Remembrance of Cúcutas Past

Growing up in Táchira, Cúcuta was no mere border town: it was our field of dreams, the one place dad could afford to spoil us. To us, the history of the revolution is the story of our disastrously deteriorating relationship with the town.

I didn’t understand all the ins and outs then, I just knew there was one place, one glorious place, where my father, a modest accountant, could afford all my childhood wishes: Cúcuta. In a family of four with a single income, money was tight. My brother and I were not allowed to throw tantrums at the supermarket when we wanted something, and in 1998 when both my sister and Chávez came, I was removed from private school: my dad couldn’t afford it anymore.

But, no matter how tight things got, there was one thing we could always count on: the Cúcuta trip. After all, this is how tachirenses were brought up and this was what my father knew ever since he was a child: his mother, a lovely teacher from a rural public school and his father, an adeco party-founder and humble correos de Venezuela worker had a total of eight mouths to feed and dress in the Cantor household in Pregonero, a tiny town about four hours drive to the north-east of Tachira’s capital, San Cristobal. No matter how hard things got, every year, my nona traveled hours to get to Cúcuta, to get her good bolivars’ worth in clothes for the children’s december estrenos.

We had a beat-up old Fiat Uno at the time, and that thing made so many trips to Cúcuta I swear it could drive itself there.

“Nos medía los pies con hilo pabilo”, my father remembers, so she could get everyone’s shoe size right. And Colombian clothing was of such high quality it could be handed down to the younger brothers as they grew small on the older ones.

“It’s the kind of thing you can rewash a thousand times and it stays as good as new,” he said whenever he got us clothes at his favorite Cucuteño supermarket, back in the day.

We had a beat-up old Fiat Uno at the time, and that thing made so many trips to Cúcuta I swear it could drive itself there. Traffic was so busy in December that it could take you about four hours from San Cristóbal, even though it’s a 50 km. drive. Everyone who calls himself a tachirense used to do the Christmas shopping in Cúcuta.

Why? So many reasons.

First of all, they used to love your bolivares in Colombia: I remember being chased down the street by guys offering “the best jeans in Cúcuta”. My dad used to get really annoyed at them, but chasing Venezuelan customers down the streets was an actual job. Your bolivar was worth about 10 pesos.

Alejandría was one of my dad’s favourite spots, the Colombian equivalent to Caracas’ cementerio market, that’s where my sister’s cradle came from, that’s where we’d buy most of our clothes and that’s where you bought jewelry and perfumes for Christmas gifts.

Alejandría is no one’s idea of a tourist destination, it was basically a heavily crowded buhonero market. But you could find anything there, from the latest mp3 player, to whatever was the moment’s IT toy to that Gorillaz quemaito I wanted so much.

It was always an intense experience, but my dad made sure to get his money’s worth. And that’s why he loved Cúcuta so much: they’d sell freshly squeezed tangerine juice in on every street corner and water packed in tiny transparent bags, they had the tastiest dulce de leche lollypops and saltine crackers.  His money was worth something, and every bolivar spent was a bolivar honestly earned.

As time went by, things brightened up, business grew and so did our income. Then came the paro petrolero and Cúcuta turned into a memory as the bolivar went into free-fall and the exchange rate wasn’t in our favor anymore. Until my father saw an opportunity on a few dollars left of his CADIVI cupo. We arrived at a supermarket, grabbed some goods and then of to the register

-“Venezuelan credit cards don’t work here” said the cashier
-“This one will”, said my father.

That was it. From that point on, my father took us to Cúcuta even out of boredom. Back then the cupo could be as much as $5,000, with extra for online shopping. All that money, for a 50 km. ride, subsidized and solo posible en chavismo, not a lot of people were in on it at first, but about a year later people were lining up on retail stores to use their cupos, people stopped going to Alejandría-like markets, opting for high end boutiques instead. Why not?

The little chavista douche who lives inside of each and every one of us began to show.

You were supposed to have an international airline ticket to get your CADIVI cupo but of course there was a cheat: You could make a affadavit stating you were traveling “by your own means” or “by land”. Everyone, and I mean everyone, even our 50 year old housekeeper had the cupo.

