How the Catholic Church is responding to Venezuela’s refugee crisis
The city of Cúcuta, Colombia, lies on the western bank of the Tachira River, the present-day border between Colombia and Venezuela. It was here, in 1813, that Simón Bolívar won his first major victory against the Spanish in the wars that secured most of South America’s independence. After the victory, Bolívar crossed the Tachira Rivera and began the liberation of Venezuela, the land of his birth.
Since 2015, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have traversed the Tachira River in the other direction, fleeing economic and political turmoil in their home country. Some will cross back after earning Colombian pesos to spend in their home country. The Venezuelan bolívar, the currency named for the great liberator, is essentially worthless. Handbags made of stitched-together bolivares are sold on the streets of Cúcuta. Obtaining foreign currency is the only way many can afford to feed their families. While traffic on the bridge is heavy in both directions every day, more and more Venezuelans are leaving for good, escaping a society in free fall.
“In Venezuela, one cannot get rice anymore,” said an indigenous man I met in Cúcuta after he fled Venezuela. “In Venezuela, everything is expensive. In Venezuela, when the children get sick and you take them to the hospitals, there is no medicine. That’s why we’re here” in Colombia. As South America’s refugee crisis deepens, attitudes toward Venezuelans are hardening across the continent. In Brazil, local governments have attempted to close the border with Venezuela. In August 2018, xenophobic attacks upon Venezuelan refugees and their makeshift dwellings prompted the deployment of Brazilian troops. In Chile, new visa rules require Venezuelans to apply for refugee status from within Venezuela, where the asylum process has essentially come to a halt. Meanwhile, Ecuador and Peru have closed their borders to Venezuelans without passports, which are extremely difficult to secure from the Venezuelan government. And in Venezuela itself, the crisis has reached a boiling point, with two rival claims to the presidency threatening to throw the country into outright violence.
But it is Colombia that is bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, over one million Venezuelans had arrived in Colombia as of May 2018. Colombia is not a rich country and is only beginning to emerge from its own decades-long internal conflict between the government and guerilla forces. There are over seven million internally displaced people living in Colombia—individuals forced to flee their homes because of persecution or violence. And in some regions of the country, the fighting continues between the military and various leftist groups, which also fight one another. The integration of almost one million Venezuelan refugees represents a monumental challenge for Colombia, one that threatens an already fragile social order.
Helping to bear the burden of receiving thousands of Venezuelan refugees every day is the Catholic Church. The church has exerted a powerful influence in the region since the colonial era and was instrumental in negotiating the 2016 peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC, the largest of the many leftist guerrilla groups that have been at war with the Colombian government for the past five decades. J.R.S. Latin America and the Caribbean, a division of Jesuit Refugee Service, has been active in the region since the early 1980s and conducts crucial work both in Colombia and in Venezuela. Now they are on the front lines of the largest refugee crisis in Latin America’s history.
Over the past three decades, tens of thousands of Colombians have settled in Venezuela, escaping the intractable civil conflict in their home country. Marcelo Pérez is one of them. A Colombian refugee who has lived in Venezuela for the past 17 years, Mr. Pérez still describes Venezuela as “the land of opportunity.” Nevertheless, Mr. Pérez conceded “the situation here [in Venezuela] is tight; it’s not a secret.”
A Venezuelan refugee carrying a Venezuelan flag and her child cross the Simón Bolívar bridge between Venezuela and Colombia, past Colombian Army soldiers. J.R.S. photo by George Castellanos.
But Mr. Pérez feels that he will be able to weather the storm, saying in an interview with J.R.S. representatives that “for us Colombians, wherever we go we don’t stand around; we do our best to get ahead.”
The Venezuelan government takes a dimmer view of its Colombian refugee population. Venezuela’s economic problems became acute in 2015, when a collapse in the price of oil rattled an economy already weakened by severe fiscal mismanagement. Colombian refugees proved to be an easy scapegoat. “August 2015 was the big turning point [in Cúcuta], when the Venezuelan government deported and forcibly repatriated more than 22,000 Colombians residing in Venezuela, along with their families,” said Oscar Calderón, the J.R.S. coordinator in the state of Norte-de-Santander, which covers Cúcuta and much of the Venezuelan border region. “From then till 2016 it was mostly a dynamic of Colombians returning from Venezuela.”
