Venezue­lan row with Colom­bia an elec­tion ploy: an­a­lysts


The es­ca­lat­ing row over Venezuela’s mass de­por­ta­tions of Colom­bians is less about neigh­borly strains than the eco­nomic cri­sis, crip­pling short­ages and dis­mal pop­u­lar­ity rat­ings fac­ing Venezue­lan Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro, an­a­lysts said Fri­day.

The im­ages of des­per­ate Colom­bians stream­ing across the bor­der with their be­long­ings strapped to their backs cap­tured in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion this week af­ter Maduro’s so­cial­ist gov­ern­ment de­ported 1,000 Colom­bians and fright­ened thou­sands more into flee­ing pre­emp­tively.

But as Venezuela lashed out at Colom­bia, ac­cus­ing it of turn­ing a blind eye to smug­glers, paramil­i­tary fight­ers and drug traf­fick­ers op­er­at­ing in the bor­der zone, ex­perts said the cri­sis had more to do with do­mes­tic pol­i­tics and the leg­isla­tive elec­tions Maduro’s move­ment risks los­ing on Dec. 6.

“It’s part of the smoke­screen around the elec­tions,” said Francine Ja­come, head of the Venezue­lan In­sti­tute of So­cial and Po­lit­i­cal Stud­ies.

Maduro “needs to change the scenery, di­vert the fo­cus of de­bate to an is­sue where he stands to gain some­thing,” said Luis Vi­cente Leon, the di­rec­tor of polling firm Datanal­i­sis.

“He can’t win a de­bate on short­ages, in­fla­tion, crime, fall­ing out­put, de­clin­ing in­vest­ment, loss of confi- dence or the weak­en­ing cur­rency,” he told AFP.

The diplo­matic cri­sis erupted af­ter uniden­ti­fied as­sailants at­tacked a Venezue­lan anti-smug­gling pa­trol along the bor­der, wound­ing three sol­diers and a civil­ian.

Maduro blamed the at­tack on Colom­bian right-wing paramil­i­taries. He im­me­di­ately de­clared an emer­gency in six fron­tier towns and closed a highly traf­ficked por­tion of the bor­der.

He ac­cused Colom­bia of wag­ing “an at­tack on Venezuela’s econ­omy” — a ref­er­ence to the ram­pant smug­gling of heav­ily sub­si­dized food and other goods out of Venezuela, where more than 5 mil­lion Colom­bians live.

‘Hu­man­i­tar­ian tragedy’

Venezuela has long used its oil wealth to fund price con­trols that keep ba­sic goods like rice and toi­let pa­per up to 10 times cheaper than in Colom­bia. Its ga­so­line, the cheap­est in the world, is also a mag­net for smug­glers.

But Venezuela is now mired in eco­nomic cri­sis, ex­ac­er­bated by tum­bling oil prices.

Af­ter clos­ing the bor­der, the Venezue­lan gov­ern­ment launched mass de­por­ta­tions, un­leash­ing what Colom­bia’s in­te­rior min­is­ter de­cried as “a hu­man­i­tar­ian tragedy.”

Most of the de­por­tees were sent home for al­leged doc­u­men­ta­tion prob­lems, with­out their fam­i­lies or be­long­ings.

Another 5,000 to 6,000 Colom­bians opted to flee rather than face the same fate.

Many said Venezue­lan sol­diers had or­dered them to leave within hours, mark­ing their houses for de­mo­li­tion and steal­ing their be­long­ings.

Both coun­tries re­called their am­bas­sadors Thurs­day in re­sponse to the es­ca­lat­ing cri­sis.

The Or­ga­ni­za­tion of Amer­i­can States plans to dis­cuss the stand­off Mon­day, af­ter Colom­bia called for re­gional gov­ern­ments to in­ter­vene.

‘Typ­i­cal cam­paign’

The por­ous, 2,200- kilo­me­ter (1,400-mile) bor­der has long been rife with guer­ril­las from the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Armed Forces of Colom­bia (FARC) and Na­tional Lib­er­a­tion Army (ELN), as well as Colom­bian drug gangs and smug­glers.

The Colom­bian gangs in­clude the rem­nants of right-wing paramil­i­tary groups that once fought the guer­ril­las but were dis­banded a decade ago.

Many of the Colom­bians who live in Venezuela fled there to es­cape their coun­try’s half-cen­tury guer­rilla war and the vi­o­lent crime it has en­gen­dered.

But Colom­bia in­sists it is not to blame for the cur­rent spat.

“Venezuela’s prob­lems are Made In Venezuela,” Colom­bian Pres­i­dent Juan Manuel San­tos said Wed­nes­day. Po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts backed him up. Maduro’s anti-Colom­bian out­burst is his “typ­i­cal cam­paign be­hav­ior,” said Leon.

Bare Shelves

Polls in­di­cate Venezuela’s op­po­si­tion is on track to win De­cem­ber’s elec­tions for the first time since Maduro’s late men­tor, Hugo Chavez, came to power in 1999.

Maduro’s pop­u­lar­ity is hov­er­ing around 20 per­cent as he strug­gles with plum­met­ing oil rev­enues, in­suf­fi­cient cash to buy the im­ports Venezuela de­pends on and in­fla­tion that some ex­perts be­lieve is now in the triple dig­its.

For or­di­nary Venezue­lans, the face of the eco­nomic cri­sis is the long lines they stand in to buy the most ba­sic ne­ces­si­ties — only to fi­nally get in­side the su­per­mar­ket and find the shelves are prac­ti­cally bare.

Maduro wants to con­vince vot­ers that “smug­gling is the main rea­son for the short­ages,” said po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist John Mag­daleno.

But af­ter a week of the bor­der clo­sure, long lines still stretch out­side stores in the bor­der town of San An­to­nio del Tachira, where heav­ily armed sol­diers stand guard over nearly empty shelves.

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