The Crisis Next Door
Mass exodus of desperate Venezuelans is overwhelming neighboring countries
(For The Washington Post)
Thousands of Venezuelans are pouring out of their crippled nation in one of the biggest migration crises in Latin American history, causing growing alarm in the region and prompting neighboring countries to rush thousands of soldiers to the border.
The massive scale of the exodus is being compared to the flow of Syrians into Western Europe in 2015. And, just as in that crisis, countries overwhelmed by the flood of new arrivals are beginning to bar their doors.
Nowhere is the crisis more acute than here in Colombia, where 3,000 troops are fanning out across the 1,400-mile border to contain an influx of Venezuelans fleeing a collapsing economy and an increasingly repressive socialist regime. Roughly 250,000 Venezuelan migrants have surged into Colombia since August, with 3,000 a day still arriving.
The sheer numbers have led to a backlash in Colombian cities and towns, prompting the national government last month to suspend the issuance of temporary visas for Venezuelans. Colombian authorities are now launching operations in which dozens of Venezuelans a day are captured and expelled.
Latin America has seen mass exoduses before. In the decades after Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution, about 1.4 million Cubans fled the island, many heading for the United States, where they transformed the social and ethnic fabric of Miami. During the 1980s and 1990s, more than 1 million people — more than a quarter of the population — were displaced during El Salvador’s civil war.
Yet there is little precedent in the region for the speed and intensity of the Venezuelan migrant crisis.
After the leftist firebrand Hugo Chávez became president in 1999, thousands of Venezuelans — especially from the upper classes — moved out of the country. But the current exodus is far more dramatic.
Under Chávez’s handpicked successor, President Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela has reached a breaking point, with lower oil prices and economic mismanagement leading to the world’s highest inflation rate and spiraling indexes of poverty and malnutrition. At the same time, Maduro’s government has jailed and allegedly tortured opponents, sparking a wave of political asylum seekers.
Nearly 1 million Venezuelans have left their country over the past two years, according to the International Organization for Migration, with experts citing a surge during the second half of 2017, when the economy took a sharp turn for the worse. That figure is in addition to the hundreds of thousands who departed between 1999 and 2015.
Colombians flocked to Venezuela to find work in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Now the job-seekers are Venezuelans heading in the opposite direction.
Venezuelans have enjoyed access to special permits good for two years in Colombia’s border region, allowing them to stay up to seven days at a time. Facing severe food and medical shortages at home, most have stocked up on supplies, or visited hospitals, before returning across the border.
But Colombian officials say those visas became a lure for Venezuelans looking to start a new life — bringing a dramatic surge across the border that reached a peak of 90,000 people a day in December. In early February, President Juan Manuel Santos suspended the issuing of new temporary visas and declared a massive militarization of the border.
The moves cut the daily flow almost in half — though critics say it has only motivated migrants to cross at dozens of illegal entry points along the border, putting them at risk of harm from guerrillas and criminal bands. Locals, meanwhile, are accusing the Venezuelans already here of harming the economy and driving up crime.
On a recent morning in Cucuta, however, the scene resembled a refugee crisis, with women clutching babies and exhausted families toting old suitcases streaming across a border bridge. The most desperate headed straight to the hospital.
The operations are sending as many as 100 migrants a day back to Venezuela.
One by one, the migrants walked back toward Venezuela as the Colombian officers watched.