Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos on Thursday conditioned a meeting with his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro over an ongoing border crisis that has left 10,000 Colombians stranded in refugee camps in their own country.
Maduro had said he wanted to meet Santos “face to face” on his return from a state visit to Vietnam and China to discuss the recent deportation of more than 1,000 Colombians and the subsequent displacement of 9,000 more who fled Venezuela out of fear for persecution.
However, Venezuela’s unilateral action that according to its government sought to curb contraband and paramilitary activity on Venezuelan soil caused a major humanitarian crisis situation in Colombia, popular outrage and a diplomatic crisis.
Santos said Thursday that he would meet with Maduro, but “under conditions.”
“I am willing to meet, but what the Colombians need is that their fundamental rights are respected. We need [Maduro] to take steps in that direction,” Santos said at a public event.
Santos demanded that Venezuela opened the border near the city of Cucuta for Colombian children who live in Venezuela, but attend school in their home country.
Additionally, the Colombian president said, Venezuela must keep its promise to allow Colombian trucks to enter Venezuelan territory to pick up Colombians’ belongings and “minimal protocol and do not mistreat Colombians who will be deported,” the Colombian head of state said.
Venezuela is home to some 5 million Colombians, some of whom — primarily in the border region — live and work illegally in the neighboring country. Others fled to Venezuela to escape Colombia’s half-a-decade armed conflict between the state and leftist guerrilla groups.
According to Maduro, right-wing Colombian paramilitary groups have also entered Venezuela and are trying to overthrow his Socialist government.
“I don’t want to fight with President Santos. What I want is guarantee security to the Venezuelan people in the [border] Tachira state … and the entire country. Paramilitarism on the border and in the entire country must end,” Maduro said from China on Venezuelan state television.
The populist president told Santos to “breathe, relax, take some fresh water, some chamomile [tea] with sugar” because “he’s quite bitter.”
“Venezuela is accompanied by the world … is accompanied by the Colombian people itself. They’ll be surprised when they mess with us of the support we have among the poor in Colombia,” Maduro said.
In spite of the Venezuelan leader’s strong words, his vice president announced to open the border for school children as demanded by Santos.
However, VP Jorge Arreaza made no announcement on allowing the trucks to pick up the belongings of Colombians whose deportation is more than 10 days old.
Maduro is set to return from Asia on Monday and is facing major Colombian diplomatic pressure on return.
Infuriated by the Venezuelan president’s actions and initial lack of will to bilaterally solve ongoing crime issues on the border, Colombia has taken to multiple international organizations to denounce Venezuelan human rights violations of Colombian citizens.
Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin will meet with several United Nations officials, including Secretary Ban Ki-moon, between Monday and Wednesday, while others in Colombian politics demand Venezuela be sued before international courts over the treatment of Colombians.
Meanwhile, the Colombian government is calling on citizens to donate money for their recently returned compatriots, most of whom are stuck in improvised refugee camps close to the border.