Published On: Wed, Sep 2nd, 2015

Venezuela’s manufactured border crisis

Venezuela-ColombiaLate last month, President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela declared a state of emergency in areas that abut Colombia, shut down the border and ordered a mass roundup of Colombian immigrants.

In a decree issued on Aug. 21, he warned that drug trafficking, contraband and rampant violence along the border made it necessary to suspend basic rights, such as public gatherings and demonstrations. After Venezuelan authorities evicted Colombians from their homes, some dwellings were marked with the letter D, meaning they would be demolished.

There was, in fact, no crisis requiring these extraordinary measures along the border, where Colombians and Venezuelans have coexisted amicably through good times and bad. The whole thing was phony, a crisis manufactured by an increasingly unpopular president who is desperate to shore up support for his party ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for December.

Mr. Maduro’s popularity dipped to 24 percent in July, reflecting growing public dismay with government policies that have led to soaring inflation, a severely devalued currency and worsening food shortages. To ward off a bruising defeat at the polls, Mr. Maduro has jailed prominent opposition politicians and ordered that others be disqualified from appearing on the ballot.

Mr. Maduro’s go-to boogeyman has been the United States, which he’s accused of working underhandedly to oust him from power. But as relations between Washington and Caracas have marginally improved, Mr. Maduro has chosen to deflect attention from the country’s problems by picking unnecessary fights with his neighbors.

Earlier this year, he reignited a long-dormant territorial dispute with Guyana after learning that Exxon Mobil had discovered offshore oil reserves in Guyana’s waters, asserting a right to as much of two thirds of Guyana, a tiny country of roughly 800,000 people.

Mr. Maduro then turned his attention to his western border, where his antics have disrupted an important commercial corridor, separated families and displaced hundreds of people from their homes. As Venezuelan security forces began searching home to home for Colombians the government said were in the country without authorization, hundreds of Colombians fled on foot across the border, some waddling across a muddy river, carrying a few belongings overhead.

Colombian officials have sensibly refrained from a war of words that could increase nationalist fervor in Venezuela. Mr. Maduro, meanwhile, has been characteristically glib.

Last week Venezuelan television showed him doing shoulder presses on a gym machine that looked too small for his stocky frame. Smiling broadly, he challenged a prominent Colombian politician to a fist fight. Mr. Maduro should focus on the actual fight at hand: at the ballot box. Further alienating his neighbors will only deepen Venezuela’s many problems.

Photo: People crossing back into Colombia from Venezuela on Thursday | Credit Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

Source: The New York Times

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