An Explosive Venezuelan Diaspora Threatens Latin America

The Organization of American States expects that a quarter of the population of Venezuela will have left the country by the end of 2020. What’s the hemisphere doing about it?

Photo: Federico Rios / National Geographic retrieved

From June 26th to the 28th, representatives from 35 governments that form the Organization of American States (OAS) met in Medellín, Colombia, for the organization’s 49th General Assembly, an event that revolved around the Venezuelan crisis, just as it did the two previous years. Representatives of Juan Guaidó’s government attended, as they are the legitimate, recognized representatives of Venezuela before the organization, something that prompted the Uruguayan delegation to leave the meeting in protest, highlighting growing tensions in the region after months of demonstrations and international pressure failed to oust Nicolás Maduro from Miraflores Palace.

But the real protagonist of the assembly was the human aspect of the crisis: Venezuelan refugees are a problem for Latin America, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.

The United Nations estimates that a little over 4 million Venezuelans have already left the country. According to David Smolansky, the exiled former mayor of El Hatillo municipality in Caracas, and part of the OAS’ taskforce on the Venezuelan crisis, almost 70% of these migrants are currently residing in just four countries: Colombia (1,3 million), Peru (850,000), Chile (288,000) and Ecuador (263,000), creating an extremely complex social crisis for the whole region. 

Venezuelan refugees are a problem for Latin America, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.

It’ll only get worse in the near future, unless a political change takes place in Venezuela. According to the report presented by Smolanky’s team in the General Assembly, the organization expects that, by the end of 2020, the number of refugees will double to 8 million people, surpassing the number of Syrians displaced by war and becoming the largest migration crisis in the world. 

It would represent 25% of all Venezuelans, and more than the entire population of countries like Paraguay or El Salvador.

“There’s no doubt that 8 million Venezuelan migrants in the region would be unsustainable for the recipient countries,” said Ivan Briscoe, Latin America director for the International Crisis Group in an interview with Al Jazeera

Some argue that larger numbers of refugees will push regional governments to adopt a more forceful stance to bring Maduro’s government down, but it seems more likely that they will simply make it harder for Venezuelans to settle in their own countries. In fact, places like Peru or Chile have already restricted the entry of Venezuelans implementing visas, leaving thousands trapped in transit countries like Ecuador, Colombia or Brazil. Similar measures are expected to be approved by other nations in the following months, but visas and restrictions probably won’t be enough to stop an ever-growing flux of desperate people, like the experience of the United States in its Southern border has shown the region.

Desperate Venezuelans will simply find illegal, more dangerous ways to flee. According to Smolansky, 101 Venezuelans have died in the last year trying to leave their country, most of them drowned in the Caribbean while trying to reach Trinidad, Curaçao and Aruba.

This situation has also created international tension, as expressed by Felipe Muñoz, Colombia’s border manager, who used the assembly to express that “Little by little we (Colombia) are becoming the only country free of restrictions.” 

His worries are well-founded. Things in Colombia, which shares a 2,200 km border with Venezuela, are particularly bad. The continuous flow of people across the border is allegedly being capitalized by the Colombian guerilla, which according to Smolansky can make up to $10,000 daily, from charging Venezuelan migrants to let them through unwatched areas.

International funding has also been insufficient. The report presented in the OAS General Assembly indicates that the average Venezuelan refugee only receives $100 worth of aid, while a Syrian refugee can receive up to $5,000. Furthermore, as reported by Reuters, Colombian Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo also reminded the OAS that only 21% of the $728 million pledged by the international community to help Venezuelan migrants has been received, adding that Colombia has received only 66 of the promised $315 million. “The answer to this global call is weaker and slower each time.”

The organization expects that, by the end of 2020, the number of refugees will double to 8 million people, surpassing the number of Syrians displaced by war.

Smolansky also reminded the OAS countries that the Venezuelan migration isn’t voluntary, but forced by the economic collapse of the country, and its political persecution and violence, problems directly caused by Chávez’s and Maduro’s governments. He asked Latin American countries to refrain from deporting vulnerable Venezuelans as long as they don’t commit any crimes or don’t have criminal records, while proposing the creation of a regional ID card that allows Venezuelans to travel across the region without the need for passports, making it easier for receiving countries to register and monitor their activities.

At the end of the meeting, the only thing clear is that the Venezuelan crisis will continue to severely threaten Latin America’s social stability until a political transition is achieved with chavismo, a transition that after hundreds of demonstrations, a failed coup attempt and an apparently fruitless dialogue process, seems as unlikely as always.