Maduristas in Cúcuta: Hunting for the Elusive 100%

President Maduro says everyone in Norte de Santander loves him. Clifton Ross, on the ground in Cúcuta and Pamplona, goes out looking for them...and finds a deep well of sadness and compassion instead.

A week or so ago President Nicolas Maduro announced that if he were to run for mayor of Cúcuta, or even governor of North Santander, he’d win 100% of the vote. “The people of Cúcuta love me. I could run for mayor and win with 100% of the votes.”

Hmmmmm…I wonder what the people of Cucuta and of Norte de Santander make of that!

I came to Cúcuta and began asking around to see if I could find his legions of supporters. It shouldn’t be that hard, right? I mean, 100% is everybody!

Alas, the family who ran this particular hotel just a few blocks from the bus terminal knew a little more than the average Colombian family about Maduro’s “work” in Venezuela. Like so many Colombians, years ago they’d fled la Violencia to find safety and a new life in Venezuela, that erstwhile wealthy neighbor to the east. And like that same wave of immigrants and political refugees, over the past few years under Maduro in Venezuela, they’ve found that they might be better off back home.

The son is Miguel. His passport is Venezuelan nationality, his parents Colombian. He’s still grateful that at one point in Venezuela when he had an infection he was able to go to a Barrio Adentro for free antibiotics, he might have lost a leg. But over time life got beyond “rough” in Caracas and he went home to Cúcuta where he’s in the process of claiming Colombian citizenship.

When I ask him if he’d vote for Maduro for mayor of Cúcuta he starts and looks at me like I might be some crazy marihuanero.

No, pana, la vida allá está completamente jodida,” he tells me as we bake under the New Year’s day sun standing on a street corner half a block from the hotel.

When I ask him if he’d vote for Maduro for mayor of Cúcuta he starts and looks at me like I might be some crazy marihuanero. Then he laughs, thinking I must be joking. He doesn’t answer directly, but I get the point.

I’ve been here in Colombia five days now and I still haven’t found my first Madurista. Marisa, a medical I had lunch with, is a Marxist, so I thought that looked a little more hopeful for our hypothetical mayoral candidate. But no, like most Colombians, especially those along the border, she knows far-too well what’s happening next door. She has only disdain for the man. But you never know what a person might do in secret in the voting booth, do you? Perhaps Marisa will join the 100% and cast her vote for the man with the mustache.

So far, I’m batting zero. But I’ve discovered something else in talking with the Colombians around Cúcuta and Pamplona, also near the border. It was something I hadn’t expected to find given that these Cúcuteños live in the “centrifuge” of all the black market currency exchange where “mafias” rule in what Maduro calls a “financial war” against him. I learned how sad the Colombians are about Venezuela: the compassion they feel for them.

I didn’t expect to find too many supporters at the bus terminal of Cúcuta among the “mafia” money changers, but 100% is 100%, right?

But in the chaotic bus terminal, the currency exchange business continues briskly as if nothing had happened. Just recall, Maduro set off nationwide economic chaos just three weeks ago specifically to make life difficult for these people, the Cúcuta money trader “mafias”. Did he?

I went to chat with some of the mafiosas. The first one didn’t look especially Corleone-style as she sat at her desk doing her nails. I started off by asking her what the rate for bolívares would be per dollar. She explained that first I had to change into Colombian pesos, then I could change into bolívares at such and such a rate. My brain began to crack by the time she showed me the numbers, and I confess I understood very little of what she’d said. Numbers do that to me.

So instead I asked her how the withdrawal of the 100-bolo notes had affected mafiosi like her. (I didn’t call them that, of course: Mafiosi generally prefer euphemism, like “mercantes” or something like that).

She said it had come as a shock and some people had lost a lot of money. I asked if it put anyone out of business. “No, para nada,” she said. Then I asked if she thought what she was doing was the cause of all the problems in Venezuela, as Maduro had said. I got the same look that Miguel had given me earlier.

“No,” she said, “the cause of the problems in Venezuela is Maduro. He’s the one driving the Venezuelan people to hunger and destroying the country.”

And that was when I saw it. She had pain in her eyes, and an unexpected anger.

I asked if she thought things might change soon in Venezuela, but she shook her head, still sad. “No, not as long as Maduro is President.”

Since then I’ve noticed the same thing among every presumed Maduro supporters I’ve met in Norte de Santander, including all the mafiosi like the young woman I left to continue doing her nails. When you bring up Venezuela to Colombians, they grow sad and quiet.

Take Guillermo, an elderly man who works in a tourist agency.

“It’s so sad,” he told me, “poor Venezuela. Life used to be so good there. I still have family in Venezuela. They’re trying to get out now, but it’s not so easy after being there so long. You know, it’s hard to uproot yourself from a place…”

Then there’s our landlady, Claudia. “Ay, pobre de ellos!” She’s on the verge of tears when she tells me about the Venezuelans, whole families, coming without papers and living in Pamplona escondidos for fear of being deported back to the land of Maduro.

“These are people who have university degrees, they’re doctors and professors.” I ask her and her husband Pedro over lunch if they’d vote for Maduro. They laugh. They know me well enough to know I have to be joking.

“No one here in Santander or Cúcuta would vote for him,” Pedro says. “He’s crazy”.

Over the past few days I’ve begun to feel like Diogenes with a lantern, looking for a supporter of Nicolas Maduro. I haven’t had any luck, but I have another week or so here before I head home to California. And I’m a persistent man.

Clifton Ross

Clifton Ross recently published his political memoir documenting his conversion from Chavismo to the opposition. He lives in Berkeley, California with his wife and co-editor, Marcy Rein, and their two cats.