Andres Oppenheimer

Venezuela’s exodus is just starting — millions more may seek refuge abroad in coming months

People wait next to a wall with graffiti reading “Hunger” in Caracas on July 23, 2018.  The financial and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela has resulted in a mass exodus from the country.
People wait next to a wall with graffiti reading “Hunger” in Caracas on July 23, 2018. The financial and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela has resulted in a mass exodus from the country. AFP/Getty Images

When I interviewed the director of Colombia’s migration office about the estimated 1 million Venezuelan refugees who have flooded his country in recent years, he told me that he expects the number of exiles moving to his and other Latin American countries to double over the next year.

I was stunned. I asked Christian Kruger, the director of the Colombia’s Migration Office.

“Unfortunately, yes,” Kruger responded. If Venezuela’s economic collapse continues, as seems likely, “We estimate that the number of Venezuelans who will have moved to Colombia will not be 1 million, but 2 million over the next 12 months. And the same may happen in Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, Chile and other countries.”

The Venezuelan exodus is growing every day, Kruger said. An estimated 45,000 Venezuelans cross the Colombian border daily, most of them to get essential food and medicine that they cannot get at home. Of those, about 40,000 return to Venezuela, up to 2,000 remain in Colombia and an estimated 3,000 continue their journey to Ecuador, Peru and other South American countries, he said.

Skeptics may think that Colombia is overstating the magnitude of the Venezuelan exodus. After all, it’s getting most of Venezuelan refugees and is seeking international help to cope with the flood of migrants.

But when I asked United Nations refugee officials, they gave me similar answer.

Isabel Marquez, a spokeswoman for the Geneva-based United Nations Refugee Agency, says that, “We’re seeing a quite significant and gradual increase” of Venezuelan refugees. An estimated 2.3 million Venezuelans have left their country since populist demagogue Hugo Chávez took office in 1999, including 1.5 million over the past three years, according to the U.N. agency’s figures.

“We really don’t see any indication that this is going to slow down,” Marquez said. “In the context of Latin America, this is a crisis without any precedent in the region.”

Shamefully, while Latin American countries are taking hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan refugees, the United States is denying many Venezuelans asylum petitions and deporting some of them.

While President Trump criticizes Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro, and Vice President Pence has demanded Latin American countries to “do more” about the oppression in Venezuela, the U.S. administration has deported at least 150 Venezuelans in fiscal year 2018, according to a McClatchy report in April. That’s a significant increase from previous years, immigration lawyers say.

Not surprisingly, Trump administration officials don’t want to talk about this. Whenever I call them about Venezuela, they are happy to speak on the record about Maduro’s human-rights abuses, but they refuse to be quoted about the administration’s deportation policy. Clearly, they don’t want this ugly fact to be known.

But setting aside the Trump administration’s hypocrisy about Venezuela — asking poorer nations to do more to help Venezuelans, while shutting America’s doors to them — there should be a regional discussion on how to manage the likely increase of Venezuelan refugees.

Ecuador has called a meeting of 13 Latin American countries’ foreign ministers on Sept. 17 to discuss regional remedies to the Venezuelan refugee crisis. Among other things, they are expected to consider creating a registry of Venezuelan refugees, so that the migrants can be directed to countries or regions where their respective skills are most needed.

But, ultimately, this human tragedy will only be reversed if Venezuela’s dictatorship makes a 180-degree change in its economic policies or allows a restoration of democracy that would bring back investments and resurrect the economy.

Barring that, Venezuela’s exodus will increase substantially, because the Maduro regime will continue with its deliberate policy of expelling millions of Venezuelans who are the most angry about their country’s economic disaster. Maduro will be able to easily control the remaining population of impoverished people with government food subsidies.

Venezuela is undergoing an “express” version of what Cuba has done over six decades: “political cleansing” by forcing large numbers of government critics — or potential critics — to flee abroad. Kruger may be right: What’s coming may be a stampede.

Watch the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show Sundays at 8 p.m. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera