Fearing state repression, farmers in the Cataumbo region of Colombia, on the border with Venezuela, have formally requested asylum in Venezuela.
Farmers in the Rural Workers’ Association of Catatumbo (Ascamcat) erleased a public letter on June 21 asking Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro for refuge. They have been protesting and blocking roads since June 10 in response to a campaign to forcefully eradicate coca cultivation in their area. They say they fear military reprisals.
Ascamcat said more than 6000 farmers would continue the road blocks, and would only end them 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 Maduro provide them with “international humanitarian refuge” in Venezuelan territory over fears the Colombian police will evict the farmers. So far four farmers have been killed and over 100 injured in the Catatumbo protests. Four more are in jail.
In the letter, the farmers said: “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.”
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 the Venezuelan state of Zulia state.
Ascamcat spokesperson Juan Carlos Quintero said 150 people, including children, elderly people and sick people, had crossed into Venezuela and the Venezuelan government was providing “first aid, humanitarian aid, food, and medical assistance”.
So far, Venezuela's right-wing opposition has opposed any refuge for the Colombian protesters.
In 1998 and 1999, more than 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 now an estimated 4.5 million Colombians living in Venezuela. The UNHCR said 200,000 of those fled violence and internal conflict ― about 3000 a year. However, the Association of Colombians in Venezuela suggests the figure is higher, at 350 Colombians a day, or more than 127,000 a year.
The Venezuelan constitution declares that all people must be allowed free health care and education regardless of nationality or whether they possess legal documentation.
[Abridged from Venezuela Analysis.]