What we found in going to the Venezuela-Colombia border

By Joe Montero

When Lucho Requelme and Federico Fuentes and I, found ourselves heading towards the border separating Venezuela and Columbia, it began an unexpected adventure.

Back in Australia, we had heard about the clashes and saw the images of burning trucks between the two countries. Now we had the opportunity to see, face to face, what it is really like.

We left Caracas by bus and headed into the mountains. The industrialised towns and villages here are the stronghold of the Patria Popular para Todos (PPT), which roughly translates into People’s Nation for All. The PPT is one of the political parties in the Coalition supporting the Maduro government.

Eventually, we left the mountains and headed for San Fernando de Apure, south-east of the national capital. As the name suggests, this is the regional the capital of Apure, which extends to the border with Colombia. It is a major stronghold of Maduro’s party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), and by far, the biggest in the whole of Venezuela.

When we got there, it was straight to the home of a member of the regional Congress. He is PSUV. But despite this and being a prominent politician, his home is modest three bedroom flat, where he lives with his wife and children. Something like the old-style public housing high rises we see in Australia.

We had lunch there and stayed for the night. The rest of the day was spent meeting with and talking to a range of people. A highlight was a visit to the headquarters of the Comuna de Santa Teresa.

In Australia we’d call it a cooperative. It was explained to us that it had two principal functions. To serve the social interests of the community and to build the local economy through social enterprises. Its headquarters is known as the Casa Communal (cooperative house).

The headquarters of the Comuna Santa Teresa

In the course of carrying out these functions, it provides basic, education, health services and much more. It does so, according to its own conditions and will not subordinate the wishes of its community to the demands of the state. The main reason for this, we were told, it to build a future based on political power from below.

Comuna members also participate in s system of committees supervising state delivered services. Ensuring that these to meet the community’s needs. The supervision of government services is seen as practical application of people power.

It was explained, they believe that at the heart of the present political crisis, is an attempt by external enemies, to cause economic problems and divide the population. They say that the reality of war is looming, and that the defence of their nation is dependent on continuing the revolution of transferring political power downward. More than anything else, it is this transfer of political power that the opposition is fighting against tooth and nail.

Some of the Comuna members who had invited us to join in for a discussion

Those we spoke to said that the history of Venezuela has been one of economic exploitation by the superpower from the north, and through this, the imposition of massive scale corruption and cronyism – which remains a major problem.  Two outcomes have been an economy over dependent on oil and a high level of poverty for may Venezuelans.

When asked if they are better off now. The answer was a definite yes.

Federico and I were introduced as journalists from Australia. I ended up making a little speech, in which I promised to tell their story, the real story of the people of Venezuela. The impact was sudden. These people are acutely aware of how their country is being portrayed outside, and visitors who can take their voice to the world are prized.

“We are not going hungry.”

“we are not living under a brutal regime.”

“Most Venezuelans support Maduro and his government, because it has given us a voice and made our lives better.”

These are their words. Not ours.

A typical Venezuelan fresh produce stall at the frontier

It continued. “The lies that are being told about us are to prepare the ground for war. The probability is that War will come. We do not want it. But if we are forced to defend ourselves, we are prepared to put our lives on the line. The Gringos do not understand this. They Don’t know our heart, and do not consider that Venezuela is the birthplace of anti-colonialism and the battle for freedom. We are proud of this tradition and if they come, they will find another Vietnam.”

The other highlight was being introduced to the civilian militia for the first time. It is yet another expression of people power, an armed population of around two million participants around the country, trained and armed by the army.

In all the places we visited and were still to visit in Venezuela, the story of a rising people’s power, the betterment of the lives of the people, and the preparation of defence, was to be repeated. The next day we left by car, bus and car again, to get closer to and eventually reach the border.

This was not going to be as straight forward as we thought.  About 5 pm on the first day of the journey the lights went out. All of them. We learnt later that evening that this was the result of a digital attack of the country’s power system. And as we were going to see, its victims were the civilian population. We were destined to suffer some of the hardship as well.

No electricity meant no running water. It meant nothing could be operated, and it meant all communications systems were down. The outside world was told that this was the result of government negligence. Inside the story was totally different. There has been a constant stream of economic sabotage and commando terror attacks, designed to wreak havoc and wear down the population.

Many Venezuelans, whether they were officials or people in the street, pleaded for us to help put an end to this ongoing cruelty. One thing is apparent. Very few foreign journalists come into Venezuela, and fewer ask ordinary Venezuelans their opinions about what is going on in their own country. Maybe if they did, embedded media would find it much harder to paint such a false picture as it does.

As the impact of the attack on the power system began to bite, we witnessed ques lining up at water distribution points. We had to get used to showering out of a bucket and saving used water for flushing the toilet. Of course, it was the hospitals that were worst affected. No power, and water together with a shortage of vital medicines caused by the economic blockade, put the lives of patient at risk.

We had an important meeting with the General in command of the region. He explained, “the Gringos do not understand that our army is different from other armies they have come across and their own. We are part of the Bolivarian revolution, and because of this, are integrated into the civilian population. We are not here to control them. We are here to serve them. The second thing the Gringos do not seem to be able to understand is the spirit and culture of Venezuelans. We will not give up and are prepared, both the military ans civilians, to put ourselves on the line for as long as it takes.”

We were provided with a pass to get through the military checkpoints, which increased in number as we got closer to the border. The soldiers were friendly. Their duty was to look for contraband, and they did this efficiently. But they did not treat us or anyone else we saw badly.

The political crisis may have made military presence essential. But it is not only this. We were in a part of the country that is part of the Columbia cocaine trail, the biggest in the world. The Narco gangs hop from one side to the other to avoid capture. This has been going on for years and has forced a military presence on both sides.

Military relaxed and mixing with civilians at the border

Narco trade has fuelled a culture of trafficking, not only in drugs, but also other contraband that can be sold at a profit on the other side of the river. We saw a stream of people constantly crossing in both directions.

The movement of people is not being stopped. The only condition, to show identity documents and a quick search of baggage, to show you are not carrying contraband. This is natural at any national border.

People were crossing the border in both directions

We also visited at farmers home and that evening spoke to people involved in a project for an agricultural college, to teach farmers modern and sustainable methods to build agriculture. Like so much else, this is independently under the control of the community and not accepting government funding.

We promised to contribute, by building a funding project for them in Australia.

Discussing the plight of local farmers and the project with local community workers

When we tried to reconcile this with the recent border incidents, we were told, more than once, this was no attempt by the outside world to contribute aid. It was not to provide food, but to use it as a cover to infiltrate operatives. It was the local civilian militia that put a stop to it, something that was not reported to the outside world.

The incident, they said, was meant to provoke a reaction, which could be used as a pretext for military invasion. The Venezuelans made sure that they did not fall for it, and acted with a lot of restraint, while ensuring that the intended convoy did not b=get through. As we headed Back towards Caracas, we knew we had found the truth and had become determined to play are little parts in Australia about it.

This is not just about the truth coming out, but to do something about a great injustice that is being committed in our name.

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