Venezuela acts to secure its borders

Demonstration in support of the government campaing against smuggling

We will launch a sweeping plan with the support of the people. Enough of the criminal economy and economic sabotage ... I will intensify the Operation for the Liberation and Protection of the People so that it reaches every last corner of the last municipality of the country.’ President Nicolas Maduro, 8 August 2015.

It is estimated that 40% of Venezuela’s subsidised goods have been smuggled out of the country to Colombia, at a loss to Venezuela of $2bn each year, as well as 100,000 barrels of oil a day – an annual loss of $3.65bn. Currency manipulation, speculation, hoarding and fraud have long been central to the economic war within Venezuela against the Bolivarian Revolution. The economic sabotage being carried out across the country’s western border has opened up a new external front, prompting Venezuela’s robust response, as SAM McGILL reports.

‘In Tachira state, which borders Colombia, 160,000 vehicles consumed more gasoline than the whole of Caracas! A daily 100,000 gallons of gasoline out of Venezuela to Colombia, can you believe it? ... But gasoline smuggling is not the only problem. Tachira contains 4.5% of the Venezuelan population but “consumes” 8.5% of all food in the country; almost half of which continues straight to Colombia through smuggling. Do the maths: while a litre of subsidised milk costs 200 Bolivars [BSF] in Venezuela, in Colombia it sells for 14,000 BSF’ – Andres Gill from Colombia’s progressive Marcha Patriotica movement, explaining the scale of the problem Venezuela’s government was facing.

In August President Maduro deployed 45,000 members of the security forces to Venezuela’s western states, shutting down sections of the border with Colombia and dismantling criminal groups involved in a vast network of smuggling and currency manipulation. Following a paramilitary attack on Venezuelan armed forces on 19 August, a 60-day state of exception (a temporary suspension of all constitutional rights except human rights) was extended across three border states.

The operation had an immediate impact: 385 tonnes of hoarded goods were recovered during the first five days; 32 suspected paramilitaries were detained; 50 corrupt National Guard officers were arrested and an estimated 260,000 gallons of petrol a day have been saved.


Colombia, a key US ally, is ravaged by civil war and paramilitary activity; it has a displaced population second only to that of Syria. These dispossessed workers and peasants are ripe for exploitation by a reactionary alliance comprised of a vicious Venezuelan oligarchy hellbent on sabotaging the socialist process in their country, corrupt sections of the Venezuelan middle classes keen to enrich themselves by siphoning state resources and criminal elements and paramilitaries in Colombia.

Over 1,000 currency exchange counters operate in Colombian border towns. Customers with 100 BSF bank notes can exchange them for 140 BSF in smaller denominations, making a profit of 40 BSF per note. Money-changers stockpile 100 BSF notes which are easy to smuggle back into Venezuela where they are used to buy heavily subsidised petrol or food to be sold in Colombia at ten times the cost. This racket is combined with systematic currency devaluation. While the official rate is around 225 Colombian pesos per Bolivar, in border towns like Cucuta, one Bolivar only fetches eight pesos, making it even cheaper to smuggle contraband goods from Venezuela.

An estimated 30,000 vendors were selling contraband Venezuelan petrol in Colombia, with 40,000 cars full of food and fuel crossing the border each day. Thanks to a decree by the Colombian Central Bank allowing the currency counters to set their own exchange rates, these currency operations are completely legal. Meanwhile, governors and mayors of Colombian border towns operate taxes, legalising contraband fuel sales. The Colombian state is complicit in this sabotage.

Venezuelan economist David Paravisini reports that oil multinationals, like Canada’s Pacific Rubiales and PetroMagdalena, ship and store thousands of barrels of Venezuelan oil, selling them to Colombia’s state oil company Ecopetrol, which then resells the fuel. Evidence of this large-scale smuggling surfaced in September when Venezuelan authorities intercepted three PDVSA tankers loaded with 50,000 barrels of diesel en route to the Caribbean without authorisation. Such schemes are only possible with help from corrupt state officials.

Human costs

Sensationalist media coverage has focused on the plight of 1,097 undocumented Colombian migrants deported in a raid against the makeshift village La Invasion, a hub for criminal activity. Around 7,000 Colombians, fearing arrest, also abandoned their homes, prompting Cucuta to call a state of emergency. Little has been reported of the five million Colombians (15% of Venezuela’s population), who live in Venezuela, receiving the health care, education and welfare they were denied in Colombia. Likewise scant coverage is given to the seven million dead, displaced, and disappeared in Colombia’s 56-year civil war. Cucuta’s migrants are victims of Colombia’s class war, not Venezuela’s border policies.

Paramilitaries, the unofficial bootboys of Colombia’s ruling class, are now a growing threat for the Bolivarian Revolution. An estimated 30 different groups operate across the country. They have been implicated in politically motivated assassinations of indigenous land activists like Sabino Romero and PSUV legislators like Robert Serra, whilst paramilitaries were centrally involved in the burning street barricades of 2014’s La Salida protests. In the raid on La Invasion, Venezuelan police uncovered child prostitution rings, makeshift explosive workshops and underground rooms used for hostages and torture. Without a hint of irony, the European Union released a statement condemning Venezuela’s ‘violence’ in deporting undocumented Colombians from this hotbed of paramilitarism. In contrast to Europe’s wars and racist border controls, Venezuela is a state committed to building socialism, striving to meet people’s needs whilst promoting mutual aid, integration and development across Latin America. Facing down economic sabotage, coup attempts and violent political destabilisation, tight border control is essential for Venezuela in confronting paramilitarism and contraband. While we oppose all immigration controls in imperialist Britain, we support Venezuela’s right to control its border in its fight for socialism.

The border crisis has provoked a diplomatic crisis with Colombia. However, bilateral talks in Ecuador on 21 September facilitated by regional bodies UNASUR and CELAC committed to return withdrawn ambassadors, work towards normalisation of the border region and continue investigation and dialogue. As part of the solution, Venezuela will extend health, education and welfare missions to the border regions, providing an alternative to paramilitarism and smuggling. Maduro launched a registration drive for undocumented Colombian migrants and proposed selling subsidised petrol in Cucuta, alleviating the impact of cutting off smuggled goods and fuel. Crucially, this will be under state control.

Within Venezuela, a poll showed 87% of the population support the measures taken. Thousands of Venezuelans and Colombians marched through Caracas in August, demonstrating support. With important National Assembly elections due on 6 December, tough action on the border may regain ground lost through the bitter economic war.

FRFI 247 October/November 2015