Infamous Colombia is a series of posts intended to talk about high profile issues and bring the country’s positive contributions to the world into the discussion.
Astoundingly still, to this day, Colombia has 7.7 million displaced citizens which is the largest number in the world. Syria is second with 6.2 million. The guerrilla groups, paramilitaries and drug cartels have been battling a 50 year long civil war that is still struggling to pick up the pieces even after an historic peace treaty with the FARC – a major step in combating the violence which forced people to leave their homes. Colombians have fled to neighboring countries like Ecuador, Panama and… Venezuela. With this deep and fresh understanding of what internal conflict looks and feels like, the majority of the almost 3 million Venezuelan refugees with thousands more coming in every day are crossing the border to obtain 2 year PEP work visas and temporary residence with Migración Colombia. The Colombian government expects 4 million migrants to arrive in Colombia alone by 2021 and is asking for international aid to help their Venezuelan brothers.
Although the cleanup from the civil unrest is still a work in progress, it’s also the motivation to keep the borders open. Other neighboring Latin American countries haven’t been as friendly. Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, named the “Trump of the tropics” by the Brazilian press, referred to the Venezuelan refugees entering Brazil as “the scum of the Earth”. Quite the opposite sentiment from President Iván Duque who sees the refugees as his “Venezuelan brothers”.
Although there is much acceptance from Colombians, tensions are rising as only 1% of Venezuelans have legitimate work with 99% of it being informal jobs such as selling food in the streets and doing odd under the table type jobs. Colombia before the wave of migrants had the same problem with its own citizens. Roughly 60% of Colombian work was and still is based on these informal jobs as well as farming which is hard to track. The influx of Venezuelans has now led to competition for such work and will increase the already currently high unemployment level.
If you drive the highway towards Medellín or Cali you will see them walking. Walking almost 2000km from Caracas to any city where they can survive.
What I’m personally seeing in this situation is something like my home country of Canada, just on a much larger scale. Yet when I compare the two countries I do witness resentment in Canada around me for some 20,000 immigrants arriving, but with just under 2 million people in a much smaller space with far less opportunity, I feel as though Colombia is doing a better job especially with less to offer. I do see news reports of some tensions at refugee camps along the border but in the city of Bogotá I have seen nothing but support. If you drive the highway towards Medellín or Cali you will see them walking. Walking almost 2000km from Caracas to any city where they can survive. Some are draped in Venezuelan flags. Some are carrying one or many small children. Whole families have had to uproot as staying home would mean more suffering than the walking could ever inflict. Witnessing scenes like this, people walking for thousands of km and still smiling, makes me shake my head for people inconvenienced by a news report back home. It’s odd to me.
You have a home. You have savings. You have healthcare. You grow a family. Then one day that economy tanks and you lose a large portion of everything you have earned by no fault of your own.
When I try to explain to my Canadian family and friends about what is happening for these people to be forced to leave Venezuela specifically, I say this: Imagine you are going along in your everyday life doing well. Imagine you have been prosperous for years. The economy is great. Social programs are in abundance. Neighboring countries have citizens fleeing to seek asylum and share in your good fortune, and there is plenty to go around for everyone, much like Canada. You have a home. You have savings. You have healthcare. You grow a family. Then one day that economy tanks and you lose a large portion of everything you have earned by no fault of your own. Then you lose more the next day and the next until everything you have is gone. Your country’s currency falls so low that a roll of toilet paper costs about what you would have paid for a car less than a year ago. Venezuela’s inflation rate since 2016 rose to over 53 million percent. Political ideologies and arguments aside, Venezuela had good intentions from the start of the oil boom, but a seasoned financial expert would tell you that oil is cyclical. It booms and it busts. Putting everything they had in oil was their fatal mistake, and that’s pretty much it. A deeper discussion could even ask the questions, who was on the lending side and how would they benefit in the event of default, and even more questions would arrive with those answers.
When I ask Colombians if the Venezuelan government is good or bad, I see pained looks on their faces. They shake their heads while they say, “Muy complicado, muy complicado. Mucha cultura es muy dificil”. And that is all the understanding that the displaced citizens of Venezuela need right now. Muy complicado. Muy dificil.