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With newly reopened border, Venezuelans flood into Colombia

Venezuela on Saturday reopened its border with Colombia after four months of blockades by the country's embattled President Nicolas Maduro. The move spurred thousands of Venezuelans to flood into Colombia in search of supplies amid Venezuela's ongoing political and economic crisis. John Otis, who reports on Colombia and Venezuela for NPR, joins Hari Sreenivasan with more.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For more on the situation in Venezuela John Otis reports on Venezuela and Colombia for NPR. Joins us now via Skype from Bogota Colombia. Tell me how significant is this? I know you're working on a story now that the border crossing. We've seen or heard of hundreds if not thousands of people wanting to get across that border to just get basic goods.

  • John Otis:

    Well yes it is a quite significant news for desperate Venezuelans because when you have these border bridges blocked they're actually blocked with shipping containers so people couldn't get across the bridges but they would still get into Colombia and they would have to use these clandestine footpaths used by drug smugglers. These are rivals smuggling gangs and they're often the shootouts along these trails it was quite dangerous. And also Venezuelans tried to get across the Colombian side they'd have to cross the Táchira River, which forms the border. And I was up there recently and they'd be wading across the river you know up to their chest in water. I met one woman who was bringing her son across the border across the river just bringing him across the border to go to a daycare center on the Colombian side. She had to cross the river once to drop her son off and go back to the Venezuelan side to work to cross again in the afternoon to pick up her son and then come home in the evening. That was four times crossing the river as you could see just how tough it can get to get into Colombia with those borders officially closed but now they're opening up again.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    These are Venezuelans that have opted to stay there. But there has been a outflow of Venezuelans leaving the country over the past couple of years now.

  • John Otis:

    That's correct. The latest figures from the U.N. show that four million Venezuelans have left the country. Most of those just in the last four years the U.N. is calling it the biggest exodus in recent Latin American history. And these are Venezuelans of all stripes you know from professionals to you know gas station attendants to students looking for a better life. And they've actually become another major lifeline for Venezuelans who are back in Venezuela because people back in Venezuela really depend on U.S. dollars coming back into the country to deal with hyperinflation and the high cost of living there.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Given that situation I know you had a chance to speak with one Guaidó when you were on your reporting trip. What does he think is possible?

  • John Otis:

    Well when I spoke to Guaido though the opposition forces that he represents were involved in negotiations in Norway with the government of Nicolas Maduro. But there wasn't much progress being made and why those sounded kind of down and out on the whole process neither side really wants to back down the opposition is saying you know Nicolas Maduro must leave office so we can hold free elections and Maduro saying I'm not going anywhere. And he's got the military is still strongly supporting Maduro. And so it's a real stalemate right now. Why though is calling for more street protests he keeps calling on him to leave office he's trying to what he's trying to convince military leaders to turn against Maduro. But even if they did if there was some kind of a military coup in Venezuela there's no guarantee that that would result in some kind of a democratic government you might have a situation say as in Egypt where the military just takes over and maintains control right to what happens in the interim.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    I mean he has his supporters. It doesn't seem to be forcing change. It's been months now. How long can he how long does he think he can continue?

  • John Otis:

    The Maduro government doesn't seem particularly interested in arresting Juan Guaido because if they would have wanted to they could have already a widow has been barnstorming the country since January when he claimed that Nicolas Maduro is an illegitimate president because of fraud in last year's presidential election. He's getting a lot of support as he goes around the country. A lot of people have been coming out to to see him and he does provide a kind of ray of hope for most Venezuelans who really don't like their current government at all and want to leave but still he's not really showing the way out. He has been able that you know he wasn't able to get humanitarian aid into the country. He hasn't been able to convince the military to turn against would as so as this stalemate goes on. He's likely to lose some of that populist support that he currently enjoys.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Alright, John Otis, joining us via Skype from Bogota, Colombia. Thanks so much.

  • John Otis:

    Thank you.

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