Every day at dawn, Valentina Betaba, a 16-year-old Venezuelan student, crosses the Simón Bolívar International Bridge to reach the Megacolegio La Frontera, a school in Villa del Rosario, a border town in the Colombian province of Norte de Santander. According to Gladys Myriam Carbajal Ortegon, the school’s coordinator, eighty percent of the school’s students are Venezuelans who make the crossing daily.
“In Venezuela, we went to class only twice a week,” Betaba, who lives about a half hour’s walk from the Colombian border, told me when we met in June. “There were power cuts, and many professors no longer came because they did not receive their wages.” The Megacolegio, which was originally located close to the bridge and had eight hundred students, was moved in 2016 to its current location, about a kilometre and a half away. Its capacity was doubled to accommodate more students from Venezuela, where the economy—particularly the education and health sectors—is collapsing.
The bridge had been reopened only a few days when I visited. This was after a blockade imposed by the Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro, last February, to prevent access to humanitarian aid. The move forced people to cross illegally, by following paths called trochas, fording the rivers on canoes, and making their way through the vegetation. For a time, even the students were blocked from crossing the bridge, but an exception was later made for them.