Charla de Merienda Presents: Friction at the Frontera


Borders come in all forms - natural and socially-constructed. Nature can create borders - in the sense of preventing travel from one side to the other - with its rivers and mountains. Governments and societies create borders that blur the lines between natural and social. But, whereas nature has no intent as to where borders and general impediments to travel are located and positioned, governments and societies do. For example, we may want to prevent a hostile invader from entering our home, state, or country. Or a society may want to protect a certain ideal of their culture, creating borders to limit those who do not meet that ideal or threaten to thwart their efforts to preserve. In this Charla de Merienda, we explore the sort of problems and tensions borders introduce into the communities occupying the frontera.


Jesus Alfonso Omaña Guerrero, Visiting Scholar from Educational Leadership and Policy Studies

Relations and frictions in the border areas is a matter of relative positions, and it is determined by the citizens needs and the behavior patterns to satisfy them from border mobility.

Factors such as health and education services, also employment and security opportunities, make the border areas a territory where the populations find complements to satisfy their needs, and build their own interculturality, topic that sometimes it is difficult to explain and understand for people from other regions.

In the border between Táchira State (Venezuela) and Norte de Santander Department (Colombia), the complement of those factors corresponds to a historical dynamic movement from independence war (C. XIX) to our days. The transit of goods, in a legal form or contraband, in addition to the mobility of qualified employees have been marking the history of this border, with significant change in the last two decades.

The most important event in which the population fell a greatest migration impact is the change of economic model to socialism, implemented after president Hugo Chavez arose to the power. In the same way, Venezuelan government increase the economic pressure in 2003 with the expropriation process against the private companies who made an effect in the stampede of investors and finally strangulate those companies in 2013 with the non-payment of economic obligations.

After 2014 the economic decisions boosted the private bankrupt and exacerbated problems such as unemployment and shortages. These two conditions made an unexpectable effect in the border and had transforming the mobility in an uncontrolled migration and after into the exodus and today to a diaspora.

But, How did a political phenomenon generate a complex situation in economic and social field?

When the production of goods and service fall down or disappear, the stocks go down to a minimum limit, the price increase by the reposition cost and shortage emerge. This economic phenomenon prompted Venezuelans citizens to seek alternatives in address to solve the problem by relying on the border economy first through mobility and after to subsequently migrate.

According to OCHA-UN on September 2019, 4.5 million Venezuelans and Colombians descendants who was born in Venezuela are living in Colombia, and one third of them stay in an illegal situation. By November 2019, The National Institute of Stats (INE Venezuela) estimates the Venezuelan population in 32.5 million, in which it is estimate that in Colombia are living over about 14% to Venezuelan citizens.

In the border case, data from Colombia Migration Office nearly 100 thousand Venezuelan immigrants settled permanently on the Colombian side in cities such as Villa del Rosario and Cucuta. Both cities had to December 2018 over around 830 thousand and now adopt more than 10% in Venezuelan migration.

Today the health, education and employment services have been growing on the border and these increases have being covered by the Colombian State and the international cooperation agencies within which the UN agencies.

But, why Colombia?

Such as migration opportunity, Colombia represents the most nearly point from Venezuelan cities as San Cristóbal, and the greatest economic possibilities to mobility than other borders as Brazil or Guyana.

Táchira-Norte de Santander border axis is the main destination of Venezuelan immigrants who take a border city as the headquarters point to make money that get the possibility to move to other destinations within Colombia and other countries as Ecuador, Peru and Chile.

But, far from finding xenophobia and racism, the Venezuelans received the support from the Colombians partners. The assertive and resilience behavior from Colombian State and citizens is showing greatest attitude towards the solidarity and consideration that Venezuelans expressed in the 1960s when the guerrilla war began in Colombia.

The humanitarian actions from Colombian citizens to Venezuelan walkers around the border is a kind of retribution evidence for the opportunities that Venezuela as a country gave to the Colombian citizens from 60´s to 90´s.

In this way, the borders interculturality are being transferred to the rest of the Colombian territory, showing that we are the same people, with same needs and same dreams.

The Illusion of Borders

Luis Felipe Lomeli, PhD student in Spanish & Portuguese and Sistema Nacional de Creadores de Arte - México

Borders are fictions.

Borders are delusions.

 Borders are delusions made over fictions. The fiction of community, the fiction of common culture, of resemblance, of genes, of commonwealth, the fictions of space and environment, the fiction of common virtuousness, of security, of love and law, the fiction of a nation as an European medieval city surrounded by walls, and the fiction of the frontier -let’s conquer it!-, the wilderness, the wasteland, the aridity line, them, that, the fiction of evil as the outermost alterity that is always close to us, evil as the strangest thing, the stranger, l’étranger: the weirdo and the foreigner.

Yet, these fictions and delusions are painfully real.

And also, extremely dynamic.

As Malcolm X said, mutatis mutandis, we have a new model of border every year. And from many different manufacturers. But, with the same goal: to segregate, to put aside, to dehumanize that other that was already considered subhuman anyway. Nadine Gordimer published in 1991 a disturbing short story about borders: The Ultimate Safari. There, the Mozambican refugees have to cross by foot the Kruger National Park chased by lions, leopards, and hyenas –an ecofriendly version of a deadly border patrol squad. And they have to do that because the rest of the border has been protected with the military and an electric fence. Plus, they are refugees –in the short story—precisely because the white Apartheid government of South Africa has been destabilizing, blocking, terrorizing, and menacing the people of Mozambique since the very same day of their independence from the Portuguese in 1975.