J.R.S. in Cúcuta scrambled to meet this first wave of displaced people from Venezuela, but the worst was yet to come. According to Mr. Calderón, 2016 was the fateful turning point, when Venezuelans began to flee. “This is a highly complex migration,” he said. “There are people who flee from direct threats to their lives, others who flee seeking medication, mixed Colombian-Venezuelan families.” But arriving in Colombia is no guarantee of safety or stability. The Tachira River marks “a very violent borderland,” contested by guerrilla groups and drug cartels, a region scarred by poverty and resentment. This is the world in which those who fled Venezuela must now somehow rebuild their lives.
Once upon a time, Venezuela and Colombia were meant to be one country. That was Simón Bolívar’s dream; the state of “Gran Colombia” encompassed all of present-day Colombia, Venezuela, Panama and Ecuador, in addition to portions of Guyana, Brazil and Peru, until it broke apart by the early 1830s. Not far from the Simón Bolívar Bridge lie the ruins of a Catholic church that was destroyed by an earthquake in 1875. It was in this church that the original Colombian constitution was signed in 1821.
Today, the bridge is the main entry point for Venezuelan refugees. On the Colombian side is a chaotic bus terminal and market known simply as la parada (“the stop” or “the station”). Venezuelans of all ages and backgrounds sit in the shade of trees with their backpacks and suitcases pondering their next step. All around them are street vendors, scam artists, bus ticket peddlers, aid workers and Colombian police and military—all trying to impose some order on the chaos or to find a way to profit from the new arrivals. Large billboards advertise bus lines and fares to get to places like Bogotá, Lima or Santiago, the most common destinations for the Venezuelan refugees who do not intend to return home.
Colombian authorities appear to be as mystified about what to do with the sudden influx of refugees as the Venezuelans are about what they will do next.
At la parada there is a food kitchen run by the Diocese of Cúcuta. Every day over 1,000 Venezuelans are fed here—and 100 or more must be turned away. Prioritizing women and children and often faced with desperate men attempting to get in, the church volunteers and a priest do their best to uphold both a semblance of order and the dignity of the refugees they serve. It is a challenging task. Volunteers more than once have had to close the gate to the food kitchen as those outside banged on the door. On the day I visited, a group of Venezuelans alleged the Colombian police had set fire to their belongings. J.R.S. staff told me this is a common occurrence.
Nevertheless, the Venezuelan population of Cúcuta keeps growing, as few can afford to travel any farther. All over Cúcuta, Venezuelans are living on the street, in impromptu shanty towns on the outskirts of the city or in church and government shelters already filled past capacity. Colombian authorities appear to be as mystified about what to do with the sudden influx of refugees as the Venezuelans are about what they will do next.
Venezuelan migrants line up for a meal provided by the Diocese of Cucuta near la Parada. Photo by Antonio De Loera-Brust
This situation is exacerbating existing problems in Cúcuta. For Mr. Calderón, it represents a challenge to the mission of J.R.S.: “How do we build hospitality when border communities are suffering poverty, abandonment, injustice? The systemic failure of the Colombian state to integrate migrants has made them live in the poorest regions of Colombia, forcing them to compete with Colombians for the bare minimum.”
A particularly tragic example of the conflict among people living in poverty stems from the sudden influx of Venezuelan women working as prostitutes in Cúcuta. Colombian currency is a lifeline for Venezuelan families (a single Colombian peso is worth 70 Venezuelan bolivars), and according to J.R.S. workers, many Venezuelan women and girls are turning to sex work as the quickest way to earn cash. This, in turn, has driven down the wages of established Colombian sex workers and created severe social tensions and even violence between Colombian prostitutes and Venezuelan prostitutes.
Women and Children
All sectors of Venezuelan society are represented among the refugees. Those who can afford to do so have already settled in places like Madrid or Miami; the daily flows of refugees in Cúcuta represent the less fortunate, especially the poor and members of the now vanished middle class. Indigenous groups face particularly strong discrimination from Colombian authorities, despite often belonging to tribes whose historic homelands straddle the Colombian-Venezuelan border.
