CUCUTA, Colombia – Latin America analysts are bracing for a Syria-sized exodus in the Western Hemisphere, as beleaguered Venezuelans flee a humanitarian crisis of a country at war, but without tanks and bombs.
The weapons of mass destruction in Venezuela’s case have been hyperinflation, starvation, sickness and fear – especially fear of imprisonment and torture at the hands of the powerful SEBIN – Venezuela’s the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service. Its commander is affectionately known as ‘220’ for the voltage applied to a detainee’s genitals in between bouts of being forced to eat human excrement. It happens routinely, and it happens to my friends.
“Why?” I was asked when I said I was going to Cúcuta, Colombia, on the border of Venezuela, and ground zero of the migration crisis. Because if you’re going to opine on a humanitarian crisis, I answered, you might do well to go and meet the humans enduring it.
I also traveled to the first meeting in Bogotá of a new diaspora-led opposition coalition trying to address the crisis, Gran Acuerdo Venezuela. What I saw in both cities confirmed my fears that the Venezuelan implosion would leave a vortex that could destabilize the entire region.
Venezuela and Colombia were formerly one country, Gran Colombia, and play out complicated histories of sibling rivalry and love. When I was a child, my American mother in Caracas spoke Spanish with a Colombian accent, picked up from the illegal immigrants from Colombia who fled Colombia’s violence from the FARC, the paramilitaries and the cartels. Now, it has reversed.
Starving Venezuelans have so overwhelmed the border towns of neighboring Colombia and Brazil, both countries have sent troops to secure their borders. Since I returned to the U.S. last Monday, the mayor of Cúcuta has decreed fines for anyone giving food or shelter to Venezuelan refugees. Cucuteños previously welcomed their Venezuelan brothers. It’s a typical border town: residents often have families on the other side and transnational commerce (legal and illicit) has long been rife.
But now the town of Cúcuta is simply overwhelmed and the backlash has begun. When I was there, there was an estimated 20,000 to 36,000 Venezuelans crossing every day into Cúcuta, about half of whom stay in Colombia, while others continue to other points in Latin America. It’s one of about 14 border crossings, but it is far and away the most popular: Venezuelans can get there for the equivalent of $4 (a month’s wages in the current economic environment).
As I stood at La Parada, Cúcuta’s intake point from the Simón Bolívar bridge that links it with Venezuela’s San Antonio del Táchira, I watched a steady stream of people coming in — and those who already were in, selling anything they could: tickets for buses onward to other destinations, contraband gasoline and cigarettes, their hair, their bodies. I was offered to be shown the back alleys where they give away their starving babies, but I couldn’t stomach the horror.
The exodus is already more than half that of Syria’s. The figures have skyrocketed from 1.2 million people having fled Venezuela to Colombia in August 2017 to what one local law enforcement source claims is 1.6 million people by December 2017. Not all of those stay in Colombia: half enter temporarily before returning to their families with goods and money, and others transit through to other points in Latin America. Those numbers do not include the millions of Colombians (some estimate up to 5 million) who were repatriated, forced by a decree issued by the former governor of the Táchira State in Venezuela, José Gregorio Vielma Mora, or dual Venezuelan-Colombian citizens, which Colombian authorities don’t count as Venezuelan immigrants. In short, exact numbers are difficult in this traditionally cross-border community, but the influx is huge, by anyone’s accounting.
On the streets of the border town, Venezuelans who were once engineers, professors and entrepreneurs slept on the street. They told me they were driven out by crime, price controls, hyperinflation and in some cases, imprisonment and torture.
As we spoke, the police came to break up our conversation and searched our car and threatened to impound it. Police harassment is standard they said, and many of them are found dead or simply disappear, victims of the locals or each other (in fierce competition) or (they say) extrajudicial killings by the police. These throngs of refugees bring homelessness and more crime and prostitution, as well as old-fashioned economic competition: Venezuelan refugees will do any job a local can do, but for a third the price.
Surprisingly, however, Colombia’s foreign minister publicly stated (the day before my arrival in Colombia) that there was no immigration crisis. My Colombian friends, both in Cúcuta and Bogotá, said their foreign minister María Ángela Holguín Cuéllar is sympathetic to leftists like Nicolás Maduro, so she is inclined to cover up something that might cause friction on the international arena. The border town of Cúcuta is certainly a cauldron, and others in the Santos administration are more concerned.
By now it is commonly known that Venezuela’s Maduro regime uses hunger for political control: the military enriches itself in the corrupt scheme of food distribution, and gives food only to those who pledge fealty to the brutal regime.
Lately, though, Maduro has had another fun trick that does not amuse the Colombians: letting the Marxist National Liberation Army or ELN – Colombia’s #2 terrorist group – distribute the food boxes in the areas they control on the Venezuelan side of the border. Besides the printed flag and the images of Maduro and Chávez, the ELN add their own sticker, encouraging recipients to tune to their radio station and rise up for the liberation of Colombia. No wonder the ELN is not coming to the peace-negotiating table the way the FARC did: they have recruitment and funding for a cross-border insurgency, courtesy of the imploding narcoregime next door.
Some Colombians I spoke to in both cities see a darker conspiracy: they think Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos is too soft on the FARC, who are expected to win many congressional seats in next month’s elections. Cocaine production has skyrocketed since the FARC peace deal. The Colombians I spent time with, in Cúcuta and Bogotá, are all right-wingers, unsympathetic to the FARC, ELN and Venezuela’s Chavistas. Theirs now is the sum of all fears: that mass migration will bring a destabilizing population that will strain resources and be rejected by the Colombian government and locals, and become fertile recruiting ground for various insurgent groups (who are already fed by cross-border drug trafficking) and establish little ‘rat trails’ of Venezuelan regime bad actors coming across with the exodus. They already are. Some of the motorcycle gang proxy forces (called ‘colectivos’) that murdered protesters this past summer have crossed through Cúcuta in search of greater prosperity.
After Cúcuta, I spent two days in Bogotá with a new diaspora-led opposition group, started by Venezuelan civil society groups in Colombia attending to the Venezuelan refugees: Gran Acuerdo Venezuela. The group has spawned and grown to encompass Venezuelan institutions recognized by the international community, including the Supreme Court in exile at the OAS (which I wrote about in The Cipher Brief last September), persecuted opposition leaders such as Freddy Guevara, and activist diaspora groups in Spain, Peru, the US.
The diaspora has activated because main opposition groups inside Venezuela are “kidnapped” by the regime, either through blackmail or money. I believe the only ones who are not are Soy Venezuela, led by my cousin, Maria Corina Machado.
Right-wing (pro-U.S.) Colombians are terrified their country could become another Venezuela. Not only is their government sending troops to the border; Colombia’s finance minister said in a recent interview that he has now contacted international financiers and proposed a $60 billion rescue package for Venezuela if Maduro leaves power.
Colombia is no doubt hoping that will be the tipping point for an uprising from within Venezuela to save itself. They understand that, like Syria, the exodus won’t stop until the either the country is empty or the crisis that is the root cause, ends. Then maybe expats and the foreign investors can help in the reconstruction under the rule-of-law framework Gran Acuerdo Venezuela are advocating. A return to peace and prosperity in the country next to the Panama Canal and with the world’s greatest natural resources would be a win for everyone. For support, the region is turning my other compatriots, the Americans.
Dr. Vanessa Neumann is president of the DC-based political risk consultancy Asymmetrica and is the author of ‘Blood Profits: How American Consumers Unwittingly Fund Terrorists,’ now available throughout the Five Eyes and soon in Latin America, the Middle East and the Philippines. She is a dual citizen of the US and Venezuela.