‘The Colombian dream’: Portraying the new routes
All illustrations in this article have been drawn by the author.
The Venezuelan border-dwellers mirror the social and economic crisis of Colombia’s neighbouring country. Venezuelans are forced to decide between the absence of the known – i.e. no food, no medicine – and the uncertainty of the unknown, called with sarcasm ‘The Colombian Dream’. The Simón Bolívar International Bridge is one of the five legal crossing points between Colombia and Venezuela. It has become the place of decision for millions of migrants that have been forced to choose the coming routes over their roots.
This was the case of Yanira, a migrant mum with two small children and three pieces of luggage who experienced the hardships of the Venezuelan crisis firsthand. Her story helps us understand the brokenness of Venezuela’s political and economic structures. In a country suffering from hyperinflation and scarcity, Yanira has to make a hard decision: to leave her kids with a stranger or to keep her belongings. She finds herself in the dilemma between safeguarding her roots and confronting new routes.
The borderland between Venezuela and Colombia is a marginalised area. In his book The Modern World System (1974) Immanuel Wallerstein calls this a peripheric territory that – in the absence of the state – is managed by informality. These dynamics are set by those who perform the space daily as Henri Lefebvre would say in The Production of Space (1991) – i.e. migrants, merchants, mafias. Their needs and the economic opportunities emerge out of a profound social change. The rebusque (a word in Spanish that explains the unimaginable local mechanisms to find an income – for sure not regulated by the state) therefore leads the owners of lift dollies to identify a promising business in the crossing-points where migrants need to carry their belongings. Lift dollies are a non-regulated business where tariffs are negotiated between the lifter and the client, and calculated on the pieces of luggage, and distance.
Yanira’s story started with the dolly.
November 2018, a sunny and warm day in Cúcuta. Along with other colleagues we decided to visit Simón Bolívar International Bridge. For 20 minutes we stood right in the middle of the bridge, overwhelmed by the unstoppable rhythm of people coming and going. There she stood. Yanira was holding her kids’ hands while arguing with the dolly owner who was charging extra for lifting her belongings. Yanira had set a price for the service on the other side of the border – Venezuela – but this individual did not recognise the previous agreement and was threatening to take her belongings.
The lift dolly gathered the owner, Yanira, my colleagues and my stories. Different disciplines, nationalities, and stories all joint around the local economic dynamics of a marginalised territory – around the rebusque. According to Igor Kopytoff (The Cultural Biography of Things, 1986), the dolly’s biography is – beyond being a commodity – the mediation of this object between human relations. Yanira’s interaction with it exemplifies the situation in the borderland between Colombia and Venezuela. It is a cluster of illegal businesses that emerged from the border-dwellers' demand while migrating, and the absence of the Colombian and Venezuelan states to regulate it.
Hyperinflation in Venezuela has now reached 95% after years of crisis that reflect decades of the government’s over-expenditure and dismissive actions. Direct loans from the bank to pay PDVSA (Petróleos de Venezuela) – the national oil and gas company – employees’ salaries to maintain the oil production, the decision to take complete control over the dollar market, and to keep on printing bills out of nowhere are some of the reasons why in Venezuela food, medicines and toiletries are commodities, not basic necessities as Raúl Gallegos describes in his book Crude Nation: How Oil Riches Ruined Venezuela (2016). This has had serious implications on the bolivar, Venezuela’s national currency. Hence, by the time you finish reading this article, it will have a different exchange rate than when you started.
Yanira had a thick wad of notes in her hand. She was trying to give them to the dolly owner, but he kept complaining about the rest of the money. ‘Why don’t you leave your children and your belongings here to cross the border again and clarify this incident with the man that gave you the wrong tariff?’. ‘Do you think I’ll leave my kids and my stuff with a stranger like you?’ Yanira told him a couple of times. The owner of the dolly threatened her. The wand of bolivars kept coming and going from one hand to another.
Not even thousands of bolivars can buy groceries. Notes are no longer kept in wallets or purses, notes are used for purses as if it was leather. These handbags and origami figurines have been people’s contestation toward the devaluation of their currency. According to anthropologist Elizabeth Edwards, objects can represent wider dynamics, like the bills reflecting the state of the economic system of the nation. The bolivars are a tangible way for the Venezuelans to call out the local emergency. Yanira’s wand of notes was an absurdity making visible that the crisis is about to reach its limit.
According to the UNHCR, 3 million people have migrated from Venezuela during the last crisis. Although more than one million have decided to stay in Colombia, most of the border-dwellers cross the neighbouring country to get to other destinations as Perú, Argentina and Chile. When it is time to start the exodus, they are forced to take only few belongings in (the quite probable) case they have to walk to their destinations. From those 3 million migrants, some will have a stable job succeeding in ‘The Colombian Dream’. The others will have to work for low wages, join a non-state armed group or criminal band, or beg in the streets.
We thought Yanira's journey started at the Simón Bolívar International Bridge, the truth was that this place was almost the end of it.
After we have unsuccessfully tried to mediate the discussion between Yanira and the lift dolly owner, we decided to carry her belongings. She could not understand a thing and kept asking where we came from. Yanira’s husband lived in a neighbourhood in Cúcuta (sarcastically called Bogotá) since mid-2018. Her belongings were few. Only a couple of things she decided to bring from home, a town in 18 hours distance from the borders. There was no choice whether to migrate or not because her kids were starving. But the decision of what to bring and or leave always remained under her control.
We cannot predict the loss, but we can always manage the divestment process through objects as Daniel Miller and Fiona Parrot (Loss and Material Culture in South London, 2009) argue. Hence, when migrants leave their homes, they inscribe their sense of identity and future on the remaining objects because they do not have any certainty about what is coming. In the words of David Parkin (Mementos as Transitional Objects in Human Displacement, 1999): their belongings become the extension of their personhood. The truth is that the objects Yanira held as she started her journey reflected her identity, her tenacity as a migrant mum – as a border-dweller. Now that she chose new routes, her pots and beddings were memories and are remainders of her roots.
Our hearts were beating uncontrollably. We took Yanira, her belongings and her kids to a taxi where some people from an international organization offered to take her to her final destination. The scene was over. So we stood there for a couple of minutes in complete silence while our taxi arrived.
Yanira's case is not one-in-a-million, it is a-million-in-one. Her experiences as a migrant and the difficulties with the lift dolly, the bolivars, and her belongings portray the Venezuelan crisis, the microeconomics on the periphery, the scarcity, but more importantly the irrefutable willingness to keep what ties them to their roots. The increasing number of migrants from countries like Venezuela, Syria, Pakistan among others, invites us to reflect on the global inequity, economic crises and governmental policies that fail to effectively guarantee the protection of the individual. These complex dynamics can be understood more easily though objects that, along with the migrants, portray memories, stories and identities.
Ana Marín Morales
Ana Marín Morales (MSc University of Oxford) is a visual and material culture anthropologist. Her research agenda includes projects on repatriation of visual collections as tools for cultural revival initiatives for intergenerational dialogue with the indigenous communities in Colombia. Her research interests include how the role of memory could be amplified and better nuanced through the returning of audio-visual collections for the empowerment of communities located in conflict zones to propel local peacebuilding and development projects.