A short bridge that connects Venezuela and Colombia offers a vital lifeline for thousands of people who cross between the two countries every day.
The Puente Internacional Simon Bolivar has become a relief route for Venezuelans facing a humanitarian crisis on their side of the border.
It’s a meltdown fueled by the highest inflation rate in the world, ongoing unrest and violent street protests. The crisis has been years in the making.
The oil revenue that fueled the country’s economy under late President Hugo Chavez has dwindled due to falling oil prices – and the massive state subsidies of the Chavez era have become unsustainable. Basic commodities and medicine have become unaffordable for ordinary Venezuelans, leaving entire families struggling to survive.
Anti-government protesters want current President Nicolas Maduro to step down. Maduro, meanwhile, has sent the Venezuelan military onto the streets to maintain order. His opponents accuse him of subverting democracy and stifling opposition.
The government intimidates and restricts the media in Venezuela, taking CNN en Español off the air. It also tightly controls visas for foreign journalists.
Chocolate milk and toilet paper
Each day the bridge to Colombia sees a steady stream of people – a mix of young and old, alone and in family groups – cross back and forth looking for basic supplies. Most are carrying empty suitcases or a handful of plastic bags as they cross into Colombia. On the return trip, the bags brim with goods they can’t get at home.
The air is humid and dusty at the same time. The bridge is flanked by lush palm trees as it leads to a patch of land teeming with makeshift storefronts, mini supermarkets and currency conversion shops.
As the road opens into the border town of Cucuta, young women pass out yellow sale fliers to entering Venezuelans. A man raises his voice to yell into a microphone about goods on offer at a large supermarket. “Welcome, friends from Venezuela, we have chocolate milk and toilet paper for a good price,” he shouts.
Enrique Sanchez, wind beaten and darkened by the sun, is thankful to Colombia, he said, “Because they have enough for themselves and us.”
This time, he has come over to buy flour, oil, rice and sugar with his depreciating Venezuelan Bolivars. He makes the hour-long journey from San Cristobal every two days to keep his family of eight fed during the crisis.
“Unfortunately, in Venezuela, there is no food. That’s the reality,” he said, before walking back towards the crossing.
A young mother, Hennessy Quitian, is lugging diapers back to her home in San Cristobal using her worn out stroller as a shopping cart. She shops with her mother, father and sister. The family bought flour, rice, sugar and soap this time. Usually, the group makes the journey once a month.
Others walk back and forth across the bridge a dozen times a day, like Jason Arias, who is there from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. With an ice slushy in hand to combat the heat, he pushes a wheelchair with his free hand. He transports 15 to 20 people via wheelchairs for $16 dollars a day with some friends. Every few weeks, Arias travels 18 hours each way to deliver diapers and milk for his child. But for most of the month, he stays near the bridge in order to make a living for his family.
Victor Martinez, a high school student, makes the long bus journey from Caracas to buy rice, pasta and soap for his family every six weeks. He hasn’t gone to school in over a month because of the ongoing protests and fears over the safety of students. When asked about his next journey to feed his family, Martinez said “it depends on how long the food I buy here lasts.”
Some travel mainly for medication, like Katiuska Reyes, who buys medicine for her young son. “I find them here, I don’t find them there,” she said. She also fills her black plastic bags with feminine products, rice, diapers and milk.
What is the most important item for her to buy on her trips to Colombia? “In reality, everything, everything,” she said.
And as people flow back into Venezuela, one man shouts, “Viva Maduro!” A short distance away another man yells to no one, “I dare Maduro to come down here!”