The humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, refugees and the pandemic
This is an updated version of an article originally published in March 2019
Even as late as mid into the 1990s, Venezuela was a significant economic powerhouse on the global level. Regionally, it was the “Germany of Latin America”. Many other Latinos tried to find a better life for themselves by escaping to Venezuela. A few decades later, many things have changed. In fact, the stream of escaping people now goes the opposite direction. Back in the 90s, nobody would ever believe that it would be even possible for things to end up the way they did. What are the odds of turning a very prosperous country into a humanitarian disaster without a war?
“If one million refugees in Europe is a “refugee crisis”, what should we call the situation of 5 million Venezuelan refugees in Latin America then?”
According to the United Nations, since 2015 the numbers of refugees fleeing Venezuela kept steadily rising to reach the staggering 5 million people. Some 1,7 million of them are thought to have arrived in Colombia but more than half ended up to be here without legal status. Others dispersed around the world, mostly in Latin America.
Let’s think about the numbers. 1,7 million refugees arriving in Colombia only. It’s a country of 50 million people with its own massive problems to address. For comparison, the biggest immigrant wave in the EU in 2015, have seen arriving over a million refugees, out of which 800 thousand ended up in Germany. That is less than 1/2 the number of Venezuelan refugees in Colombia. 1/2 amount of people arriving into a country of 83 million people, not to mention the fact that Germany is, with all due respect, much better off than Colombia.
This is not to downgrade the situation of the Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi refugees arriving in Europe, not at all. It’s not a competition who’s more screwed ): I am only stressing the numbers to point out the fact that the influx of refugees to the EU was internationally called a refugee crisis. So tell me then, if one million refugees in Europe is a “refugee crisis”, what should we call the situation of 5 million Venezuelan refugees in Latin America then?
In March 2019 I’ve crossed the border crossing between Ecuador and Colombia when I wrote the original version of this article. Back then, I’ve been crossing many borders on my trip around Latin Americas but this one was different. This one was heartbreaking. Seeing the number of Venezuelan people stranded there was actually hard to take.
Among other things such as the personal impact it had on me, it was also hard to accept the reality that even people from a country that is extremely wealthy when it comes to natural resources have to flee their homes because they have no other option. No food. No medical services. No access to drinking water. No safety. No future. Crossing the line.
It’s different when you read about refugees in the paper because it’s an article only, a distant reality – but seeing the tragedy with your own eyes – it’s truly heartbreaking. You see the ladies with shaved heads, as hair were often the last thing of value they’ve had to sell to get some money in order to feed their children, the desperate and powerless husbands, children wrapped in blankets.. these sights weren’t easy to digest ):
Why is Venezuela so screwed right now?
If I were to dive deep into a proper analysis here, it would involve a long text which would have to include the history of the whole region going back as far as the colonial period. From the more recent history, that analysis would have to describe the history of the USA’s interference and support overthrowing governments by various dictators in the region for which Mr Henry Kissinger got a Nobel Peace Price for some utterly bizarre reason.
Naturally, we would have to also analyse where the former left-wing populist President Hugo Chávez screwed up to start the economical downturn of the country but inevitably also where he actually helped to improve the lives of the poorest classes in Venezuela, which would bring us to the reasons why would many of them fight for the political movement he started.
Furthermore, we’d have to talk about how his successor Nicolás Maduro, AKA egocentric incompetent populist semi-dictator that ruined what was left of the standards many Venezuelans were used to. We’d have to look at how he twisted and corrupted the idea of what he calls socialism but what is in fact “the socialism for the chosen” because it’s done for his own personal gain at a great cost for Venezuelan people.
And finally, we’d have to look at the outside economic interests, especially when it comes to Venezuelan oil.
Such analysis would also have to question if the various sanctions imposed by some Western countries against the Venezuelan government hurt those for whom they are intended or if they only hurt ordinary Venezuelans, as for applying collective guilt, rather than targeting those who are responsible for the situation in the country.
We’d have to question if blocking the Venezuelan government’s bank accounts overseas prevented the possibility of importing such basic meds like for example insulin, which was btw invented exactly 100 years ago today so it isn’t exactly a new medicine that is hard to get…
And then we’d have to look at the demographics of where did the insulin shortage surfaced in real life. Do you think that we would find out that it hit a prominent diabetes patient from Maduro‘s family? Or was it an ordinary Venezuelan diabetes patient that suffered the lack of medicine?
