A state of emergency at the border town of San Antonio del Táchira has shown arbitrary policing and few changes in daily public activity.
President Nicolás Maduro has declared a state of emergency in this Venezuelan border town in what he says is nothing less than a fight for national survival. More than 1,000 Colombian immigrants have been deported and some basic guarantees, like the right to hold most public gatherings, have been suspended.
And yet Crazy Land soldiers on.
That is the name of a traveling carnival that happened to set up shop in a field just outside town a few days before the state of emergency was declared on Aug. 21. Despite the restriction on public gatherings, the park has continued to operate, its colored lights blinking cheerily every night as a few doughty souls venture out to ride the caterpillar-shaped children’s roller coaster or whirling teacups, called Crazy Dance, or try their hand at games of chance.
“The way the government is doing the state of emergency, no one understands it,” said Edward Fabelo, 35, looking out from the ticket booth over the nearly empty carnival, where a family tossed balls at a stack of cans in a vain attempt to win a SpongeBob SquarePants toy. “You’d expect to see the authorities in the streets, the liquor stores closed.” He shrugged. “They have their own way of doing things.”
To hear Mr. Maduro talk about it on television, the state of emergency is about Venezuela’s survival as a sovereign nation.
“We have been obliged by historical circumstance to take extraordinary and exceptional measures,” Mr. Maduro said, “to protect the people, to liberate our country from criminals, from paramilitaries, from an economic war, from war against the humble hardworking people of Venezuela and Colombia. It is a plan of liberation and sovereignty on our border.”
But for all the noise emanating from Caracas, the capital, about a 13-hour drive away, a casual visitor to this border city might well ask: What state of emergency?
There is no curfew.
Bars remain open. People hold drinking parties in the street.
In the nearby town of Ureña, an approach to a major bridge, which has been closed to all cross-border traffic, was protected on Thursday by six soldiers standing by a pair of flimsy barriers made of pipe and a few sagging strands of barbed wire. Only one of them carried a gun: an officer with a sidearm. Across the street, two teams of girls played a soccer game on an artificial turf field.
Here in San Antonio, the police and soldiers virtually disappear after dark.
On two recent nights, in the slum that Mr. Maduro singled out as an epicenter of the evils that threaten the country — including paramilitary activity, smuggling and sex trafficking — there was not a single soldier or police officer to be seen.
And yet a visitor could walk about freely, with indignant residents pointing out the small house that soldiers had demolished, claiming it was a brothel (it was, once, the residents said, but that was more than a year ago) and the many ordinary homes that troops had leveled, following the president’s order to destroy the neighborhood.
During the day, on the other hand, soldiers are highly visible in the slum. On Friday they were mostly seen lounging in the shade, chatting, napping or checking their cellphones.
In contrast, only a short distance away, on the banks of the Táchira River, which separates Venezuela from Colombia, there was a buzz of activity. Under a blazing sun, Colombian immigrants who had either already been deported (and had returned clandestinely) or feared deportation, waded back and forth, ferrying their belongings across the gray-green water. Some carried their own possessions and many hired Colombian porters, who trudged up the bank on the Venezuelan side and into the slum to grab the next load.
On the Colombian side, police officers and soldiers waded into the water to help those arriving. On the Venezuelan side, the authorities were completely absent.
A Colombian man pointed upriver and gave a warning whisper: “The hooded ones are there.”
He was referring to a second crossing nearby, where four Venezuelan intelligence police agents wearing black ski masks and gripping automatic weapons stood smoking cigars. But they simply watched as the Colombians hustled by, belongings on their backs.
Two national guard soldiers sat on motorcycles at the top of the path to the water. After a while one of them told some approaching Colombians that they could no longer cross the river.
Asked why, the soldier said that he had received a call from a superior.
“Five minutes ago it was O.K.,” the soldier said, “and now it’s not.”
That same arbitrariness has landed with brute force on hundreds of undocumented Colombian immigrants, as well as many who are here legally and their Venezuelan neighbors in this slum.
Once the emergency decree was announced, soldiers went door to door through the slum, searching houses and checking identification papers. Colombians, including many children, whose papers were not in order were marched to a soccer field where they were made to sit all day in the heat. Several said they were given neither food or water. That night they were deported.
Meanwhile, the soldiers spray-painted a letter by each door. Residents said that an “R” indicated a house had been searched and a “D” that a house was slated for demolition.
“R’s” and “D’s” aside, Mr. Maduro has vowed to raze the entire neighborhood.
While large numbers of people along the border engage in at least small-scale smuggling of subsidized Venezuelan goods, like gasoline or powdered milk, into Colombia, many residents said that they worked for a living and did not deserve to be lumped in with criminals.
Mr. Maduro faces a collapsing economy and low popularity ahead of crucial legislative elections scheduled for December, and critics charge that the state of emergency is an attempt to distract the country from pressing problems rather than a serious bid to curb smuggling and violent crime.
The main border bridge in San Antonio has been shut, depriving the city of its lifeblood, the thousands of people who cross to and from Colombia each day. But elsewhere in the wide border area under the state of emergency, things appeared to be operating pretty much as usual.
Frightened Colombians who sneaked back home across the river from Ureña last week said they had to pay a bribe to Venezuelan national guard soldiers to cross the river and another bribe to Colombian gangs when they got to the other side.
And a farmhand, who said that he had been working for decades in Venezuela without ever having a visa, described how he waded across the river from his home in Colombia each morning, waded back for lunch, returned in the afternoon and crossed again to go home at night.
“I come here every day,” said Luis Vega, 70, leaning on a shovel in a sugar cane field in Ureña. “They’ve never tried to stop me.”
At Crazy Land on a recent night, José Antonio Hernández, a 40-year-old construction worker, and his family were among the few people at the carnival. Colombian-born, he said he was in the country legally but was alarmed by the mass deportation of his countrymen.
“We have to entertain ourselves as a distraction from this bad treatment,” he said as he stepped off the roller coaster.
Meanwhile, on Friday, one week after announcing the state of emergency, Mr. Maduro said he was extending his fight against criminals to encompass another large area of the border region, where he said the hunt for dangerous paramilitaries that threaten the stability of the country would continue even if the armed forces have to look “under the rocks.”
Then he said that he was leaving the next day on a trip to Vietnam and China.
New York Times |By WILLIAM NEUMAN