Venezuela Extends Border Crackdown, Invites Syrian Refugees

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Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro intensified his campaign to stop the flow of goods and people across the border with Colombia while simultaneously inviting 20,000 Syrian refugees to take refuge in his country.

Maduro extended a state of emergency declared last month to stop the flight of scarce subsidized foodstuffs across the border in the country’s most populated state, Zulia. He said 3,000 additional troops will be deployed to border towns.

“Our people are targeted by smugglers, criminal gangs,” Maduro said in a televised address Monday. “We will liberate them from all of that.”

The government is moving to avoid protests in areas where the scarcity of food and basic goods have been most intense, said Diego Moya-Ocampos, a London-based political risk analyst at IHS Inc. Tachira state, where an emergency declaration was first called in August, saw some of the biggest anti-government riots in a wave of demonstrations last year.

At the same time, Maduro announced that the South American country, which has the world’s fastest inflation, second-highest homicide rate and collapsing public services, is willing to host Syrian refugees fleeing civil war.

‘Peace and Christ’

“I want to invite 20,000 Syrians, Syrian families, to our Venezuelan fatherland, to share with us this land of peace and Christ,” the president said Monday, in a reference to mostly Muslim Arab refugees.

The border moves comes as Maduro’s ruling party is trailing the opposition by nearly 40 percentage points for the Dec. 6 congressional elections, with food shortages being the voters’ main concern, according to an August poll by the Venezuelan Institute of Data Analysis.

“Despite the government’s efforts, the porous border and price differentials mean smuggling goods to Colombia will continue and risks of looting in these areas will remain high,” Moya-Ocampos wrote in a note to clients.

The recent government action was triggered by a shootout between soldiers and alleged smugglers, which Maduro blamed on Colombian paramilitaries and political foes seeking to oust his socialist government.

Border Flight

Since the state of emergency was first imposed, more than 1,300 undocumented Colombians have been deported and 18,000 more have fled, W Radio reported, citing the United Nations.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has slammed the Venezuelan government for alleged human rights abuses, and decried the measures as a political maneuver.

Maduro said he was prepared for immediate talks with Santos to diffuse tensions. He also said he would accept a role for Brazil and Argentina to help mediate any conflict. The government rejected allegations of human rights abuses made by Colombian foreign minister Maria Angela Holguin during a visit to Switzerland earlier this week to meet with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

“Chancellor Holguin is wasting her time in Geneva presenting false information about the border with Venezuela in a reality show style,” Venezuela Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez said in a Twitter post.