Colombia- Venezuela: Diplomatic Crisis Worries Border Dwellers

  CÚCUTA, Colombia, Nov 29 (IPS) – Rubén Plata works like "fly-by-night" capital: wherever he finds the best returns is where he can be found. He moves from one activity to the next without looking back, although he draws the line at anything "crooked."

He has been selling orange juice on a street corner in the Venezuelan town of Ureña, across the border from Cúcuta, the capital of the northeastern Colombian province of Norte de Santander.

He pays 2,000 bolivars a week (around a dollar at the official exchange rate) to far-right Colombian paramilitaries in "protection" money, so that they will leave him alone. He also made these payments in the past, when he sold coffee to public employees in city government offices and in the main square in Cúcuta, a city of nearly one million, from a heavy box of thermoses hanging from his shoulder.

The 48-year-old started working at age seven, after running away from home because of abuse. He has shined shoes, washed cars, milked cows, and sold cigarettes, eggs, cakes, fruit, "raspao" — shaved ice with syrup — and even birds: canaries that he touched up with paint to make them prettier.

He never went to school. But after he discovered that "the world was in the alphabet," he learned to read on his own, stringing together the letters, in newspapers.

But although he can’t write well, he won over his wife, who like him is Colombian, with his letters. She understands what he writes, because he was able to improve thanks to the adult literacy programme carried out by the Venezuelan government of Hugo Chávez.

He has travelled "all around Venezuela" and seven years ago settled in Ureña. His two children, ages 13 and 16, both go to school. They are Venezuelan citizens, are into sports, and the elder says he is going to be an electronic engineer.

The university is tuition-free, and he will receive a stipend from the government, to live on while he studies. "It’s a real blessing," says his father.

Although he was born in Colombia, Plata says he is "from both sides of the border." In 2004, he gained permanent residency status in Venezuela. But he was not made a citizen, even though he provided all of the documents and papers they required. He did see others carrying in folders with a single sheet of paper — and a stack of bank notes.

In the supposed "industrial" zone of Cúcuta, most people eke out a living selling contraband items smuggled across the border. But the real industrial area is in Ureña, where between 30,000 and 50,000 Colombians work.

At 6:00 AM Colombian time, which is 7:00 AM in Venezuela, crowds of Colombians cross the bridge by foot, bicycle or motorcycle to go to work in Ureña, basically a large outlying neighbourhood of 37,000 people on the other side of the Táchira river, where small workshops operate in nearly every house.

Plata parks his three-wheeled juice cart every day at the corner of a laundry that washes jeans. He installed a sunshade over his cart, to provide his thirsty customers with a bit of relief from the burning sun.

At noon, workers from the small local factories flood the streets in search of something to eat. Hundreds pass by Plata’s cart, wearing blue coveralls.

"Don’t look for Venezuelans here, because there aren’t any," he tells IPS. "All of the companies here in Ureña are Colombian. Can you imagine how much our country benefits from Venezuela? That is what the presidents should see."

With regard to the escalating diplomatic crisis between Chávez and his Colombian counterpart, the right-wing Álvaro Uribe, he says "they are both crazy, two armed madmen," and adds that he does not pay attention to them "because I do have to work for a living, whereas they have salaries."

After Uribe abruptly put an end to Chávez’s efforts to mediate an agreement between Colombia’s FARC guerrillas and the government for an exchange of hostages held by the rebels for imprisoned insurgents, the Venezuelan leader called home his ambassador to Colombia for consultations, and said he was putting relations with that country "in the freezer."

But despite the insults exchanged over the last week by the two presidents, who are at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, Plata says he hopes Colombian opposition Senator Piedad Córdoba, who had been appointed by Uribe to facilitate a hostage-prisoner swap and who enlisted Chávez’s help in the first place, can persuade him to continue his efforts.

"I said wow! if Chávez achieves that, it’ll be the most wonderful thing in the world. But look what happened now. The whole thing fell apart," he remarks sadly.

"I cried last night when I saw how that poor woman (Córdoba), who wasn’t doing anything wrong," went from being the official facilitator of the hostage talks to being accused as a "traitor and terrorist," he adds.

Plata believes that "Uribe got scared" that the leftwing Venezuelan leader’s ideas would find an audience in Colombia.

"That’s what happened to Uribe, he didn’t like it, and he said, no, let’s put an end to this," says Plata, who adds that he thinks about "those poor people, the families of the hostages, who are sad and crying."

He also comments that "Uribe has to realise that what Chávez is doing isn’t bad. Chávez is a realist. He sees what he sees, and what he sees are things that are wrong, and are badly done."

"What Chávez wants is a solution. He wants to change the world, modernise it. But it turns out that the oligarchy has a strong hold," not just in Venezuela, but "in the whole world." That’s why they tell him "why don’t you shut up? When he tells them the truth," he says, alluding to Spanish King Juan Carlos’s angry outburst at Chávez during the Ibero-American summit in Chile early this month.

"What has Uribe done in Colombia? Why are there so many Colombians in Venezuela?" he asks, referring to the nearly six million Colombians who have crossed the border "seeking refuge because of our economy, the poverty in our country."

"With this nutcase here (Chávez), I have my own little house, thank God." He himself built his two-room brick house on a lot granted to him by the Venezuelan government after massive numbers of Colombians were displaced by paramilitary attacks in 1999 and 2000, across the border in Norte de Santander.

And the other day, he fell sick, but "health care here is free," he underlines.

Plata also points out that in the past, labourers did not have social benefits, and could just be fired for no reason, and without pay. But today, employers in Venezuela provide their workers with equipment, like coveralls.

In Venezuela "there is a future, there is work. In Colombia, where can you feel that there is work? Over there, it’s like it used to be here."

He says he would vote "yes" in Sunday’s referendum on sweeping constitutional amendments in Venezuela, "to give him (Chávez) my vote. I’ve never voted for anyone in Colombia," where he has only cast blank ballots, he adds.

Local residents on both sides of the border say this is the "busiest" border in South America. Most of the trade between the two countries, forecast to amount to six billion dollars this year, moves across this border.

This week, while Venezuela decides what measures it will take to "freeze" relations with Colombia, cross-border activity has been frantic.

The Colombian customs agency reported on Nov. 22, the day after Uribe cut off Chávez’s mediation efforts, an unusual increase in the flow of goods from Colombia to Venezuela: 31 million dollars, compared to a daily average of 14 million dollars.

And on Saturday, when the mask fell off the supposed "warm relations" between the two presidents, the weekend average climbed from two million to over 15 million dollars a day.