At the immigration point in San Antonio del Táchira, some 60 people wait to cross the Simon Bolivar bridge to Colombia. One elderly woman, who has dual citizenship, pleads with a National Guard officer to let her through, but is refused.
Pedro, a Venezuelan who until last month drove a taxi in Colombia, has been particularly affected by the shutdown. Unable to cross the border, he now sells sodas and water near the bridge. “They ruined me!” he says. “Before this I was able to make a decent living. Now I can barely make ends meet.”
The 1,400-mile Venezuelan-Colombian border, crossed by thousands daily, was until recently one of the most dynamic in Latin America. But passage over the Simon Bolivar bridge, a major transit point, has been frozen since Aug. 19; on Aug. 21, President Nicolás Maduro declared a state of emergency along parts of the border and closed the San Antonio crossing indefinitely. Police were authorized to conduct warrantless searches, public gatherings were restricted, and houses in the town’s sprawling slums were razed. According to the United Nations, over 1,300 Colombians have since been deported or repatriated from Venezuela; at least another 15,000 have left voluntarily.
Mr. Maduro says these measures are necessary to curb regional violence and prevent Colombians from smuggling goods out of Venezuela. Borders in another six Táchira State towns are now closed, as is the main crossing in Zulia State.
Colombians have certainly benefited from Venezuela’s hefty subsidies for staples like flour, milk and fuel, and a favorable exchange rate. Likewise, the resale of trafficked Venezuelan contraband has long provided Colombians with much-needed revenue. But in shutting borders and enforcing deportations, Mr. Maduro is blaming Colombians for all of Venezuela’s self-inflicted wounds, which today include a collapsing currency, inflation and food shortages. With parliamentary elections slated for December and Mr. Maduro’s United Socialist Party lagging in the polls, the consensus is clear in San Antonio: the crackdown has nothing to do with contraband and everything to do with convincing us that the government can fix the economy.
Two weeks ago, I made the hourlong bus trip to San Antonio from San Cristóbal, the Táchira State capital. Like me, half of the 28 passengers on board hoped to cross to Colombia. Some wanted to visit family; others, myself included, sought to purchase basic goods that are in limited supply and heavily regulated in Venezuela. (Ultimately, I was prevented from crossing, and returned home.)
At the checkpoint at Peracal, a National Guard officer searched us for contraband. A few people were carrying household goods; the officer requested receipts to prove they had been legally purchased. The atmosphere was tense, but nobody was detained, and we drove on.
Border residents have long appreciated the close ties between Venezuela and Colombia. Colombians come to San Antonio for our leather belts and shoes; Venezuelans buy groceries in Colombia (everyone agrees that the market in Cúcuta, just over the bridge, is the only place to find a flavorful potato). As a child, I loved going to Cúcuta with my grandmother to stock up on apple soda and my favorite League of Justice action figures. Street vendors weaved through the traffic-clogged streets, selling Popsicles; if I behaved, my grandmother bought me one.
Though the particulars of Venezuelan-Colombian border economics seesawed, the sense of connectedness remained constant. In the ’70s, Venezuelans took advantage of the favorable exchange rate between the bolivar and the Colombian peso. When the rate started favoring the peso in the early 2000s, Colombians accepted our credit cards.
With easy transit and few restrictions, San Antonio and Cúcuta often felt like one large city. Now this freedom has been severed. San Antonio’s once-hectic streets are quiet, and restaurants and shops are empty.
This is not the first time Venezuela has cut ties with Colombia, or beefed up its military presence on the border. There have been other border shutdowns in recent years; overnight closures were introduced last August. But the sense in San Antonio these days is that, given Mr. Maduro’s need to appear tough, this one will hold for some time.
The raids and aggressive deportation operation have convinced many Colombians to repatriate — even those who have lived in Venezuela for years, or who have dual nationality. As a consequence of the border’s historic fluidity, some Venezuelans have sons or daughters who are legally Colombian. Fearing their children may be targeted, some think it safest to leave as a family.
Twenty days into the shutdown, lines at the Simon Bolivar bridge and the nearby authorization point are longer than when I last tried to enter Colombia. Transit is still permitted in certain circumstances. Venezuelan schoolchildren can continue their studies across the border; approval may be granted to Venezuelans who need to access medicines or medical care in Cúcuta. But obtaining medical leave is a frustrating process, with applicants required to present an increasingly bewildering array of documents. Colombians who live or work legally in Venezuela may return home. But due to the volume of people wanting to leave, they must often wait for hours, sometimes spending the night at the checkpoint.
A man named Julio approaches the line. For a fee, he offers passage across a “trocha,” an unguarded section of the Táchira river. Most decline, but others are sick of waiting, and follow him.
Since August, Venezuelans have turned to Colombian or international news reports for fairer accounts of the crisis, as most Venezuelan coverage has been either government-controlled or heavily self-censored. National channels disingenuously announce that lines have shrunk and goods are available that would previously have been smuggled to Colombia. In response, many of us have become citizen journalists, sharing videos of military raids on social media.
In the end I am turned away at the checkpoint again, and return to San Cristobal. Regulated goods have just arrived at a local drugstore; the line winds out the front door. Two hours later I leave with two tubes of toothpaste and a bar of soap — the most we are allowed. Back home, President Maduro is on T.V., celebrating Venezuela’s economic recovery.
Carlos Pérez Rojas is the founder of Directus International, a nonprofit organization that documents rights abuses in the Americas.