“What are you doing in Cúcuta?”
The day after we arrived in Cúcuta one Colombian asked us: “What are you doing here?” The question is on the spot. Two Czechoslovak gringos are not seen here very often. Colombia is full of beautiful places, and backpackers often stray outside of tourist centers. No tourist, however, has any reason to visit a city without historical monuments or natural beauties, a city full of car workshops, where the smell of oil and diesel is virtually everywhere. So why are we here? Because we are not just tourists. We’re here because of Venezuela.
The beginning of the disaster
Explanation of our visit begins in 2013 by the death of long time president of Venezuela Hugo Chavez. His successor, Nicolas Maduro, failed to consolidate his position as the head of the state and struggled from the outset with the pressure of the opposition and even part of the public on his downfall. This pressure grew during 2014 when the country’s economy began to deteriorate. Due to the decline of oil prices on which the country is economically dependent. All Maduro‘s attempts to prevent the economic fall failed and even worsened the whole situation. The result is one of the worst cases of hyperinflation in history. It has taken a stunning growth this year it has grown from catastrophic 1000% at the end of 2017, to astronomical 1.37 million% today.
Other aspects of the crisis
The situation in the country, however, is not only about the total loss of the purchasing power of its people. As early as 2014, reports of shortages of food, common goods, medicines and medical supplies also began to appear. Shelves in supermarkets are empty and hospitals often lack essential equipment. The treatments of long-term illnesses are suspended indefinitely. On top of that, the patients have to struggle for the food like the rest of the nation. Malnutrition in Venezuela is on the rise, deaths have been reported for relatively easy to treat diseases such as malaria or pneumonia. As well as the occurrence of diseases such as cholera and diphtheria that are not so common under normal circumstances.
Crime and Violence in Venezuela
Such a situation in the country has caused an increase in crime and violence. This is just a reflection of the measures Mauro chooses to erase any criticism of his regime.
Some days ago in Cartagena I asked the venezuelan woman who worked in our hostel if people at least try to help to each other. She said that people would like to, but the situation is so bad that if there is a kid at your door selling sweets to earn some money, you can not give him anything because you need it all to purchase some food for your own children.
From economic migrants to Los Caminantes
Many Venezuelans were forced to leave the country to work abroad and send money or medicines home to their families. However, the situation has not begun to improve and more and more people are gradually leaving the country. Because they usually have almost no money the only way to leave the country is to walk. They pack everything they can carry and set off on the way to the nearest border. This journey may take from several days to several weeks. For many, Cúcuta is the way out of Venezuela. Those who have some money saved will buy a bus ticket and get to the border. According to the NGO Human Rights Watch, Venezuelan refugees walk from Cúcuta on average for 13 days, 16 hours a day. Some are heading for Bogota or Medellin. However, many go all the way through Colombia to Ecuador and even to Peru.
Where do venezuelans go ?
More than 2.5 million people have left Venezuela since 2014, and about half of them are in Colombia. The countries in the region have developed unprecedented efforts to help venezuelan refugees. Despite the fact that no international treaty is binding them to do so. No language barrier, common history and same religion create the conditions for stronger solidarity. However, it should be borne in mind that these countries are still ranked according to the OECD standards among developing countries and have their own economic problems. Their efforts, however, prove that humanitarian aid is not a question of money, but a will to help.
The main border crossing point in Cúcuta is the Simon Bolívar bridge, which connects the city of San António on the Venezuelan side with the border part called La Parada. It is estimated that each day 30,000 people cross the border, of which about a tenth will not return at all. Most Venezuelans come to make money by selling various goods from food to electronics or buying food and medicine for themselves. The main street of this small pre-frontier part, which a few years ago were only pharmacies, supermarkets, and neglected hotels, is filled on both sides by street vendors. “All of these people are from Venezuela,” says Juan “Four years ago it was the opposite. Colombians were coming to sell to us,“ he continues while travellig on the bus to the city center, where he tries to make some money in the evenings as busker on the traffic lights.
And what are we doing here…?
This is not the end for us. If we came here just for a few photos and a bit of adrenaline, it would be a mockery in the face of these miserable fates. Where there is a crisis, there is always a space to help. For us it is in the Casa de Paso Divina Providencia at the Church of St. Peter, where the local church every day cooks breakfast and lunch for about 3000 Venezuelans. With our very basic spanish we found out from the local padre that they always need help. The next day I arrived alone during lunch service. Within five minutes of entering the gate I was equipped with a hair net, gloves and a face mask, and I was portioning meat even though nobody has ever seen me before. The only thing they asked me was what is my name, where I am from and what do I want there. Yo soy Matej, de Eslovequia, quiero ayudar. Because nothing else matters. So I was hired as a volunteer. And the next day also Láďa joined.