Bogotá Despatch International

Venezuela: A crisis beyond borders


The man wandered along the muddy aisles formed by lines of young plants growing in black thick bags. He has been working in this nursery on the outskirts of Bogotá, Colombia’s capital, for the past week, his first job since he left his country, Venezuela. Ill-dressed for the cold and foggy weather of a city in the Andes, he can barely name or recognise the plants he is meant to sell. But he is cheap to employ for his patron and he desperately needs a job. Venezuelans like him can now be seen in many cities of Colombia, accepting jobs for half the minimum wage. Of all the major towns, Cúcuta on the border has the highest unemployment rate. People on the street as well as analysts blame Venezuelans for the unemployment problem.

“The government has been trying to contain a problem,” said Ronal Rodriguez, a researcher at the Observatorio de Venezuela, a research centre in Bogotá. “Venezuelans’ migration will become, no doubt, a domestic policy issue in the coming elections.” The economic crisis in Venezuela has turned its ties with Colombia upside down. For many years, thousands of Colombians, trapped in a civil war between government forces and leftist rebels, had moved to the oil-rich Venezuela, seeking better opportunities. This trend has inverted over the past decade, as Venezuela slipped into an economic and political turmoil and Colombia gradually began stabilising itself. In 2016, more than 3,78,000 Venezuelans entered Colombia legally, up 30% from 2014. Authorities estimate that every day, some 7,50,000 Venezuelans cross the porous 2,090-km-long border for a temporary stay. It is unknown how many of them stay on in Colombia or how many move further south to Ecuador or Chile, countries with softer immigration regulations.

Reasons for them to leave their country are many. Venezuela has the highest inflation rate in the world — almost 800%. Medicines and food are scarce. The homicide rate is 91.8 per 1,00,000, according to the Observatorio Venezolano de la Violencia, a local NGO. Caracas, the capital, has been ranked as the most violent city, in a non-war zone, in the world. In contrast, Colombia has been steadily lowering violence. It signed a peace deal with FARC this year, bringing a sense of security.

Social unrest

The economic crisis and the political blockade have fuelled social unrest in Venezuela. Anti-government protests since March have left more than 120 dead. The crisis has prompted President Nicolás Maduro to cut civil liberties and jail political opponents. Recently, he went ahead with the election of a new Constituent Assembly that will rewrite the Constitution despite protests and Opposition boycott. Despite mounting international pressure on the regime, there is no indication that the actual situation in Venezuela will improve in the near term. Venezuela has the highest public debt in the world, while the country’s poverty rate is as high as 82%. The economy has contracted 35% since 2013, according to the IMF. With the oil prices remaining low, it is practically impossible for the Venezuelan economy, which is predominantly dependent on oil revenues, to turn around quickly.

Colombian authorities say they are prepared for larger-scale immigration. Officials have visited Syrian refugee camps in Turkey, according to Associated Press, in an attempt to learn how to deal with a potential humanitarian crisis. In 2015, President Maduro closed the border for several months and expelled thousands of Colombians, arguing that they were living in Venezuela illegally. He might do it again, not to deter Colombians from getting in, but to stop Venezuelans from getting out.

Lorenzo Morales is a professor of journalism at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá

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Printable version | Jan 30, 2020 12:04:38 AM |

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