Thousands of Venezuelans entered Colombia to buy food and medicine after Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro ordered the partial reopening of the country’s border with Colombia. Since last Saturday, citizens have been crossing via the Simon Bolivar bridge, which had previously been shut down for the past four months.
This is the latest development in Venezuela’s crisis, a hyper-inflationary collapse resulting in the unraveling of its socialist system under President Maduro. Formerly a wealthy oil nation, Venezuela faces severe shortages of essential goods and hyperinflation that is expected to surpass ten million percent this year, according to recent International Monetary Fund estimate.
Maduro announced last Friday on Twitter that Colombia border crossings in the state of Táchira would be open as of Saturday, “We are a people of peace who firmly defend our independence,” he wrote.
The government previously ordered the closure of borders with Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Brazil, and Colombia in February in response to the opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, attempt to deliver food and medical supplies into the country. Nevertheless, Maduro dismissed the aid, calling it an “infringement of Venezuela’s sovereignty.” Troops and police pushed back the aid trucks, two of which went up in flames.
Guaidó declared himself as Venezuela’s rightful interim president in January and is recognized by other countries as the legitimate head of state. According to Reuters, Maduro contests that Venezuela is a victim of an “economic war” led by the opposition with the help of Washington, which has levied several rounds of sanctions against his government.
The border closure had forced many Venezuelans to cross illegally to retrieve necessities unattainable in Venezuela, such as food and medicine, but that too proved difficult due to rainy weather conditions and criminal groups controlling these routes.
In May, the government reopened its borders with Aruba and Brazil, but the bridges to Colombia remained closed. Refugees streamed into neighbouring states in Aruba and Brazil, overwhelming already poor-functioning social welfare programs and a straining weak refugee relief infrastructure.
Now more than one million Venezuelan refugees and migrants live in Colombia, as reported by Al Jazeera, where the government and aid agencies have scrambled to provide housing, food, and healthcare to the ever-growing influx. Meanwhile, long lines of Venezuelans continue to stand on the bridge near the city of Cúcuta, waiting to have their documents checked by Colombian officials.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) stated that the number of Venezuelan refugees and migrants rose by one million after November, indicating a rapid escalation as conditions deteriorated and conflict between the Maduro government and the opposition intensified in 2019.
Al Jazeera’s Alessandro Rampietti, reporting from the Colombian capital, Bogotá, said the reopening of the border came as a “relief for the tens of thousands of Venezuelans who rely on crossing into Colombia for food and medicine they cannot find back home.” However, Maduro’s announcement troubled Colombian officials; Rampietti reports, “mayors and governors of Colombian regions on the border called for a national security meeting, fearing an increase in the pace of exodus of Venezuelans.”
The UNHCR estimates that around 5000 people leave Venezuela every day to escape the ongoing political and economic crisis. Facing one of the biggest migration crises in the Americas, Venezuela’s neighbouring countries bear a significant burden to support the influx of refugees and need to call for international attention to reinforce healthcare services and infrastructure.