Amid the crisis, there is one group that stands out: pregnant women. No other group of refugees seems to be as overrepresented or as vulnerable. Pregnant women or mothers with newborns are everywhere in Cúcuta. “Both the public and private health care system in Venezuela [are] nearly to the point of collapse,” said Mr. Calderón. According to J.R.S. workers, many Venezuelan hospitals are no longer able to perform c-sections, and pregnant Venezuelans are at risk of malnutrition because of the country’s food shortage.
“The money just wasn’t enough. No breakfast, no dinner. Parents leave. In Venezuela, it’s all grandparents and children now.”
Jesuit Refugee Service pays for an ultrasound examination for every pregnant Venezuelan woman they identify. It is almost always the first ultrasound the mother has ever received. Sometimes it comes too late. One J.R.S. worker spoke of a Venezuelan refugee whose ultrasound revealed her child had been dead inside her for almost a month because of malnutrition. The woman refused to believe it and returned to Venezuela, carrying her dead child inside her.
J.R.S. continues to check up on Venezuelan women around Cúcuta, conducting postnatal visits to collect information and help secure basic necessities for the mothers and newborn babies. One of those mothers is Jenny, a 25-year-old Venezuelan woman who recently gave birth in Colombia. Jenny left behind two sons in Venezuela, a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old, and came to Colombia in search of a way to send money home. “I couldn’t get food,” she told me. “No matter how hard the father and I worked, the money just wasn’t enough. No breakfast, no dinner. Parents leave [for Colombia]. In Venezuela, it’s all grandparents and children now.”
Jenny left two children behind in Venezuela when she came to Colombia to work, selling her small plot of land to pay for the passage. But when she became pregnant in Colombia, Jenny knew that for the sake of the baby she could not return to Venezuela. “In Venezuela, there’s nothing,” she said. “To get care in a hospital, one needs to buy everything. You need to buy the gloves; if necessary you even need to buy the needles.... Lots of people have died due to lack of medical attention.”
Jenny holds her newborn on her bed in the Scalabrini-run migrant shelter in Cucuta. Photo by Antonio De Loera-Brust
Jenny is staying at the Scalabrini shelter in Cúcuta, which has become a hub for Venezuelan migrant mothers and their children. The shelter is one of many across the Americas run by the order of Scalabrini priests, who were founded in 1887 to assist Italian immigrants in the United States and Brazil. “Migrating isn’t anything easy. The Colombians do help. Not all of them are bad; just like Venezuelans, there are good and bad [among everyone],” Jenny said. She has little hope, however, that the situation in Venezuela will improve under the current regime. But for now, Jenny has her eyes fixed only on the future. She is unsure whether she should return to Venezuela with her newborn or bring her two older children to Colombia. “Some women who stay here start to cry, saying this is terrible, that they want to go back,” she said. “But others say, no, go forward, never backward. Don’t even think about going back across the border.”
It is hard to overstate the totality of the societal collapse in Venezuela. Basic necessities like food and medicine are devastatingly scarce. The economic collapse has fueled a violent crime rate that is among the highest in the world. According to the United Nations’ refugee agency, as of November 2018, the number of Venezuelans who have fled has now surpassed three million.
None of this was supposed to happen. Venezuela, home to some of the world’s largest petroleum reserves, was once one of the richest countries in Latin America, with a gross domestic product far above its neighbors. But in 1998, decades of severe inequality and political corruption led Venezuelans to democratically elect Hugo Chávez, a former army officer who had been jailed for participating in a failed coup in 1992. Calling his movement “Bolívarian,” after Simón Bolívar, President Chávez promised all Venezuelans would share in the nation’s wealth and overcame fierce opposition from the established political order and the business class, including an attempted coup against him in 2002. Mr. Chávez consolidated power and redistributed the wealth produced by Venezuela’s state-run oil company to the poor in the form of social services. This earned him popular support even as he weakened democratic institutions and repressed his political opponents, whom he painted as proxies for the United States.
