Photo: Americas Quarterly retrieved

The crisis provoked by chavismo’s catastrophic administration has already pushed over 4 million Venezuelans away from their country, becoming the worst humanitarian crisis faced by the continent. Surprisingly though, and as noted by Javier Corrales in a post for America’s Quarterly, most countries in the region have dealt with the challenge quite positively, although the first signs of stress are impossible to hide.

Corrales, a Political Science professor at Amherst College in Massachusetts, notices that pro-immigrant international norms and sympathetic politicians have been largely responsible for the positive response before the wave of Venezuelans. In 1984, ten countries (Colombia, Venezuela, Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico and Panama) signed the Cartagena Declaration, which extended the traditionally accepted definition of refugees adopted in the 1951 Refugee Convention, following World War II, to include:

“…Persons who have fled their country because their lives, security or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.”

A definition that fits pretty much every single Venezuelan migrant nowadays.

Most countries in the region have dealt with the challenge of the Venezuelan migration quite positively, although the first signs of stress are impossible to hide.

Although non-binding in nature, that principle has been incorporated into the law and state practice of 14 different countries, making Latin America a particularly sympathetic region towards immigration. Coupled with a regional rejection of Nicolás Maduro’s tyrannical rule, this stance has allowed 80% of the Venezuelan diaspora to find a new home in a region that was having a hard time dealing with its own problems, even before Venezuela collapsed.

Until very recently, most Latin American countries offered legal benefits for Venezuelans to stay and work, and some still do, not requiring a passport to enter (Argentina) or accepting expired ones, for instance (Colombia.) 

But as the profile of Venezuelan migrants shifted from middle-class, highly-skilled individuals, to millions of poor people without a professional skill set, the limits of this open-borders policy turned more and more visible, as noticed by Corrales. Peru and Chile have started requesting visas for Venezuelans to enter the country, and Ecuador is expected to do the same in the near future. Trinidad and Tobago, one of the geographically closest countries to Venezuela, is one of the most hostile for its migrants, partly due to the islands’s strong economic relationship with the Venezuelan oil industry, still controlled by Maduro.

Receiving countries must provide basic services, also called survival services, such as food, healthcare, schooling, shelter and labor market insertion to Venezuelan migrants, a logistical and economically complex task, especially in places like Colombia, Ecuador, Trinidad, or Chile, where Venezuelans already represent more than 1,5% of the total population. The already massive challenge is made harder in places that greatly depend on, so far, insufficient international aid programs, like Ecuador, whose government has been asking the international community for more money to face the migratory crisis, or Colombia, whose Foreign minister recently used the OAS General Assembly to complain about the lack of international aid to face the situation.

But as the profile of Venezuelan migrants shifted from middle-class, highly-skilled individuals, to millions of poor people without a professional skill set, the limits of this open-borders policy turned more and more visible

As Corrales puts it, “These defenses (international norms, civilian organizations or compromised politicians) may not be enough to contain the rise in nativism that is resulting from Latin America’s worst migration crisis in decades.”The incapacity to provide Venezuelans with such services and the social consequences that it carries have raised tensions with natives in the most affected regions, like the state of Roraima in Brazil, or the city of Cucuta in Colombia, where episodes of mob violence against migrants have already taken place. In fact, almost 40% of those polled in Argentina said they had witnessed Venezuelan migrants being discriminated against, while another poll in Chile revealed that about 75% of respondents considered the number of Venezuelans in the country to be excessive, suggesting that if the crisis worsens (as it certainly will, with Maduro in power) public opinion will make it harder for sympathetic politicians to keep their welcoming policies, even if they want to.

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