As far as neighbors go, Venezuela and Colombia are less the type to borrow eggs than to egg each other. While relations have been shaky for some time, tensions most recently spiked on August 20, when three members of a Venezuelan border patrol were shot on duty. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro blamed the attack on a right-wing Colombian paramilitary group. In response to the attack, Maduro closed the border with Colombia in many locations and even started a mass-deportation scheme, removing anyone who couldn’t prove their Venezuelan citizenship. Maduro’s actions, however, were smoke and mirrors. By knowingly creating a refugee crisis, blaming smugglers for the country’s economic problems, and deploying masses of troops, Maduro was trying to divert attention from the tough economic situation in Venezuela ahead of December’s parliamentary elections. Far from being atypical, Maduro’s actions are indicative of a wider trend: political leaders distracting their constituents from internal issues by channeling discontent, often with nationalistic overtones, toward an external actor.
The border between Colombia and Venezuela has long been a porous one — many Colombians migrate to Venezuela to take advantage of subsidized goods, the social safety net, and respite from the drug war in their home country. Until August, neither government had done very much to restrict border crossings. Colombian immigrants make up about 16 percent of the total Venezuelan population, and this year alone, more than 120,000 Colombians have crossed the border to flee domestic conflict in their homeland. The shooting of the three Venezuelan army officers earlier this year, however, touched off an escalation that the Venezuelan government was only too happy to engage in.
In buckling down on the border, Maduro didn’t only shut down major crossings and reinforce existing military forces; he also began systematic deportations. On August 24, Venezuelan troops started searching villages and deporting residents who couldn’t prove their legal status. An estimated 1,608 Colombians were deported by Venezuelan authorities in the span of a few days, and over 17,000 more fled in fear of governmental action. At the height of tensions, both Venezuela and Colombia withdrew their respective ambassadors and embassy staff. The shootings were obviously the last straw for Maduro, and he emphasized the drug trafficking, violence, and smuggling endemic to border regions in his decision. Smuggling was key to the decision: Many traffickers buy everything from rice to cement in Venezuela, where goods are relatively cheap due to government subsidies, and bring them across the border for sale at a significant markup. The problem is extensive enough that The Economist referred to the border as a “smuggler’s paradise.” Worse still, Venezuela has been mired in an economic crisis since last year’s drop in oil prices, and this contraction has led to shortages of domestic goods from beer to toilet paper. Maduro has been quick to blame many of these shortages on smugglers and use them as justification for the border closings.
The border with Colombia is, however, hardly the cause of Venezuela’s economic straits. One of former President Hugo Chávez’s signature acts was the nationalization of the country’s oil industry. The resulting revenues allowed him to erect an extensive welfare system that raised the universal standard of living for most residents of the country. In doing so, Chávez also made the country’s economy almost solely dependent on petrochemicals, tying its economic fortunes to the volatile price of oil. Toward the end of Chávez’s reign, the economy began to falter, and the government ran enormous deficits — which it paid for by printing extensive amounts of paper money — in order to combat the recession. After Chávez’s death, when Maduro came to power, these deficits ran higher and higher. The result has been massive inflation, to the tune of 120 percent, according to some estimates.
The price increase was especially pronounced for foreign imports, which became prohibitively expensive. With the bolívar, the country’s currency, depreciating daily, the import of raw goods such as lumber and metal has slowed to a trickle as Venezuelans’ purchasing power has plummeted against those of their peers abroad. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that past lucrative oil profits had long discouraged diversification within Venezuela, making the country reliant on imports for many basic goods. The current depreciation of the bolívar has led to a shortage of basic supplies such as toilet paper, soap, and toothpaste. In spite of the shortages, many prices are kept artificially low by government controls, which further disincentivizes domestic producers from making adequate amounts of these products. Up until this point, Maduro’s government has only implemented tighter price controls and minor changes, doing little to remedy the deeper problems of inflation or the economy’s structural flaws.
Colombia and Venezuela have since restored their ambassadors and pledged to normalize border relations, although it is unclear exactly how they will do so. Nonetheless, the conflict is an illustrative example of the way leaders use borders and external conflict for their own gain. The Venezuela-Colombia border is undoubtedly dangerous, often violent, and the site of rampant drug trafficking and smuggling. Yet in a region where violence is common, it seems odd to suddenly respond in such a massive and public way. This disconnect hints at Maduro’s ulterior motive: On December 6, Maduro’s United Socialist Party (PSUV) faces a tough electoral test to retain control of the National Assembly, Venezuela’s legislature. With an economy obviously in shambles and violence rampant in the country, the PSUV’s prospects are dim at best. Maduro faces approval ratings of under 25 percent, and the party is in danger of losing its majority for the first time since Chávez came into power in 1998. In a last-ditch effort to rally public support, Maduro essentially engineered a border crisis, hoping to shift blame for the economic hardships away from his government and avoid the messy, if necessary, conversation about economic reform in one of the world’s last planned economies.
Maduro’s use of the border crisis also represents the time-tested electioneering tactic of rallying a population around the flag. By taking a strong stance and supporting his military, Maduro has sought to position himself as a decisive leader while riding a wave of patriotic support. From the other angle, he has sought to portray himself as a good statesman and responsible leader by forging a deal to once again normalize relations in the wake of the crisis. But this cynical and jingoistic tactic has come at the cost of the livelihood of thousands of law-abiding Colombian immigrants.
While Maduro’s actions are duplicitous, he is far from the only leader who has exploited border tensions for political gain. Chávez, the man who built Maduro’s political career, was known to rally the country around a perceived imperialist threat from a United States that wanted to exert its influence on Venezuela’s oil industry. On the other side of the globe, Russian President Vladimir Putin used the same distraction technique to escalate the current conflict in Crimea. In addition to domestic disapproval, Putin saw his foreign influence diminishing as Ukraine moved to accept a trade deal with the EU. After Putin convinced the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, to instead sign a deal with Russia, the Ukrainian population responded by pouring into the streets, forcing Yanukovych’s resignation. Faced with this crisis, Putin saw his opportunity. “Little green men” flooded the Eastern Ukrainian state of Crimea, leading to months of conflict over the sovereignty of the region. Although the soldiers are not officially affiliated with the Russian government, the actions led to a bump in support for Putin at home after he was praised for supporting Russians abroad. Like Maduro’s Colombian gambit, this international incident allowed Putin to distract from tricky domestic issues by instead focusing on a border dispute.
Border tensions can often act as tantalizing distractions for political leaders mired in domestic problems. Whereas fixing structural economic issues, implementing immigration reform, or improving a human rights record can be unromantic and incremental advances, focusing on a border issue is straightforward and makes appeals to national solidarity easy. Though Maduro is merely the latest in a long line of leaders to engage in such tactics, that does not diminish the gall of his decision to do so. Indeed, it should act as a call for heightened scrutiny of the Venezuelan ruling party’s record. And while these border conflicts may invite criticism from the outside world, inside they may just offer Maduro the political protection he needs to survive.