It is hard to overstate the totality of the societal collapse in Venezuela.
By the time of his death from cancer in March 2013, President Chávez’s 14 years in power had left Venezuela’s constitutional system hollowed out and the economy dangerously dependent on its poorly managed oil sector. Mr. Chávez’s appointed successor, Nicolás Maduro, continued the consolidation of political power, even as the economic warning signs grew. In 2014 the Venezuelan government responded violently to a wave of student protests driven by high inflation and food shortages. Soon after, the price of oil collapsed, taking a good portion of Venezuela’s G.D.P. with it.
As economic conditions inside Venezuela worsen, the government is becoming increasingly repressive. Freedom House, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented increasing repression and human rights abuses year after year. After the disputed presidential election in 2018 saw Mr. Maduro returned to power, the Organization of American States passed a resolution calling for Venezuela’s membership to be suspended, indicating Venezuela’s government is increasingly isolated not just from the United States but from its fellow Latin American states.
While the Maduro government has long defied predictions of its imminent collapse, dramatic developments in January 2019 indicate the regime’s time could be running out. After mounting protests, Juan Guaido, the 35-year-old president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, declared himself the interim president of Venezuela “until free and transparent elections take place.” Mr. Guaido quickly gained recognition as the legitimate head of state from the United States, most of the European Union, Colombia and many other Latin American nations. Nicolás Maduro, however, still has the support of the military.
While the Maduro government has long defied predictions of its imminent collapse, dramatic developments in 2019 indicate the regime’s time could be running out.
“We hope God takes control of this, that Venezuela returns to a normal government,” said one Venezuelan refugee, who wished to remain anonymous. He had been forced to flee Venezuela after blowing the whistle on the Venezuelan military for selling food on the black market. “We have faith in God, that this government, sooner or later, will fall. We can’t be afraid of being imprisoned or tortured or killed. We want to return to our country someday, the place that saw us born, to be with our families.”
Peace, No Justice?
If Venezuela is a once-prosperous country facing ruin, Colombia is showing signs of finally turning the page after being one of the most violent countries in the world. In 2015 the historic Colombian peace accords between the government of Colombia and the FARC represented the most hopeful development in the South American country after decades of war. Pope Francis welcomed the Havana accords and kept a promise to visit Colombia once a peace deal was reached. But after decades of war, peace can feel like an injustice for many Colombians. Some felt the deal offered clemency to leftist guerrillas responsible for decades of atrocities. Others felt the deal did not address the war crimes committed by the government-aligned right-wing paramilitary groups.
The disarmament process has also created a power vacuum, especially in the Catatumbo region of northeast Colombia near the Venezuelan border. The FARC was only the largest of the leftist guerrilla groups. In the FARC’s absence, both the Ejército de Liberación Nacional and the Ejército Popular de la Liberación continue to fight against the government, as well as each other, for control over drug-trafficking turf.
Colombia is showing signs of finally turning the page after being one of the most violent countries in the world.
To prop up the peace process in the region, J.R.S. focuses on eliminating the cultivation of coca in order to break the cycle of violence associated with the drug trade. J.R.S. has also resettled thousands of Colombian internally displaced persons within Cúcuta, in particular, those who face threats of violence or reprisal from guerilla or paramilitary factions.
Not too far from the hilltop where Simón Bolívar won his famous victory, there lives a resettled I.D.P. family—a mother, a father and two children—from the Catatumbo, all of whom wished to remain to anonymous. The husband had been a motorcycle courier, taking packages from village to village along the treacherous jungle roads. His wife told me the story; the husband himself was so shaken he could not speak of the incident. One day, he was pressured into moving drugs. When he came upon a military roadblock, he discarded the drugs, drawing the ire of traffickers. Soon after he was threatened again and given a day to get out of the Catatumbo or risk being killed. It was the wife who roused the family, packed the bags and got in touch with contacts at the Diocese of Tibu, who got the family out. It is not this woman’s first time having to flee. She had fled her home village years before, after her brothers were killed by guerillas—or perhaps paramilitaries. “No one really knows who kills whom,” she said matter of factly.