Not everyone spent it on Colombian goods, though: some colombians saw an opportunity to make money and designed yet another tercermundista cheat:

“Se raspan cupos, se cobra comisión de 10%”

Yes, some people cashed in the entire cupo, and then exchanged the Pesos for dollars, crossed the border back to Venezuela, a few thousand dollars richer. The whole point of doing this was to sell dollars on black market price. Bazzinga! The little chavista douche who lives inside of each and every one of us began to show.

As people saw an easy opportunity for lining their pockets, they took it. Boy did they take it! Soon, the lines at the high fashion retails shifted to small “companies” who could raspar your cupo and give you the factura for it, you know, in case CADIVI decided to check.

I was a teenager, but I learned so much from this experience. It made me realize Venezuela deserved Chávez. I began experiencing what now as an adult I can identify as a consciousness of #TropicalMierda as an existential condition. I couldn’t put it in words back then, I just knew it was wrong and I couldn’t help to wonder why, all of these people would choose to make a quick buck rather than getting the nice pair of shoes they needed.

We screwed ourselves in the worst way possible: we elected Chávez, we kept him in power, we let chavismo control the exchange rate and then we desperately sought the rents from it. All our curses are ones we called upon ourselves, if you ask me. We fucked it up.

In 2010, CADIVI limited el cupo depending on the location and duration of your trip. Before hyperinflation (or whatever you’d like to call it) kicked in, the exchange rate was not beneficial at all and everything became way too expensive to buy in Cúcuta. My dad’s money was no good anymore and neither was his venezuelan credit card with no CADIVI.

Some of dad’s coworkers suddenly quit: two or three trips to the border with your pimpinas full of gas meant more cash than a month’s hard earned salary.

It meant kissing his routine of getting a cold Heineken at La Parada goodbye.  

Soon, gasoline smuggling became all the rage. Ever heard of “pimpinero hijueputa” as an insult? Yeah, that one’s ours…

Some of dad’s coworkers suddenly quit their jobs: two or three trips to the border with your pimpinas full of gas meant more cash than a month’s hard earned salary. The gas itself came from Mérida and Zulia, hence, more suffering for Tachira. Then electronic chips to buy gas made their appearance: a sort of ration card for your gasoline, the Nth doomed government attempt to patch a system that was FUBAR.

These chavista “efforts” to dodge the consequence of their own ideological commitments have always had a doomed quality to them. It’s sad.

Nowadays, when I read about how torturous it is to get to Cúcuta or how people struggle to cross the border just to get a few pounds of sugar back to Venezuela, I remember not too long ago the mafias were smuggling food from Venezuela to Colombia and how quickly life on the border changed. It’s, I think, my favorite example of socialist #TropicalMierda: Maduro had us go from from hopping back and forth across the border freely to enforcing an estado de excepción and closing the border leaving hundreds of people stranded rather than admit his policies made no sense.

When I ask my dad now if he’ll ever go back to Cúcuta, he visibly slumps.

Eventually, the border got reopened, and Cúcuta became an oasis for sick people looking for medicines and food, but mostly for Venezuelan immigrants who seek for cheaper flights to finally escape our dearest República Bananera.

This tachirense misses what the border was like: with all its ups and downs, of course, but mutually beneficial for us and our Colombian brothers — always.

I’ve been called “Colombiana” in a sneering tone more than a few times: it’s in the accent and my love of Colombian snacks, I guess. When I get homesick, I also get Cúcutasick: that’s how big a deal it was to me growing up.

When I ask my dad now if he’ll ever go back to Cúcuta, he visibly slumps: all he’s ever done is work and now, at a time when he should be thinking about retirement, it would take a day’s salary just to pay for that Heineken he used to take for granted. This is the way Táchira feels about Cúcuta today. I would cry my eyeballs out if I were to return now, it would mean facing everything we’ve lost in the fact that a pack of saltines would take a big chunk of my quincena to buy at today’s exchange rate.

The loss of Cúcuta, the bastardization of our bolivar and the huge hit Maduro took on people living in our borders are debts history will have to charge on chavismo, hopefully sooner than later.


Astrid Cantor

Head of the Church of Martha Stewart: I bake therefore I am. Táchirense: Almojabana and quesadilla lover, "toche" and "juemadre" user. Pastelitos de queso con bocadillo fanatic and overall gochadas supporter. Also doctor —as in proper MD— and pobresora universitaria too.