Cucuta Vice: Black Markets On Colombia-Venezuela Border

Black market for cheap fuel on Cucuta
Black market for cheap fuel on Cucuta
Mariángela Urbina Castella*

CUCUTA — It's 2 p.m., and the borderland between Colombia and Venezuela is sizzling in the afternoon heat.

Sweat is the permanent companion of all those crossing the Simón Bolívar bridge linking Venezuela with the Colombian border city of Cúcuta. Mariela* has been sitting for two hours in an endless line of cars, returning from a shopping trip in Venezuela in an old car without any air conditioning.

The breeze people talk about in Cúcuta is a myth, probably invented by the same person who said this was Colombia's leafiest city. On the upside, everything Mariela bought for her daughter's 15th birthday was dirt cheap: cases of high-end whisky, loads of food, little gifts for the guests, all for 250,000 pesos or just under $130.

Waiting for hours to cross back into Colombia is worth it. "I'm not stupid enough to buy all this in Cúcuta."

The dramatic exchange rate – with the Venezuelan Bolívar worth 30 cents of a Colombian peso (a U.S. dollar is worth around 1,940 Colombian pesos) – makes possible the vast profits to be had from buying in Venezuela. This goes for those shopping for themselves, and the vast black market of Venezuelan-bought goods resold in Colombia.

Mauricio Villán, a Colombian tax official in Cúcuta, says, smuggling from Venezuela is "doubly harmful," both to "Colombian production and by leaving Venezuela short of supplies."

Some 5,000 people were arrested in 2013 for contraband, though that was only 30% of those living off this activity on the frontier.

About 30 years ago "if you wanted to pay in pesos in a clothes shop, they would not even serve you, but ask you to pay in bolívars," recalls María Carvajalino, a Cúcuta resident. A bolívar cost 17 Colombian pesos then, before it began to plummet in the early 1990s. "Then it went from 17 to five pesos, and some business owners began to go bankrupt. Many killed themselves," she says.

Johanna Magrovejo, an international trade lecturer at the Francisco de Paula Santander University in Cúcuta, says the bolívar "lost all its value with the government of Hugo Chávez."

Every day there are protests in Venezuela. Since the death of Chávez and election of President Nicolás Maduro, opposition has grown louder. Certain critics of the Maduro government have been seized and there is an outcry over alleged violations by troops and government agents.

Cúcuta tastes the backlash from all this. When rumors began to circulate that the frontier had been closed, what had been a routine for thousands — circulating between the two states — became much more difficult. It also gave the Venezuelan National Guard at the crossing an excuse to live up to their reputation for rough and arbitrary treatment.

For some it can now take an entire day to cross the border, for work or study. Witnesses say the Venezuelan guards may well confiscate one person's "small-time merchandise" while letting big loads go through.

The explanation for this lies with the mosco, or fly. He is the middleman who negotiates the amounts to be paid to border guards. Better off not trying to bribe them directly. Business is good for Colombian smugglers, in any case, as the Venezuelan guards are paid in bolívars.

Drugs and laundering

Contraband is a very useful instrument for laundering large amounts of drug money, which makes the stakes even higher. The Cúcuta newspaper La Opinión reported early this year that informal salesmen angered by inspections by the DIAN Colombian tax collectors tried to burn down one of its offices.

According to FENALCO, a nationwide association of business owners, Cúcuta is the city with the highest proportion of black market labor in Colombia. Some 72% of its workers work off-the-books, which affects ordinary business.

Guillermo Infante, director of Coagronorte, an association of small rice farmers in the area, says sales have dropped some 50% because of the cheaper Venezuelan rice brought into Cúcuta. Other professionals not directly related to trade are also affected, as everything is cheaper across the border. Ciro Arango, a spokesman for local dentists, says patient numbers have fallen 80%.

Criminal culture

The illicit trade has also left its mark in deeper ways on the city, as a certain tolerance of violence and illegality has come to be tolerated in recent years. The blogger Alejandra Omaña recently described the average Cúcuta resident as one who "has committed a crime at least once in his or her life, or considered doing so." For writing that, she was bombarded with vociferous objections, insults and threats from a range of locals, and had to abandon her Social Communications studies in Cúcuta, fearing for her safety.

The city's main promenade, the only place with that famous breeze arrives, is an avenue of excess: luxury convertibles loudly blaring out their music, people drinking and driving, girls of all backgrounds offering sex for money. Mansions are sprouting around the city, but nobody wants to know where the money to build them came from.

Yet they say there is hope. "Cúcuta is a city of dynamic people. Jobless numbers have fallen," says its mayor Donamaris París. Being on the border makes the city "a place of opportunities."

For Professor Magrovejo, the solution is to look beyond Venezuela, and seek new, cleaner, trading partners. But all of that looks so far away as the border police wave the cars ahead under the scorching sun.

* This article appeared originally in Humboldt, the review of the Goethe Institute in Bogotá

** Names changed at the individuals' request, to protect identities.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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