As Venezuela braces for a 48-hour general strike that starts Wednesday, authorities across the border in Colombia said they're prepared for a potential wave of migrants who might flee the crisis-riddled country in coming days.
Speaking to reporters in the border city of Cúcuta Tuesday, the head of Colombia's immigration office, Christian Kruger, said authorities across the country are on alert and prepared to rush to the Venezuelan border in case of a mass influx.
"Every immigration official knows what border control point they need to go to and what equipment they need to take in case the situation arises,” he said. “That plan has been activated, and if we need it, we can have people there within 24 hours.”
The two countries share a 1,300-mile border that has become a critical escape valve for Venezuelans seeking food, medicine or a new start.
In recent days, there's been a spike in activity as Venezuelans get ready for one of the country's most crucial weeks, culminating in a controversial vote planned by President Nicolás Maduro’s government on Sunday to select members of the National Constituent Assembly, a body that will have the power to rewrite the constitution.
Venezuela’s opposition called for Wednesdays’ strike, which has people scrambling into Colombia to stock up on supplies, Kruger said. In addition, the Venezuelan government routinely closes the border a few days before elections — such as Sunday’s.
In response to those factors, on Monday, more than 26,000 Venezuelans were thought to have crossed in and out of the country to gather food, he said. And local media were reporting long lines on Tuesday, as people were waiting to cross into Colombia.
Sunday's election has been fueling protests and the strife in Venezuela, as critics fear the new body will be used by Maduro and his allies to consolidate power and destroy the last vestiges of democracy. Street demonstrations have continued unabated for months, with more than 100 deaths attributed to the unrest.
President Donald Trump last week warned that that the United States will take "strong and swift economic actions" if the vote moves ahead.
The specter of punishing U.S. sanctions amid an already deep humanitarian crisis has many fearing that the Venezuelan exodus will only get worse.
In 2016, more than 378,500 Venezuelans entered Colombia legally with a passport, a 30 percent increase compared to 2014. More difficult to quantify are the estimated 750,000 who cross the border every month with ID cards. While many of them are only here short term, it’s clear that many are staying — or continuing the trek beyond Colombia to Ecuador and Chile, which have more relaxed immigration policies.
Colombia has records of 153,000 Venezuelans who have overstayed their 90-day tourism cards and are thought to be living here illegally.
Colombia Ombudsman Carlos Alfonso Negret said the nation has a duty to accept Venezuelans, since the two nations have had such close historical ties. But he said Colombia doesn’t have the resources to deal with more immigrants.
“Whether it’s one person or a million, we simply don’t have the logistical capacity to deal with the Venezuelans,” he told the Miami Herald, and hospitals and schools along the border are already stretched to capacity.
“It’s well known that we can’t even attend to our own citizens, much less the Venezuelans,” he said.
The country has been trying to control the human tide by requiring Venezuelans without passports to apply for "border mobility cards" that will allow them to go back and forth across the frontier. So far, more than 560,000 Venezuelans have applied for the document, Kruger said.
The country’s also getting prepared in more subtle ways. Colombian officials have recently visited Syrian refugee camps in Turkey, according to the Associated Press. And Negret said he’s been in talks with the European Union and the United Nations about providing more aid along the border.
Colombia already has some experience with dealing with hordes. In 2015, Venezuela shut down the border for almost a year amid accusations that Colombian paramilitary groups had ambushed a Venezuelan patrol. When the border reopened in August 2016, an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Venezuelans swarmed across the border over the course of a weekend.
On Tuesday, Krueger said that influx had been considered a "medium level" situation — and not the full-blown "crisis" that authorities are now prepared for.
And as conditions in Venezuela worsen, the “Bolivarian Diaspora” is likely to keep growing. One measure of the desperation:the number of Venezuelans seeking asylum abroad tripled from 2015 to 2016.
Follow Jim Wyss on Twitter @jimwyss