Fearing state repression, farmers in the Cataumbo region of Colombia, on the border with Venezuela, have formally requested asylum in Venezuela, and are already being attended. At the same time Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro met with Colombian president Juan Santos in order to restore relations between the two countries.
Farmers in the Ascamcat organisation (Rural Workers’ Association of Catatumbo) wrote a public letter, dated 21 June, to Maduro requesting refuge. They have been protesting and blocking roads since 10 June in response to a campaign to forcefully eradicate coca cultivation in their area, and fear military reprisals.
Santos recently stated that he wouldn’t tolerate the road blocks any more, saying that “protecting life, tranquillity and Colombian mobility [in transport] comes above anything else”. He also called on the farmers to end their strike, saying there was “no reason to continue it”.
But the farmers have said they will only end the road blocks and protests “on the condition that the [Colombian] government commits to … declaring a Farmers’ Reserve Zone in Catatumbo and provides an allowance to the victims of the violent eradication of coca crops”. A reserve zone is a protected area under Colombian law.
Ascamcat requested that Maduro provide them with “international humanitarian refuge” in Venezuelan territory. Telesur's Colombian based correspondent Vladimir Carrillo said that the request was made due to concern that the Colombian police will evict the farmers.
So far four farmers have been killed and over 100 injured in the Catatumbo protests, and a further four are in jail. Ascamcat reports that over 6,000 farmers will maintain the mobilisation and road blocks.
In the letter they stated, “Our region is seeing a profound economic, social, and humanitarian crisis -as a result of decades of state abandonment, and which is intensified by war, militarisation, the forced eradication of coca farming, and systematic violations of human rights by the Colombian state”.
“With this letter we want to request that your government allow us to exercise the international right to asylum, taking refuge in the Venezuelan organic law for refugees and asylum seekers,” they wrote.
According to El Colombiano, Ascamcat has not yet received an official response from the Venezuelan government, but some people who were involved in the protests have already crossed the border into Venezuelan territory, specifically into Zulia state.
Ascamcat spokesperson Juan Carlos Quintero reported that 150 people, including children, elderly people and sick people had crossed, and were being attended by the Venezuelan government with “first aid, humanitarian aid, food, and medical assistance”. Another Catatumbo protest spokesperson, Cesar Jerez, confirmed the assistance being provided by local Venezuelan authorities.
So far the Venezuelan opposition’s response has been to reject any refuge for the Colombian protesters.
“The opposition doesn’t agree with the fact that the government of president Maduro is providing refuge to people with strange behaviour… they are people who are linked to the guerrillas, and what they do is damage the peace process and harmonic development of the interests of the people,” said Nestor Solano, coordinator of the Front for the Defence of Tachira State. He added that the move could make Venezuela’s relationship with Colombia “difficult”.
However, yesterday afternoon, the day after the letter was published, Maduro and Santos met in Puerto Ayucacho, on the Venezuelan side of the border, and agreed to renew their bilateral relations.
The meeting follows two incidents over the last two months which damaged relations between Colombia and Venezuela. The first was a meeting on 29 May between Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles and Santos, where Capriles was seeking support for his ongoing campaign to not recognise the 14 April presidential election results.
Maduro said at the time that the meeting was like “punching Venezuela in the back” and Venezuela re-evaluated its role in accompanying the peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC. Last week Capriles also met with Chilean president Sebastian Pinera, as well as other authorities in Peru towards the same cause.
The second incident has been the Colombian government’s talks with the North American Treaty Organisation (NATO), and its signing of a memorandum of cooperation with the military organisation. The Venezuelan government said at the time that such a relationship implied a “threat of military intervention” in the region.
In the press conference following the meeting the presidents did not directly comment on Santos’ meeting with Capriles or on NATO.
“We have talked about common challenges, a relationship based on respect, based on growing cooperation, on a peaceful coexistence of two models, of two different systems…separated we’ll never arrive at anything,” Maduro told the press.
Santos also confirmed that although there are points on which the two governments don’t agree, and they have “different visions”, they decided to “work together for the good” of their countries.
“It’s a relaunching of our relations in a very positive way,” Santos said.
In 1998 and 1999 over 40,000 Colombians crossed into Venezuela after United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) raided the Catatumbo area, threatening and killing residents. Many of those refugees have stayed in Venezuela.
There are currently an estimated 4.5 million Colombians living in Venezuela. According to the UNHCR, 200,000 of those fled violence and internal conflict, or around 3,000 per year. However the Association of Colombians in Venezuela suggests the figure is higher, at 350 Colombians per day.
The Venezuelan constitution declares that all people must be allowed free health care and education regardless of nationality or whether they possess legal documentation.