July 23, 2018 |  Text: Lorena Meléndez G. Photos and videos: Abrahan David Moncada

The Simón Bolívar Bridge:
the eyewitness of a crisis

This structure, which connects Colombia and Venezuela, was inaugurated upon the arrival of democracy in both countries and was once considered “the most dynamic frontier in Latin America”. Today, it symbolizes the humanitarian emergency engulfing the country led by Nicolás Maduro.

Twice a week, Sujey Chacón and her son walk about an hour and a half from San Cristóbal, Venezuela to La Parada, Colombia to eat at a soup kitchen. Oddy Benítez spends at least 12 hours in a bus carrying his four woks, until he crosses over into Cúcuta, where he prepares and sells sauces and buys Asian products to resell in Venezuela. Yolimar Galvis crosses the bridge so that her two-year-old twins can be vaccinated in Colombia. The children of Juan Gamboa cross the frontier every day at dawn wearing their school uniforms, to attend school in their grandparent's home country. Tiany Piñeros crosses the bridge with her one-year-old baby and her life packed into a few suitcases, leaving behind her native Punto Fijo on her way to Quito, Ecuador, where her husband is waiting.

All of these Venezuelans endure pushing and shoving, the blinding sun, and sandy wind as they cross the 315 meters of the Simón Bolívar International Bridge; the same one once known as the “most dynamic frontier in Latin America”, and which President Nicolás Maduro closed to vehicles almost three years ago. This is the point at which their stories cross, as do those of the other 25,000 people crossing the bridge daily on foot, fleeing a Venezuela that can no longer provide them with food, medicine, or a future.

This is the very bridge two democratic leaders inaugurated on February 24 of 1962 under a striped tent, with the breeze from the Táchira River beating against the microphones with which they gave their speeches. Rómulo Betancourt of Venezuela and Alberto Lleras Camargo of Colombia opened the concrete and steel structure both nations had built. These were the leaders that had taken up the reins of their countries after years of dictatorship. The new bridge became a symbol of openness and integration: as Betancourt said on that day, the frontier would separate neither “the ideas nor the desires for justice”.

Gustavo Gómez Ardilla, secretary general of the History Academy of Norte de Santander, says talk of the bridge reminds him of a phrase by Pedro Pablo Paredes, a writer from Táchira in Venezuela: “The boundary line was not created to divide, but to unite”. In his childhood, Ardilla was witness to the prosperous Venezuela of the 50s, which he and his family visited frequently without obstacles. At the time the country had just begun to benefit from oil revenues, with new and modern transportation routes being established, infrastructure projects being undertaken by famous architects, and counters full of products 'Made in the USA'.

“My parents would always take me to San Antonio to buy everything for Christmas (…) One imagined that the bridge led to paradise, to abundance (…) Your parents would say: ‘if you fail the school year, we won’t go to Venezuela’. Going there was a prize, and the bridge was the gateway to the promised land”, he reminisces.

But far from the boom of the twentieth century, the Venezuela of today forces people out of the country in search of food, as happened to Sujei and many more. In 2017, the Living Conditions Survey (Encovi) found that at least 87 percent of the population could not cover its food expenses. For many more, it is the inability of Venezuela to meet the medical needs of its citizens which compel people like Yolimar and her baby to cross the bridge into Colombia. According to the Ministry of Health, maternal mortality increased 66 percent last year, malaria grew 76 percent, and diphtheria also reappeared. For others still, leaving Venezuela represents a search for security, away from a country which registered 26,616 murders in 2017 according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence. Finally, there is hyperinflation to contend with: the IMF estimates that prices will have risen 14,000 percent in 2018 alone.

First stop: No one shops in San Antonio

Were it not for the thousands of people walking through Venezuela Avenue in San Antonio, Táchira every day towards the Simón Bolívar International Bridge, the town would appear desolate. The stores in what has traditionally been an economic enclave have closed their doors. Some stores are open but have no merchandise. There are bakeries without bread and restaurants empty at noon.

One Friday in May, around lunch time, the roast chicken restaurant closest to the customs office, Tío Rico, is completely empty. Only three employees – one in the kitchen, another at the registry, and another one sitting by a table – fill the Formica and metal chairs, the pieces of golden chicken rotate by the fire. There are no customers in sight.

“Five years ago, we sold around 200 chickens a day. Now it’s only four or five”, says Sneyder, the restaurant manager.

San Antonio was known for selling leather products. In the 80s and 90s, the main streets were lined with stores offering purses, jackets, and shoes. One of those establishments was Variedades Elena, which sells the same products today but in canvas. There are no longer clients buying leather at the border, says the businesses owner Larry, as he waits for the next customer behind the register. A TV fitted in a corner distracts him in the meantime. He reminisces of the times when thousands of travelers went shopping in Cúcuta and stopped in San Antonio to buy leather products on their way back. The most popular items in his store today are the backpacks and travel bags bought by migrants.

Second stop: 315 meters

People march towards the border in silence, without stopping, and with hurried steps and their documents in hand. They cross in the midst of a burning sun, trampling over luggage, with their suitcases weighing them down. Men in uniform pester them, inspect them, and delay them, and metal fences leave even them less space to pass. To the right walk those leaving Venezuela, and to the left those entering it. In between are members of the military from both countries, walking from side to side with their rifles in hand. Those with elders and small children pass through, when they let them.

