Blog post by Enrique Jose Garcia who was born from Cuban parents and raised in Venezuela until he moved to the US to attend University at Boston College. He started his career as a beverage entrepreneur and recently started a master’s degree at London School of Economics in Public Administration, concentrating his studies on Social Entrepreneurship. He currently writes part-time for a UK-based publication on Economics and Entrepreneurship in Latin America.*
In my recent stint working in Colombia as an editor for a UK-based magazine called The Business Year, I spent some time working in the border communities of Cucuta and Villa del Rosario which connect the Venezuelan state of Táchira and the Colombian department of Santander Norte. The main purpose of these visits was to observe and write about how micro-entrepreneurship has become a survival tool for the refugee population living within these vulnerable communities. Beyond the productive goals of this trip, it was hard not to get caught up with the crude reality of this immigration phenomenon. The experience itself fueled my uneasiness over the lack of attention the crisis has been receiving worldwide, and in an effort to alleviate this frustration, I wanted to share some of the images that have stuck with me since.
Refugee Camp or Airport Terminal
The Simon Bolivar bridge, which is located in Villa del Rosario, is the principle artery of the migration flow between Venezuela and Colombia, and as such it has been the cornerstone of the media´s cyclical attention in the past year. The principle staging area on the Colombian side of the bridge is called “La Parada,” which can best be described as a massive outdoor airport terminal. When approaching this area, everyone is immediately welcomed by regiments of maleteros – Venezuelan boys and men of all ages that start running parallel to your car, dragging their luggage trolleys and screaming to get your attention. Your visibility is invaded by ten pairs of hand hanging on to your window edge, all of them offering to carry your belongings across one of the two official bridges or though the unmonitored trocha-crossings. Behind this front line of maleteros are hundreds more lying around waiting for their next shift.
If you are able to look beyond this intimidating curtain of activity you can see the next layer of services; thousands of taxis, wheelbarrows, bikes, mules, and buses transporting luggage, boxes, and people back and forth, left and right, up and down. You see hundreds of cars with license plates from several different Venezuelan States; Lara, Táchira, Distrito Capital, Zulia, Bolivar; a curious observation given that the Venezuelan regime has prohibited the crossing of any automobile transportation since August of 2015, and yet many of these cars have license plates from 2017, 2018, and 2019. The hypothesis presented is that these automobiles have been crossing through the aforementioned rural “trocha” crossings with the help of paramilitary groups that control the “infrastructure” of those paths.
When you start returning inland towards Cucuta you see an endless caravan of cars and buses overflowing with people, sometimes three people per seat, with an impenetrable condensation on the windows, all starting their exhaustive voyages across Colombia towards destinations unknown. Next to the cars are hundreds of stragglers on foot, some carrying small carry-on bags, others carrying a combination of food sacks, bags, and boxes on their back or dragging beat-up trolleys with all types of clothing spilling over. Each one of these individuals and families are walking through a landscape that is littered with makeshift tents and tiny fortresses of bags, boxes, and people.
Flea Market or Red-Light District
When you arrive in downtown Cucuta, the scenario quickly changes into that of a more typical (if there is such a thing) border hub. The city welcomes you with a maze of streets buzzing with the endless hum of baggage wheels dragging on the pavement. Traffic is usually slow or stalled because you have cars with mattresses on top, bikes with microwaves tied to them, and mules with dozens of sacks of food swerving the intersections and street crowds, like fitting a jigsaw puzzle with uneven pieces. Your view of the street vendors is completely blocked by stacks of bulk commerce ten feet high; towers of toilet paper, powder milk, sacks of vegetables, fruits, flour, clothing, and “Clap Bags” (Clap are the subsidized food packages given by the Venezuelan Government). You see Colombia police, Venezuelan National Guards, international volunteers, trading, talking, negotiating and bartering. As Arturo Rodriguez, local administrator for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and Fundacion Hablemos describes it:
this entire region is one big lawless market with suppliers, costumers, distributors, service providers living here, there, everywhere. Authorities have no choice but to turn a blind eye and participate to survive.
After dusk starts to arrive, the pace seems to accelerate as people scurry to finalize any last-minute coordination before rushing back to the border. Bars and restaurants start to switch on their neon lights and a confusing mix of classical melodies and urban rap start to bounce off the walls. In Cucuta, everyone knows that anyone playing a violin, a cello, a flout, is most likely Venezuelan. The neighboring country has pushed out a massive symphony of talented musicians, most of them making a living by playing their loyal instrument in any spot they can find. They play until their blistered fingers are unable to tighten their chords or their lungs abandon their memorized tunes. The local population has come to appreciate the cultural injection stemming from these musicians and enjoy their social contributions while remaining mute to the possible conditions of their arrival and residence.
As the cocktail of music, chatter, sirens, and honks batter the night sky, the inner streets of downtown Cucuta are decorated with the dancing shadow of female silhouettes. Women of all ages, backgrounds, experiences, start to meander around the dozens of little neon-lit bar-holes to engage in their own delirious commerce. A commerce that is reminiscent of distant tourist pockets in Europe or South East Asia but has never before been synonymous with Venezuelan society. And yet now you can find yourself surrounded by thousands of women, many of them former lawyers, doctors, architects, managers, promoting their company in a delirious world they have never known before.
An Unsettling Night
The most disturbing sensation about this border hub is what you don’t see and hear. When the nighttime arrives, you are penetrated with a sense of unnerving isolation. You start wondering what is happening at that very moment in every direction around the city that is currently in darkness, albeit not stillness. Your imagination starts to replay the rumors that are omnipresent at every meal; how every night an unknown amount of people cross the illegal trocha-crossings in complete darkness and silence, that women are used as toll currency at these crossings, how many disappear without leaving a trace, and so on. You start thinking about what is going on an hour north in the Catatumbo region, where dozens of paramilitary, guerrilla, and drug-trafficking groups are licking their chops at the vacuum and engaging in their own operations and recruiting activities. Even the cold mountain breeze reminds you of the odyssey many refugees are undertaking through the 300km “Paramo del Berlin” pass between Cucuta and Bucaramanga; where temperatures drop to zero-degrees Celsius due to the high altitude and many refugees are forced to brave the conditions with t-shirts, broken shoes, and donated bed sheets for warmth.
Walking through this ground zero of the Venezuelan refugee crisis is a stark reminder of when history has shown us that empty pockets of order and conflict can have long-term effects. Sometimes these effects can take generations to mature and materialize, and sometimes they can emerge in distant countries and regions from their origin source, but eventually they are capable of whiplashing back into center stage to remind us of what we once ignored. With the Venezuelan-Colombian border we are talking about a region that is only three hours away from the US by plane, a region that is in the same hemisphere as Times Square or Miami Beach, but an area so distant in order and “normalcy” that the contrast can seem surreal and absent. But it isn’t, it´s very real, and more must be done by the international community to deflate this ticking pressure pot which in 2020 is expected to become the largest migration and refugee exodus in the world.
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