But the thing is that at the end of the day, even the whole library of books analysing the current situation in Venezuela would not help those millions of people who were forced to flee their homes. What’s tragic is that it actually seems that at present, no one is currently really trying to help the ordinary people, if we don’t count the Red Cross and other NGOs.
But when it comes to politics, unless we take few political gestures of aid into consideration, no major political players really consider the actual people. All they are interested in is their own political agenda. And on a global scale, it somehow appears that the country’s rich oil reserves seem to be more important than its people.
What’s next for Venezuela?
In reality, at the moment there are only two options for Venezuela. On the first hand, there’s Maduro who’s obviously not capable of running the country, while he keeps making a fortune for himself with the help of his Chinese and Russian mates at the expense of his own people, while he blasts them with empty political slogans and broken promises.
On the other hand, there’s is Guaidó, the self-proclaimed president of the country, a person many Venezuelans believe is just a US puppet, who nearly brought the country into a civil war. In case you were interested to know more about the messy dispute about who is Venezuela’s legitimate president and what’s the take on it of the outside world, please click here to read Max Fisher‘s piece in NY Times.
But as I said, my point is not to talk about politics. My point is that none of the two leaders appears to really consider the consequences of their actions and their impact on the Venezuelan people. Because if they did, surely they would have to find a way how to act like a “men of their words”. Instead, they are both full of claims and promises, but when it comes to actions, none of these two “leaders” is willing to prioritise the people of Venezuela over their own egos and interests.
I mean, if it’s really true that they both want the best for their people, then why they have been ignoring the most obvious solution for years – or at least the first step towards it – which would be replacing the current dysfunctional government with a professional cross-party emergency government/committee until the next election and start working on some re-building plan. Because even if this shit ended tomorrow, it will take years, possibly generations to get over the consequences and scars created by today’s situation.
To be fair, the new US administration recently (March 2021) came out with a new initiative, where it offers to lift Venezuela sanctions for a power-sharing deal (read more here by Matt Spetalnick for Reuters) and although it appears to be the first semi-reasonable solution proposed, it’s still a long shot and we do not know what’s in it for whom. I mean, I don’t want to sound sceptical but would you bet your money that this proposal is 100% free of oil interest?
One way or another, at present, the situation remains to be a standoff of two rather inconsiderate power-hungry egocentric machos, both supported by different kinds of power interests, while their people continue being badly screwed. Well done humanity. Once again you’re proving what our lives are worth when it comes to power-hungry psychopaths and large oil reserves.
Pandemic and refugees
A little over two years have passed since I’ve crossed the Colombian border with Ecuador, where I’ve seen the heartbreaking images of Venezuelan refugees. As we all know, with the pandemic, many things have changed ever since, unfortunately mostly for the worse. While Covid-19 has dominated the lives of millions around the globe, the issues people faced before the pandemic didn’t just disappear. As you can imagine, things have turned from bad to even worse ):
For instance, among various measures to tackle this stupid pandemic were numerous lockdowns imposed by the governments. But how can you go into lockdown if you have nowhere to be? So on top of “what will I eat”, you now have a “where will I lockdown” issue to tackle. And make no mistake, Colombia has been hit rather hard with the pandemic, among the hardest in the region.
However, in March 2021, Colombian President Iván Duque surprised everyone by granting legal status to nearly a million undocumented Venezuelan refugees, which would among other things get them into the country’s vaccination programme. This is regarded as nearly a U-turn to his previous remarks from December 2020, when he declared that Colombia won’t be vaccinating the undocumented migrants in the country.
Regardless of Duque‘s intentions and general politics, this act brings at least some certainty into the lives of those nearly million undocumented migrants living in Colombia. Although it is far from fulfilling their dreams of returning back to their country, this is perhaps the first good news for nearly a million Venezuelan refugees in years.
As for the people of Colombia, in spite of the fact that this refugee crisis made their lives more difficult, have shown a huge amount of solidarity and compassion on many levels. I am not saying that things have been 100% peachy but overall, the general response of most Colombians has been amazing, considering such extraordinary circumstances.
Perhaps the people of Colombia remember their own family members going the other direction a few decades ago, to escape the bloody civil war they’ve been suffering for more than 1/2 of the century. Or perhaps they are just capable of demonstrating more compassion than various North American or European anti-immigration politicians and their supporters.
Featured image is the upside-down Venezuelan map/flag, originally by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay.