Aid Workers in Cucuta Are Frustrated by Politics

As Cúcuta prepares for a tense and potentially dramatic weekend in the international spotlight, workers from international as well as local Colombian aid organizations are not happy with the disruptions to their always difficult work.

Photo: WPRL retrieved

Beyond the fanfare around Venezuela Aid Live in Cucuta, professional aid workers are frustrated at the increasing tensions here on the border, the two competing “mega-concerts” set to take place this weekend, and the U.S. and Venezuelan opposition deadline to allow the entry of humanitarian aid.

While the Red Cross and other organizations state that humanitarian aid to starving Venezuelans must not be “politicized,” some of the international aid workers and activists I spoke to in Cucuta are worried that the confrontational tactics around the so-called “humanitarian avalanche” will be counter-productive, as they try to find ways of getting the aid into Venezuela without provoking or embarrassing Maduro.  

Father Juan Carlos Rodríguez, of CONSORNOC (Corporation for a New Society in the Northeast Region of Colombia) told me that “the political problem is turning a social crisis into an international show. What is really a social problem, a problem of hunger, of sickness and of medical emergency, is being adversely affected by political jockeying.”

He tells me that, as the government of Colombia ratchets up its rhetoric, the tensions in the region are being exacerbated against Venezuelans in general: “We’re seeing an increase in xenophobia. We’re hearing some Colombians discuss this issue as if it were a Venezuelan invasion. It’s not. It’s a starving people, Venezuela and Colombia have always had a great fraternity. But now we’re seeing divisions within Colombia about the immigration situation along party lines, we’re starting to see some Colombians who were previously supportive of helping the Venezuelans treat this as a partisan issue.”  

And he feels the political jockeying at the border is denying his organization resources. The once responsive humanitarian aid organization US AID, which was in the process of setting up coordination with CONSORC in December, is now too occupied by the border situation to continue logistical coordination with Rodríguez’s aid-group.

Other professionals on the field I talked to feel similarly. “We have enough problems already. We’re staying out of it,” one aid worker currently working in Cucuta told me. He declined to allow his name to be used, citing a lack of authority to speak for his organization. “And now there’s going to be two concerts the night before the confrontation. To say that this is counter-productive to our efforts is an understatement. We don’t need the circus.”

A representative from Samaritans Purse, an American Christian Organization that has been working on the ground here since November, told me the organization has contingency plans for an evacuation of the area if tensions escalate into violence. He made very clear that he was providing his own opinion and not speaking for his group.

“I’ve been here (on the road to Pamplona from Cucuta) since November. Now we have to deal with a pissing contest between Maduro and Trump? It’s making everything more difficult. And where was all this aid last year? Why is it suddenly so important? Look around here,” he pointed at hundreds of Venezuelans taking a rest or eating in their shelter. “Here are the people who need the aid. But even if things go bad this weekend, I will be right here. I won’t wear the uniform. I will take a bus if I have to, hide my identity. Whatever it takes. But I will be here. Because I couldn’t live with myself if I left.”

Although the PR Department at Samaritan’s Purse declined to answer my questions, they did give me a statement: “Tens of thousands of Venezuelans cross the border to Colombia every day. They’re leaving behind everything they know—often with just the clothes on their backs. Samaritan’s Purse is on the front-lines, providing food, medical care, shelter, hygiene items, and other critical supplies. We have teams working in Cucuta, right after migrants cross the border, as well as along the Caminantes route. We are also providing medical relief along the Northern border and in Maicao.”

Father Rodríguez agreed that the aid could be put to use very effectively in Colombia as well. “Why didn’t they help us before? Why is all this food and medicine waiting at the border? Why isn’t it being used for the Venezuelans already here?” He also tells me that, as tensions escalate between the factions within Venezuela, logistical problems are created: “There is a rumor now that military officials have infiltrated the immigrants’ ranks. That they want to record data for the Venezuelan government, and they’re assembling a list of the Venezuelans who have fled, to punish them and their families. Is it true? I have no idea. But because one cannot disprove a rumor, it’s creating problems for us.”

“Now many of the Venezuelans want to hide their identities. Part of our job is trying to ensure that they have the proper documents to apply for the right to work, to enroll their children in schools and receive medical treatment. But some of them are now afraid to even tell us their real names.”

A Red Cross worker in Pamplona declined to provide her name or voice her opinion in an official quote. “I’m here to provide basic medical care, warm clothes for the dangerous mountain passes ahead and to inform the people of Venezuela however I can. The rest has nothing to do with me.”

The Red Cross in Cucuta directed me to their Public Relations department, which didn’t immediately respond with an official statement.

Representatives at the shelter run by Samaritans Purse and CONSORC both informed me that the flow of migrants has greatly increased since the political events of January 23rd; Father Rodríguez estimates that, on average, 400 Venezuelans pass through Pamplona each day (representatives from Samaritans Purse stated that they’ve had as much as 1,200 on particularly busy days) but when I asked Red Cross workers to estimate an average, a nurse simply told me “More every day.”

Joshua Collins

Joshua is an independent journalist based in Bogota, Colombia who has been specialized in covering the Venezuelan immigration crisis. He is also the editor of Muros Invisibles.