In just over two years, President Nicolás Maduro has squandered much of the political capital Hugo Chávez built up during his 14 years in office. The dramatic drop in world oil prices last summer has put a dent in the populist generosity of the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela.
The country’s gross domestic product has fallen fast since the first quarter. The inflation rate is in the triple digits — there is no way of knowing exactly because the figure is no longer published. Homicide numbers have reached record levels. There are chronic shortages of basic goods: chicken, meat, car batteries, antiretroviral drugs.
The government is trying to impose rationing, using fingerprint scanners and limiting people to buying certain products only one day per week. To buy diapers you must show your child’s birth certificate.
With the economy in free fall and little of Mr. Chávez’s charisma, Mr. Maduro has struggled to reassert the government’s authority. For a time, he leaned on the armed forces, appointing military officers to executive and diplomatic posts. The ruling party, known by its Spanish initials as the P.S.U.V., has abused its majority in the National Assembly to place party loyalists at the head of watchdog agencies. But neither these measures nor official propaganda and the state’s grip over the media could prevent the government’s popularity from continuing to plummet.
Then last month an unexpected opportunity arose: Three Venezuelan military officers in a shantytown near the city of San Antonio in Táchira state, by the border with Colombia, were ambushed and shot at by two men on a motorcycle. The officers were not killed, and the attackers were not identified, yet within hours Mr. Maduro called the event a paramilitary attack and announced a crackdown on supposed Colombian smugglers and criminals in Venezuela.
According to the International Organization for Migration, some 604,000 Colombians were living in Venezuela as of 2012, many of them displaced by war at home years ago or more recently by urban violence and various forms of extortion. (These figures remain the most reliable today since the Venezuelan government often inflates its own.)
This is not the first time Colombians have been blamed for our problems; that also happened when crime rose in the 1980s. But Mr. Maduro has taken the scapegoating to unprecedented levels after the ambush in San Antonio last month. The government promptly closed the border crossings in Táchira. Venezuelan officers began marking the homes of Colombians living in the area, painting the letter “R” (for “requisar”) on houses to be searched and “D” (for “demoler”) on those slated to be bulldozed. Deportations, ordered with no semblance of due process, followed.
The government has deported some 1,400 Colombians in the last month, according to the United Nations — nearly as many as the total for all of 2014. Over 18,000 Colombians have also left Venezuela on their own initiative. Their fear of being forcibly expelled is stronger than the fear that brought them here in the first place.
They have crossed the river that marks the border in some places with whatever they could carry: a mat, a suitcase, a toy truck — scraps of the lives they were leaving behind. On the other side, their sudden presence has overwhelmed local Colombian authorities and created a humanitarian crisis.
In a speech that startled even jaded observers, the senior P.S.U.V. official Jacqueline Faría, a former information minister, said the Venezuelan government’s emergency measures were meant to protect “all those who are legally in our homeland, whether Venezuelan or not,” and that “all those who are legally on our soil have their human rights guaranteed.” The implication was that the rights of people not legally in the country would not be guaranteed.
President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia has protested that the Colombians being deported are not being shown minimal standards of respect. He and Mr. Maduro have been engaged in a war of words. Mr. Santos has alleged that Venezuelan military aircraft invaded Colombian airspace twice recently; the Venezuelan government has said the allegation is a fabrication.
By sealing off the border and cracking down on Colombian migrants, the Venezuelan government is attacking the consequences of its problems rather than their causes. This government controls the entire economy, through minute regulations overseen by a cumbersome bureaucratic system, from the production of goods to their wholesale and distribution. Yet it tries to pass on the blame for its failures.
Mr. Maduro claims there have been no fewer than 12 conspiracies to assassinate him. He has resurrected an old territorial conflict with Guyana. He accuses the foreign governments that criticize him of interventionism. After a trial decried for ignoring basic procedural safeguards, the well-known opposition leader Leopoldo López was recently sentenced to more than 13 years in prison for inciting violence during protests last year. And last week Mr. Maduro ordered the closure of yet another long section of the border with Colombia.
Colombian migrants are suffering needlessly at the hands of a Venezuelan government desperately trying to save itself by riling up nationalist sentiment.
“How shameful,” I’ve thought to myself this week, while having to stand yet again for hours and hours in long lines outside grocery stores. On most days in Maduro’s Venezuela I can’t find eggs to buy for breakfast, and when I do, I discover that I can no longer afford them.
Naky Soto Parra coordinates leadership training for Liderazgo y Vision, a Caracas-based NGO. This essay was translated by Kristina Cordero from the Spanish.