Venezuela’s open borders must not fool the world

In a country where 90 per cent of the population can no longer put adequate food on the table, providing greater access to basic goods which long ago became luxuries, would appear to be very good news. But rarely do things make logical sense in Venezuela.

Last week, the country’s hapless ruler, President Nicolas Maduro agreed to partially re-open the 1,350-mile border with Colombia, which he himself had closed a year ago. An estimated 54,000 Venezuelans crossed the border the following day, many waiting overnight, having travelled huge distances. Desperate Venezuelans immediately grabbed the opportunity to enter Colombia and purchase goods which have all but disappeared from Venezuelan shelves, including pasta, cooking oil, toilet paper and diapers. Reflecting the despair, Reuters reports that Venezuelans are increasingly travelling overnight to cross the remote Brazilian border and shop for basics.

Of course, anything that can relieve the suffering of starving Venezuelans is evidently a positive move for all those concerned with basic humanity and dignity. However, the world must not be fooled — This is not the concern driving Maduro’s regime, including the decision to relax border restrictions.

Maduro and his government are motivated quite simply by the desire to maintain power. In recent months, their authority has been thrown into doubt. Responsible for the deepening economic and humanitarian crisis, popular support has dissolved — Latest polls indicate that Maduro enjoys an approval rating of just 21 per cent of Venezuelans. Unsurprisingly, this has translated into a 24 per cent increase in protests during the first half of 2016. Meanwhile, the opposition’s call for a recall referendum, which could constitutionally unseat Maduro from power, enjoys huge support. 88 per cent of voters saying that they would oust Maduro given the chance.

It is in this context of deepening unpopularity that the world must view Maduro’s flexibility on borders. Quite simply, Venezuela is a pressure cooker waiting to boil over. Re-opening borders and allowing greater access to basic goods gently releases the valve, relieving some of the potent pressure. For Maduro, more food equals less unrest. In this heartless view of governance, hunger and suffering are merely tools of power. In short, even though the Colombian border has re-opened, Maduro’s authoritarian rule endures. If anything, it has been strengthened.

And if any reminder of Maduro’s disregard for the good of the people were needed, the border announcement came just days after the regime-backed National Electoral Council (CNE) said that the next stage of the recall referendum process would likely not get underway until late October. Such a move would all but end the chances of a vote this year, which would be needed to remove Maduro from office. With it, the last remaining hope for meaningful change will be snuffed out.

But it isn’t only the idea of political change which Maduro’s regime is determined to oppose. Despite the very evidence before its eyes, with Venezuelans pouring across the border, the government refuses to even accept that a humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding. United Nations’ (UN) Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had the temerity last week to say that he is “very worried” about the “humanitarian crisis” in which “basic goods and services such as food, water, health care and clothes aren’t available.” Venezuela’s UN Ambassador Rafael Ramirez called Ban’s comment “strange,” somehow explaining with a straight face that although “we have problems… it’s nowhere near a humanitarian crisis.” Such cold-hearted denial just goes to show that in Venezuela, things never really change.

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