Venezuela — wracked by political conflict — has also been beset by economic distortions that have earned it the dubious title of “the most miserable country in the world” and that have made day-to-day life an ordeal.
That ordeal has led to widespread protests — even some that cross international borders.
In the country’s western region — parts of which are strongholds for the political opposition — protestors have in recent days pushed past soldiers and police guarding the border with Colombia in search of goods unavailable at home.
In response, the Venezuelan government ordered the border to be opened for 12 hours on Sunday, allowing Venezuelans to cross into Colombia to purchase food and other products that are hard to find in Venezuela.
President Nicolas Maduro “ordered that he didn’t want anyone hurt, anyone killed … and if these women decided to go again on Sunday, they meet, go to Colombia, buy there, and return,” Tachira state Governor Jose Vielma Mora said in an interview.
Early Sunday morning, what appeared to be hundreds of Venezuelans calmly surged past border guards on their way to Cúcuta, in eastern Colombia.
The order from Maduro came after hundreds of women, clad in white and travelling together, approached the Francisco de Paula Santander bridge that connects Ureña in Venezuela’s restive Táchira state with the Colombian town of Cúcuta on Tuesday, pushing past a cordon of police and national guard.
“We decided to cross the border because we don’t have food in our homes and our children are going hungry. There is much need,” a woman told local newspaper La Opinión. “We found everything and the cordiality of the Colombian people was very good,” she added.
On Sunday, while Venezuelans streamed into Colombia in search of much-needed products, Colombians made their way into Venezuela to buy heavily subsidized gasoline, which is even more of a bargain because of the Colombian pesos’ weakness against the Venezuelan bolivar. (Gasoline is also one of the most heavily smuggled goods along the Colombia-Venezuela border.)
“#Border venezuelans cross the border for food and medicines and colombians want to come for cheap gasoline,” the tweet above reads.
According to this tweet from a journalist on the ground in western Venezuela, lines quickly formed to exchange bolivars to pesos for shopping in Colombia:
“#Border the line of people who are looking to exchange bolivars for pesos,” the tweet above reads.
Shutting the border was meant to stymie smugglers who illegally exported goods to Colombia to resell at much higher prices and was followed by the mass deportation of Colombians living in the border area.
In recent days, however, numerous officials on both sides of the border have spoken of lifting the border closure in the coming weeks.
Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin said on Saturday that the border could reopen in at least three weeks. “We want it to be a border [that’s] safe, legal, [and] not a no-man’s-land,” Holguin said at a press conference in Bogotá.
Vielma Mora, the Tachira state governor, also said in his interview that Venezuela was working to bring about conditions under which the border area would be reopened.
‘It’s affecting all of us’
In Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, day-to-day economic misery is also common, especially for women.
“The situation has us housewives juggling to make ends meet,” an Afro-Venezuelan grandmother named Xiomara told NPR. “And it’s affecting all of us, but especially we women who have to feed our children.”
With the global oil-price slump, which has made less money available for imports, and price controls in Venezuela, shortages have become rampant.
“There simply are not enough goods to go around,” Tulane professor David Smilde, who lives in Caracas, wrote on July 5.
“There is not starvation in Venezuela right now,” Smilde wrote. “But there is significant hunger and malnourishment that could turn into starvation this year if something does not change.”
Not all demonstrations in response to these shortages have been as calm as the women in white in Ureña last week.
Food riots have occurred across the country, including in the streets around the presidential palace in Caracas. In June, three people were killed at food-related demonstrations, and
70 people have been killed in vigilante-related lynchings in the first four months of 2016.
While Maduro and his political allies blame “economic warfare” by the US and its allies in Venezuela, the middle and poor classes — those who have traditionally supported Maduro, his predecessor Hugo Chavez, and their socialist party — have borne the brunt of the crisis.
This month, a poll found that Maduro’s support had fallen to 23%, while 80% of the country wants him out of power this year. An effort to launch a recall referendum against the president has stalled, as the government contests many of the signatures gathered in support of the recall.
In spite of its ever more unstable financial situation, the country has continued to make payments on its foreign debt, which requires a significant amount of its foreign reserves.
“The government has chosen to prioritise paying their foreign debts over people’s consumption and that explains why people are suffering,” Smilde noted. Economic and legal experts argue that defaulting would allow Venezuela to open up more money for imports.
However, the Maduro government likely views the penalties default would bring against state-run oil operations — which still bring in cash, though less than before — as unacceptable, and it would prefer to muddle through the oil-price downturn, despite the consequences for Venezuelans.
For the people spending hours in the streets, waiting to buy scarce goods at high prices, such political and economic calculations are likely to be unpersuasive.
“I really believed in the whole revolution and what Chavez did,” one woman told NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro. “And now I would never vote for these guys again.”
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