Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos visited the border town of Paraguachón on Monday, where thousands of Colombians formerly living in Venezuela have been deported. During the visit, Santos confronted Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Guard, accused of multiple human rights violations against Colombians.
Santos was greeted by cheering crowds in Paraguachón, where most of those deported from Venezuela during a campaign against Colombians in that nation have arrived. The town lies on the opposite side of the now-closed border from the Venezuelan state of Zulia. He was also greeted by heavily-armed members of the Bolivarian National Guard, who stopped him from crossing the border. In response, Santos extended his hand and shook hands with several of the soldiers.
With tens of thousands returning to Venezuela–many with no belongings, separated from their spouses and children–Santos announced a number of aid programs, including the creation of 1,000 jobs and the establishment of a food center, clinic, and sports center. The government is also working on housing and education projects for the new arrivals.
An estimated 20,000 or more Colombians have been forced out of Venezuela in the past month, about 1,500 physically expelled from their homes and 19,000 fleeing before the Bolivarian Guard could capture them. There have been dozens of reports of National Guard soldiers physically assaulting Colombian nationals, and men, women, and children have reported sexual assaults at the hands of Venezuelan soldiers.
Presidents Santos and Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela are negotiating a possible meeting to resolve the crisis, which began when Maduro closed the border between the two countries, accusing Colombia of waging an “economic war” against Venezuela with smugglers and “right-wing paramilitaries.” There is no evidence that any of those deported were involved with either smugglers or paramilitaries, as Santos has repeatedly asserted in public statements.
Santos has insisted that any meeting with Maduro would require preconditions regarding the opening of the border. He stated this week, “We have made an important step towards achieving this meeting,” but remarked that such a meeting would require “a minimum of some preparation” to occur. “I don’t want to meet for the photo op; I want to find civilized, respectful solutions,” Santos said Monday. This preparation is widely believed to be acknowledgment by Maduro that his government has violated Colombians’ human rights and assurances that they will be able to retrieve the property the Venezuelan government has seized from them.
Rather than make overtures to appear willing to end the deportation crisis, Maduro has continued to expand border closings. “I get the feeling President Santos does not want to meet,” Maduro said Tuesday, stating that he was looking to “rush” Santos into talks to more swiftly find a solution. Maduro added that the deportations, which he ordered, were caused by “the American empire,” without providing specific evidence for this claim.