By Charles Beach • PhD Anthropology
On the 22nd of January Richard Branson came to the Colombian city of Cúcuta, a city on the Venezuelan border that I’ve called my home and PhD field site for the last year, to organize a fundraising concert for the people of Venezuela. Due to the crashing of oil prices and dictatorial mismanagement by the current president Maduro, the oil rich country of Venezuela has been in economic turmoil, leading to hyperinflation, infrastructural decline and shortages of just about everything. Inspired by the likes of Concert for Bangladesh and Live Aid, the British business magnate and creator of the Virgin empire aimed to raise money for the newly formed Coalición Ayuda y Libertad Venezeula while bringing world attention to the convoy of aid that Venezuela was blocking passage to. I remember as a child following with excitement Branson’s attempted circumnavigation of the globe in a “Virgin” branded balloon, memories that made it all the more surreal for me 21 years later watching him address a 200,000 strong Colombo-Veneuzelan crowd in a field, next to the brand-new but abandoned Tienditas Bridge that spans the border to Venezuela. A cynic might say Branson, whose most recent media attention has been the death of a Virgin Galactic test pilot and suing the NHS, took this opportunity to boost awareness in a region not familiar with the Virgin brand: “Phone home free to your nearest and dearest in Venezuela… with Virgin mobile!”, said a poster on entering the concert site. Whether or not publicity was in the back of his mind or not, he was received warmly by the local crowd. Cucuteños enjoyed the business that such a high-profile event brought to their economically struggling city. Similarly, migrant Venezuelans in the audience, were grateful for their plight being pulled to the center of the world stage.
The concert itself had a bitter-sweet mood, with artists from various Latin American countries performing. Among them Colombia’s Carlos Vives, Puerto Rico’s Luis Fonsi of hit-song Despacito fame and Venezuelan Ricardo Montaner, a vocal critic of the Maduro regime. It reached an emotional peak with Mexican “Christian Motivator” Daniel Habit who gave a rousing speech to swelling music, evangelical preacher style, causing many Venezuelans around me to start crying as they thought about home and worried about their families often struggling without water or electricity. The Venezuelan and Colombian flags waved in the crowd blended together in the hazy afternoon sun, an intense sea of yellow, blue and red: the sister countries sharing a similar tricolour. Later on, the flags acted as much needed shade, and event stewards through water into the wilting but animated crowd. They ended as the sun set with a rendition of John Lennon’s Imagine.
Slowly filing out into the night to look for a bus back into the city centre, we passed a field of volunteers camping out overnight planning to cross the now completely shut border in the morning. Rousing speeches were being given about the fall of Nicolás Maduro, the president of Venezuela and successor to the charismatic Hugo Chavez.
Venezuela now has a self-declared interim president in Juan Guaidó, who was in Colombia for the concert and aid delivery, and while being president of the national assembly he also has a large support base from the 3 million Venezuelans living abroad as well as broad international recognition from the likes of the EU and the US. He and his supporters believe Maduro is holding on to power undemocratically while exacerbating and exploiting Venezuela’s economic problems. Maduro supporters, as well as many neutral parties, claim that the American influence in Guaidó’s party is tantamount to an American backed coup d’état.
Here in lies the much criticized politicization of the humanitarian aid and where Aid Live differs from its predecessor events. Aid Live didn’t just raise money for the Venezuelan people, it took sides in an international conflict. The humanitarian aid was set up as international theatrics aimed at highlighting how Maduro was preventing the most basic of essential supplies from reaching his own people while putting pressure on the hard border. To pretend that the concert was just fundraising for essential supplies is disingenuous, even if one thinks it is a morally justified coup d’état or if Guaidó is the constitutionally legitimate president.
The morning after the concert I took the bus to the border again – this time to Simón Bolívar bridge. There is a tenseness, a cliched but accurate “calm before the storm”. My bus was stopped by a transit-police check point and I was forced to walk the last mile through La Parada, the commercial district leading to by the bridge. A sector that is normally overwhelmingly busy with contraband street-traders, currency exchange shops, and pharmacies, La Parada sits empty for all but a few soldiers on patrol and volunteers in blue vests heading to the border to help with the crossing attempt. Everybody covers their eyes as a police helicopter skims low across the rooftops, whipping up dust from the empty streets. By the entrance to the bridge, where there are normally queues of Venezuelans waiting to re-enter their country, there is an organization point for the blue-jacketed volunteers and the police are guarding entry to the bridge. There are journalists, many of whom wearing bullet proof jackets and helmets which is never that reassuring. Around an hour or so later the volunteers set off to march across the bridge in unison with volunteers all across the Venezuelan border including from Brazil. They are met with Venezuelan national guardsmen, who have formed along the border line in tight ranks with riot shields. There is commotion heard from the bridge and after 20 or so minutes explosions are heard and the smell of tear gas wafts to the bridge entrance as do the panicked crowed. The events that unfolded after that are what made international news. Supply trucks were set on fire, national guard members defected to Colombia, protesters were shot at, and Maduro cut diplomatic ties with Colombia. Fighting broke out in Venezuelan border towns. Guaidó observed from a make-shift “presidential” office on Tienditas Bridge and saluted the defected Soldiers as they swore allegiance to their new president. Many were seriously injured and on the Brazilian border and there were three deaths.
