest crime rate. They walk to eat, to get vaccinations for their children. And they walk into Colombia. For decades, the fluid and porous border town of Cucuta, located in Colombia’s eastern North Santander state, has been an epicenter of this migration - but in the other direction. During Colombia’s half-century civil conflict, it was Colombians who walked across treacherous jungle paths into the more prosperous Venezuela to take the agricultural and low skill jobs that offered them protection from violence in Colombia generated by the state, the guerrillas and the narcotics cartels all fighting one another.

Given this history, Colombia’s warm reception of their Andean neighbors has been understandably admirable. During a recent visit to Cucuta, one Colombian policeman told me, “ They are our brothers and sisters. Our families have always lived on both sides of the border. My father was Venezuelan and my mother is Colombian. How can we not treat them like family?” The question, however, is for how long?

It is undeniable that the sheer number of these migrants is seriously taxing Colombia’s social services, and many here speak of rising xenophobia. Two years ago, most estimates put the number of Venezuelans residing in Colombia at under two hundred thousand. Today that estimate is 1.3 million, according to Felipe Muñoz, the presidential coordinator for the Colombian-Venezuelan border. Nonetheless, Colombia’s president Ivan Duque has admirably welcomed the Venezuelans migrants, but his government is simply overwhelmed.

Additionally, as a result of Colombia’s own peace accord and its fraught aftermath since entry into force in 2016, Duque faces a renewed displaced persons crisis in the areas where guerrillas officially de-mobilized. Several thousand ex-guerrillas have simply joined criminal syndicates trafficking in arms and drugs or engaging in illegal mining. These activities have resulted in poor, rural Colombians being displaced to regional towns and cities, adding additional stress on basic citizen service delivery.

To assist the Colombian government in providing Venezuelan migrants the information they need to navigate the patchwork labyrinth of residency, medical, educational and other basic services, the international humanitarian community has stepped up. Unlike traditional refugee camps in the Horn of Africa or Jordan, where the UN and groups such as the Norwegian Refugee Council, the U.S. Agency for International Development and many others have a designated geographic area in which to work and organize service delivery under one coordinated roof, the Andean crisis is different. Venezuelan walkers are leaving one crisis situation and walking straight into another.

Colombia’s eastern border is rife with at least five different irregular armed groups, well-armed and financed. They control the informal border crossings along the 2000-kilometer border. They charge a tax on every piece of food and bit of medicine Venezuelans try to bring back to hungry families. They levy a toll charge on Venezuelans seeking to walk westward into Colombia.

In other words, while the Colombian side of the border is undeniably safer and policed by professional military and law enforcement, it’s still no picnic. And in most places, the walkers have no single point of contact on the Colombian side to seek the humanitarian services they need. The bottom line is that the Colombian government needs more help from regional governments.

When the interim government of Juan Guaido called for a massive humanitarian delivery exercise to start last February 23 and attempted to deliver 350 tons of mostly US-provided humanitarian assistance, he was met by Maduro’s bullets. The United States correctly supported that effort, even if it appears in retrospect to have been a bit jejune to think it would work exactly as designed. However, having encouraged it, the United States and the members of the Lima Group should now seek to increase their assistance to Colombia’s humanitarian response. NGOs are doing fantastic work and say they can do more. But Colombia needs to hire more teachers, build more schools and clinics, provide more temporary and permanent dwellings. Most importantly, it must do more to streamline its procedural handling of Venezuelans. In all these tasks, a concerted governmental and NGO focus can help.

Even if a negotiated political exit for Nicolas Maduro’s regime were to appear miraculously tomorrow, no one in Cucuta doubts that Venezuelans will keep walking. Muñoz estimates that 60-70% of Venezuelans here and those arriving daily will remain in Colombia.

It is in Colombian, U.S. and indeed, hemispheric interests, that they be treated humanely and in an orderly, efficient fashion. They desperately need skills and livelihood training to be able to integrate into the Colombian economy. Colombia and the NGOs have made a commendable start. But so much more needs to be done – and immediately - since the only point that everyone along the border and in Bogota agrees upon is that Venezuela’s walkers won’t stop walking.