By By Sukanti Bhave*
The Simon Bolivar bridge represents the relationship between Colombia and Venezuela, two countries that used to be part of Gran Colombia. It also represents the stark contrast between the oil-rich country that enjoyed a few decades of relative prosperity and its neighbor, currently proving its resilience after being engulfed in violent conflict for years. For the refugees crossing the border, the bridge represents an essential milestone in their journey of leaving their country and starting over.
Named after the South American liberator, the 300-meter long bridge over the Tachira river connects the Venezuelan town of San Antonio to the small Colombian municipality Villa del Rosario. The closest city in Colombia is San Jose de Cucuta. For years, San Antonio and Cucuta have functioned as neighboring towns almost unaware that they are part of two different countries. There are signboards in Cucuta with directions for San Antonio without mentioning that it is a town in Venezuela.
Through years of armed conflict in the Norte de Santander region (stoked by the guerillas as well as para-military forces), the proximity to Venezuela has allowed many Colombians to seek economic ventures in Venezuela. Before the crisis in Venezuela, it was typical for a household in Villa del Rosario to have at least one member who had a job in San Antonio and would go across the international border daily.
The free flow of goods and people across the border has also influenced the culture of the region. Colombian women in the Santander region tend to dress like Venezuelan women. Cucuteños usually prefer the Venezuelan fried arepas or arepas fritas. While people across Colombia relish the tradition tamale before Christmas, the Venezuelan hallaca (which is inarguably better than the tamale) is the best sold dish in the streets of Cucuta.
Historically, the border has been open for pedestrians as well as vehicular traffic. While border security guards were present on both sides, the bridge was by no means heavily guarded. Citizens of neither country were required to present their documents at the border. In 2015, Nicolas Maduro’s government abruptly ordered a complete shutdown of the border on the Venezuelan side. Following weeks of negotiations, the bridge was open for pedestrians. Since then, the only vehicles that can cross the bridge are ambulances and state authorized buses to transport school children.
The economic activity in the border region is beneficial for citizens of both countries. Supermarkets and exchange houses owned and managed by Colombians are lined up across the border. When prices were lower in Venezuela, the stores would be stocked with goods brought from the socialist neighbors. Post the financial decline, Venezuelans cross the bridge to buy groceries, medicines, other household items in the shops near the border. The piratas, for instance, are informal taxis that operate in Villa del Rosario and a large part of their business is taking passengers to and from the border and the city center of the municipality.
The border is the center of humanitarian assistance as well as that of commerce. Along the bridge, there is the office of immigration where Venezuelans entering the country can immediately formalize their paperwork. The queue is long, and people have to wait for hours, but there is an assurance that, as long as the migrants present their documents, they will have the Colombian work permit by the end of the day. The Red Cross, the UNHCR and the Norwegian Refugee Council all have offices and centers of operation in containers and tents next to Migración Colombia. Many soup kitchens providing meals to Venezuelans are also in the Parada region.
At the same time, in the area around the bridge, one can find vendors selling everything from sim cards, mobile phones, clothes and jewelry to cookies and cigarettes. The latest addition, of course, is candles, following the frequent electricity blackouts in Venezuela. Walking across the bridge, one is very likely to hear ‘Compra cabello’, sinceVenezuelan women entering Colombia for the first time often sell their hair in exchange for a few dollars worth of Colombian pesos that they use for their onward journey.
A few meters from the bridge, bus companies are selling tickets to Venezuelans who want to go to other parts of Colombia such as Bogota or Cali. They also offer fares to Ecuador and Peru.
Following the announcement of sending aid to Venezuela through Cucuta in February, Maduro’s government closed all border crossings between the two countries. However, in a country with no job opportunities, lack of food and healthcare, and unreliable electric supply, a closed border is hardly a deterrent for people leaving the country. Within days, people started entering Colombia through ‘trochas’ in the river. The informal river crossings are controlled by illegal armed groups who extort money from those crossing the trochas. The tragedy turned into a business opportunity for smugglers who charge anywhere between 5000 and 15, 000 Colombian pesos to ensure the safety of the passengers. River crossings are especially dangerous when it rains, since the river may start flooding.
A few weeks after the ‘indefinite shutdown,’ Simon Bolivar bridge is already unofficially open. Venezuelan guards allow pedestrians to pass on most days, particularly ones with medical prescriptions. The flurry has returned to the border. However, border crossings are now unpredictable, subject to the whims of the Bolivarian Armed Forces. A closed border favors the ‘colectivos’ operating in the trochas. Despite the crisis in Venezuela, safe and legal border crossings across Simon Bolivar bridge are advantageous for Colombians, migrants, as well as those living in San Antonio.
*Sukanti Bhave completed her MA degree Philosophy, Politics, and Economics from CEVRO Institute. She has worked with South Asia Students For Liberty in various roles since 2014 and is part of the advisory board at present. Currently, Bhave lives in Colombia, where she is working on assimilation of Venezuelan students in Colombian schools.