I am talking about South Africa some 30 years ago. I am not talking about any other country of the world, neither about something that may be happening right now.

But South African history can teach us, maybe, something about borders. As we all know, during the infamous Apartheid era not only the “outside” borders of the “national” territory were under carefully control but, the territory inside South Africa, and the people in it, were controlled and dominated too. To do it, the white racists used all the fictions I mentioned above: genes, culture, law, security, walls, wilderness… and they even dared to play the “love card” –it’s for their own good. The compartmentalization of the territory is also well-known: the cleanest and brightest -and I am talking here about electric light- neighborhoods were for the white minority; the slums for the black majority, the semi-slums -as Marabastad, in Pretoria—for mixed races and “other races”.

Twenty-five years after South Africa’s independence, I went to live in Pretoria. And some of the micro-structures of that domination were still visible. For example, in the ultra-fancy neighborhood of Waterkloof, were I stayed in a servant’s side-house, there were no sidewalks because all the rich guys that live there –mainly whites—do not walk. They have cars, huge overpriced cars. So, why should they bother constructing sidewalks if their absence also functions as a sort of a border –you cannot pass through this place, you are not privileged enough? That intuition became clearer, of course, after the fifth white car driver that was so amused trying to run over me.

Another example. The typical saying goes “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence”. But, the South African version, made by the humorists Stephen Francis and Rico Schacherl in their comic strip Madame and Eve, was a little bit different: “the grass is always greener on the other side of the electric fence”.

Needless to say, in the past forty years or so there has not been anywhere in the world any other system of internal borders as inhuman as the Apartheid system. However, that may not serve as any kind of comfort, but as a warning to spot the fictions that are being used to consolidate some other –different models, from different manufactures- inhuman systems of external and internal borders.

Borders in the Caribbean: On Haiti and the Dominican Republic

Cécile Accilien, Director of Haitian Studies Institute and Acting Chair of African and African-American Studies

In her book From Sugar to Revolution: Women’s Visions of Haiti, Cuba and the Dominican Republic Myriam Chancy writes:

“It is remarkable that Dominicans have been able to, by and large, emerge from the Caribbean space as being typified not by phenotype (though this is increasingly not the case) but by language. That is, they are regarded as Latinos whose heritage is contiguous with that of other nation-states in the region, but ultimately understood as having nothing to do with the population and nation with which they share a physical land mass as well as ties of mixed and spilled blood. Within the Americas, perhaps no transnational relationship is more vexed than that of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.” (Myriam Chancy, 45, 54)

This quote exemplifies the importance of the legacy of slavery and colonialism for any discussion about Haiti and the Dominican Republic. It also stresses the problems language, borders, and other issues that that separate Haiti and the Dominican Republic, as well as the fluidity of racial constructions. 

Haiti and the Dominican Republic are two countries on the island of Hispaniola, initially colonized by the Spanish before they ceded the Western part that would become Haiti to the French in 1697 through the Treaty of Ryswick. To understand the tensions, frictions and complexities of the relationship between the two countries we have to return to this colonial legacy.  Haiti is generally associated with poverty and disaster, the Dominican Republic with tropical vacation, destination wedding, sexual tourism, and baseball. In the stereotypical view, Dominicans practice Santería, Haitians practice  “Voodoo” (Vodou); Dominicans speak Spanish, Haitians speak mostly Creole (and some French); Dominicans have a tourist industry, Haiti is a dangerous place where people are scared to go.

While the two countries in many instances have become unfriendly neighbors, the rapport between them is complex.  Migration, citizenship, and colonization all impact their relationship, one that can’t be understood through a simplistic binary of good/bad, and victim/oppressor. Their borders are complex and by no means clear. After Haiti gained its independence in 1804, still fearful of colonization from the French and Spanish, it invaded the Dominican Republic several times, occupying it from 1822 to 1844. When the Dominican Republic celebrates independence it conveniently forgets about Spain, focusing on independence from Haiti. The Dominican Republic is the only former colony in Latin America that chose to return to Spanish rule.

It is also noteworthy that the numerous and sometimes artificial nature of borders between the two countries--whether physical, linguistic, political, geographic, religious or historical--play a big role in the frictions. The 1937 massacre is widely considered to be the event that sealed the border between the two countries. The racist 2013 ruling of the Dominican Supreme Court that anyone born between 1929 and 2010 to non-Dominican parents was vulnerable to deportation, further increasing tensions between the two countries. Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s documentary Haiti and the Dominican Republic: An Island Divided explores the complexity of the relations between the two islands by arguing that racial identity is at the heart of the division. Many Dominicans do not consider themselves black but rather indio, believing that they are a mix of Spanish and native American, their antihaitianismo mutually constitutive of fantasies of racial and social superiority and justifying the denial of their African cultural heritage. This discourse is constantly represented in popular culture, with the Haitian generally considered as an immigrant “Other” who is there to prevent Dominicans from progressing.  Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat and Dominican American writer Junot Diaz have been at the forefront of discussions about the ways that colonialism and hegemonic discourses are at the roots of the tensions between the two countries. Both propose ways to ameliorate the relationship among the two islands. We often do not hear of these stories and those of other Dominicans and Haitians working together and collaborating to educate both sides of the islands about their history and culture.

In order to appreciate the friction, tensions, misunderstandings, and prejudices between the two countries we must confront the issue of colorism, which is a very real disease not just in the Dominican Republic but around the world. We must also acknowledge the legacies of colonialism and its effects on both places. Finally, we have to connect the tensions to current issues of im/migration, economics, politics, religion, class, representation, identity construction and racial formation.