Like many other residents of Cúcuta, I predicted violence and didn’t join the volunteers in their march across the bridge. The Venezuelan National Guard (GNB) have a terrible human rights record, are violently repressive, and known to shoot across the border at supposed Colombian smuggling gangs – even though the National Guard themselves are known to run the smuggling on the Venezuelan side. Anyone like myself who reads La Opinion, the local newspaper, will be aware of the slew of fatalities and shoot-outs over the past few years, all with probable culpability laid upon the GNB. There’s really no way the Colombian authorities couldn’t have predicted this violent outcome of the caravan and voices in the Colombian media are beginning to claim that the volunteers were used as cannon fodder for a larger international relations game.
The day after, life goes on as normal in Cúcuta although many are still shocked. There is a call-out on social media and I head to a park that’s a block from my house where young enthusiastic Venezuelans are collecting aid to take to one of the bridges: mainly water, rice and vinegar. I walk out of the city to the border crossing. This time I am greeted by an international media encampment of Brazilian, Mexican, Argentinian, and British journalists. They are still wearing Branson’s “Aid Live” press badges as if this is some sort of after party. A line of Colombian riot police run parallel to the river/border and allow only protesters to walk the middle of the bridge from where shouting can be heard. There is a waft of tear gas in the air and strewn along the side of the bridge are weary looking Venezuelans dressed in dirty clothes, croc sandals and with gas masks dangling round their necks. These aren’t the young enthusiastic aid collectors, nor well educated, media savvy, blue-vesters of Coalición Ayuda y Libertad Venezeula. These are working class Venezuelans – well-schooled in urban conflict and with not much to lose. This is who the aid in the park was destined for, rehydration for the ‘troops’ and vinegar to lessen the effects of tear gas. A wave of protesters stagger off the bridge to soft applause, they carry Molotov cocktails and flasks of petrol. A Mexican journalist tries to fist-bump them and is completely ignored. They’re also weary to interact with me but a few speak up and mention that Maduro is releasing prisoners from a local prison to back-up the GNP. They’re weary to talk with good reason, anyone could be taking photos for the Maduro regime and they could end up incarcerated themselves. So many times I’ve been told that in Venezuela the GNP would suspect me of being an American spy but I never thought I’d be suspected of being a spook for the GNP. I watch on as Colombian police casually stand back and let Venezuelan protesters run pass by with Molotovs in hand.
This again leads back to the use of humanitarian aid as a political tool. The Colombian Red Cross have chosen not to get involved due to politicization and lack of neutrality. The delivery of aid descended into pitched battles between the GNP and battle-hardened protesters with a loose goal of reopening the border. There has been concern over the last few months about how armed conflict between Colombia and Venezuela would result in a proxy war between Russia and the US. However what formed were miniature proxy battles between Colombia and Venezuela played out on the bridges between the two countries, where angry Venezuelan protesters who would normally be confronting the GNP during civil unrest in Venezuela, were allowed by Colombian police to attack the Venezuelan security forces from the Colombian side all while food and water continued to be supplied by concerned folk in Cúcuta. Here the term ‘humanitarian aid’ was being used to collect supplies for protesters, while Colombian policy was to quietly allow civil unrest, possibly to show Maduro attacking his own people while the border was the centre of media attention.
It’s not evident what the Colombia/Guaidó/USA alliance’s tactics are, military intervention seems to remain an option for the US hawks despite vocal concerns from civil society groups that the gravity of any internal Venezuelan conflict could drag in actors from Colombia’s historic armed conflict and disrupt an already delicate peace. The conflicts on the bridge eventually lost inertia and Maduro is currently allowing children and the elderly to cross freely to access medical supplies and education in Colombia. Guaidó has been back in Venezuela for some time now and is touring the country attempting to garner support. I think “humanitarian aid” will remain a part of the discourse for a good while despite bellicose talk from the trump administration and the more right wing Venezuelan expats (see hash tag #IntervencionMilitarYA ). As for Richard Branson, did he understand the nuance of this situation when he was asked to be a benefactor? The attempted delivery of aid led to deaths, and a dangerous destabilisation of the border. I’d like to think at best Branson was naively philanthropic and at worst cynically self-promotional. I welcome cultural events in the region and now, after giving Cúcuta its 15 minutes of international fame, maybe Branson could come back and do an ‘Aid Live’ for the struggling Cúcuta and it’s 300,000 thousand Venzuelan residents?