Midway through the journey, the walk slows and people begin dragging their feet. Hands go up in the air with passports, national identity cards, and border passes. Mounted on the fences, the men dressed in olive green verify the documents without paying much attention to the individual pieces of paper in that sea of hands.

Some of these people may already appear on the Administrative Registry of Venezuelan Migrants in Colombia (RAMVD in Spanish). This registry is used by the Colombian government to measure the numbers of Venezuelans inside its territory. In just the first month of registrations it showed that 203,989 people, from 106,476 Venezuelan families, have settled in the country. It is known that at least 23 percent of the total are in the state of Norte de Santander. And these figures do not take into account undocumented migrants.

After the bridge comes La Parada, the sector in the Villa del Rosario municipality that receives the recently-arrived. Street vendors swarm around, selling anything and everything, as others call out the names of travel destinations: Cúcuta, Medellín, Bogotá , Ecuador, Argentina. And then there are the buyers, yelling the names of the goods they are looking for: bolivars, gold, tables, cellphones, hair… Everything here can be turned into Colombian pesos.

“La Parada was always very active because it was the entry point for contraband. Now it is like this because of the number of migrants”, says historian Gómez Ardilla. The Sunday editor of local newspaper La Opinión, John Jácome, speaks in harsher terms. “Hardly anything good comes out of there”, he stresses. He points to a worrying fact: in between August of 2017 and May of 2018, there were over 30 shootings at the border, carried out by the mafias who want to take control of flows of contraband.

Third stop: The New Parada

The crisis and the closing of the border has also provoked a crisis on the Colombian side. The landscape is dominated by currency exchanges, grocery stores, pharmacies and bakeries selling wholesale. Most businesses began to operate when Venezuelans started to come looking for the most basic and necessary of products: food and medicines.

An old mechanics workshop became a prosperous place for tyre sales under the management of Fabio Lazarazo, a Colombian who traveled to San Antonio every day before the border closing to work at a tyre company. This new establishment is also a business of crisis, he says: the majority of his clients are Venezuelans looking for second hand tires, which are very expensive in their home country.

“They fired me three months after they closed the bridge”, says Fabio Lazarazo

One block later begins the lodging area: a handful of small buildings with cement reception rooms, ceramic walls, and plastic chairs. Marta Higuera, who has worked for 15 years at Hotel Unión, says the rooms where truck drivers slept as they waited for customs to process their documents are now filled by migrants awaiting the bus that will take them to the next destination.

But La Parada is not only sales and bustle. Behind the streets taken over by commerce are the modest homes of those who have long lived less than a kilometer away from the neighbouring country. There, some of the Venezuelans who cross the bridge have settled in improvised inns and residences, renting rooms by the night.

In one of these rooms sleeps Leyla González, a Valenciana with curly hair, who arrived in Villa del Rosario the first days of May with her sister-in-law and three neighbors. With only two and a half million bolivars, the equivalent of $2.5 US dollars, she left home to head towards the frontier and left her three children, all less than ten-years-old, behind with her mother. “I came here to try my luck, because over there you work and it’s not enough for anything. You work in order eat”, says the brown skinned woman. With what little she had from her severance pay, she bought a bus ticket that took her to San Antonio. The rest she changed into Colombian pesos upon crossing the border. With that, she paid for two nights in the room and bought sweets to sell later at the bridge or on a street in the area. She hopes that soon she will have enough to send money back to those she left behind in Venezuela.

- La Parada is one of the sectors of Cúcuta where Venezuelan migrants are most concentrated.

In every testimony runs an undercurrent of fear about the uncertain future of La Parada, the bridge, and the border. There is also much despair. “There has always been moments of much fraternity between Colombia and Venezuela, such as when they gained independence. There, in Villa del Rosario, before the bridge, there was a congress between government delegates from Venezuela, Ecuador, and Colombia, and they formed Gran Colombia. That was Bolívar's dream. But there have been many difficult moments too. This happens in families: the children fight amongst themselves sometime. But this time I don't know what will happen,” says Ardila, with anxiety in his voice.

Another Villa del Rosario resident, Ingrid Rodríguez, is worried by the conditions the immigrants arrive in. “It's too much, these Venezuelans that arrive here every day. They sleep and cook in the street with little children. La Parada has turned into a disaster.” A few metres from her house, a woman and her child fry slices of plantain with an improvised fire.

Mujer y niño comiendo
- In the La Parada sector, some Venezuelan families improvise cooking stoves.

Endry Báez complains about how much her neighbourhood has changed. For her, the refugees have heightened unemployment and insecurity. She says property-owners no longer want to rent houses, because they have heard stories of Venezuelans that have killed their landlords. She feels worried that many cross over only to vaccinate their children.

"People prefer not to talk to them. Sometimes they come to the door asking for water or food, but one tries not to give them anything, or only water. I do it but without opening the gate because it scares me. To me, personally, it makes me sad. Not all are bad, good people also come here to look for work", she says.

Not to give them anything, or you only give them water. I do that, put without opening the gate because I'm scared. For me personally, it makes me sad. They're not all bad; there are good people that come here too, to look for work,” she comments

There are words by the Venezuelan author Pedro Pablo Paredes which speak to these feelings and contradictions expressed by many of La Parada's residents about the migration crisis. According to Ardila, many people told Paredes that he seemed more Colombian than Venezuelan. “And Paredes would respond,” says Ardila, “that that was because they were the same thing. We have the same blood, whether you're from there or from here. They divided us, for whatever reason, but now we're the ones contributing to that division.”