The most striking legacy of Colombia’s multisided internal conflict is mixed families. After massacres, survivors of different families will pair up and form a new family. A man who has lost his wife will take as a new wife the woman who lost her husband. Children who were orphaned will be taken in by families whose own children were killed. So the bonds of community are preserved even in the harshest of circumstances.
An Uncertain Future
The tensions of the Colombian conflict were on everyone’s mind going into the presidential election on June 17, 2018. The elections pitted Ivan Duque, a Georgetown University-educated hardline opponent of the 2016 peace deal, against Gustavo Petro, a leftist and environmentalist who was briefly a guerrilla himself. In many ways, the fact the Colombian conflict was being settled at the ballot box and not with bullets was itself an enormously positive sign of how far Colombia has come.
Yet political developments since the election may bode ill for the hard-won peace process. Mr. Duque, who labeled the peace deal with the FARC “a monument to impunity,” won in a landslide. His victory is widely seen as a mandate for a tougher line on guerrilla groups. In the Catatumbo, many viewed his election with dread. “The peace will be over,” worried one former coca farmer. In January 2019, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pledged U.S. support for new Colombian eradication efforts, seeking to curtail coca production by 50 percent by 2023.
President Duque also played on the fears among voters that what happened in Venezuela could happen in Colombia, labeling his left-wing opponent a socialist. Indeed, some Venezuelan refugees expressed their support for Mr. Duque during the campaign, hoping he will lead efforts to drive President Maduro from power. But it is possible that Mr. Duque will also implement harsher measures to stem the flow of Venezuelans into Colombia. In Cúcuta, where anti-refugee sentiment runs high, Mr. Duque won almost 80 percent of the vote amid high turnout.
Much of Latin America is closing its doors, ending a long tradition of relatively open borders on the continent.
But for now, Colombia is still the destination for an increasing number of Venezuelans. Much of the rest of Latin America is closing its doors, ending a long tradition of relatively open borders on the continent. The election of the far-right congressman Jair Bolsonaro, labeled the “Brazilian Trump,” as the president of Brazil will likely dramatically increase the migratory pressure on Colombia.
In Venezuela, should Maduro respond with force to what his government has labeled “a coup,” President Trump has stated “all options are on the table,” continuing military threats against Venezuela that go back to 2017. U.S. national security experts, however, have argued such an intervention could be a disaster, more likely to resemble the decade-long occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan than the speedy invasions of Grenada or Panama. In all likelihood, an armed conflict would only worsen the refugee crisis.
Nevertheless, some Venezuelan refugees would welcome military action, seeing anything as preferable to the current situation. “I have my family there; it hurts to say this...but let the gringos come and invade my country, and take him [Maduro] out in one punch,” one Venezuelan refugee told me. “[Maduro] has said ‘rifle against rifle.’ He wants rifles? Let the gringos come and invade! If he wants lead, let them give him lead!”
The one thing the United States could do to dramatically improve the situation of Venezuelans would be to resettle them as refugees. Yet despite taking a hard line on the Maduro regime, the Trump administration has done little for Venezuelan refugees. Indeed, Venezuelans have been deported to Venezuela, even as the Trump administration condemns the Venezuelan government on human rights grounds. With the United States missing in action, there is no one coming to help Colombia bear the burden.
Bolívar’s memory continues to exert a powerful pull on the imagination of both countries.
“There doesn’t seem to be a bettering of the economic or political or social situation that will prevent people fleeing Venezuela,” says Mr. Calderón. “Instead what we see is that every time it’s people who are more vulnerable, who are poorer, who are arriving at the border.... Colombia’s system for refugees is too feeble [to accommodate them].”
From the small, ramshackle offices of J.R.S. in Cúcuta, Mr. Calderón surveys the continent: “Across Latin America, we are seeing various migrant movements, where we see so much human pain. That’s what we see in the streets of Cúcuta: people on the streets, with little food, at the mercy of discrimination and criminalization. At play here are very profound spiritual values about human dignity and about the protection of that dignity.”
Mr. Calderón, who has been in Cúcuta since 2010, longer than almost any other J.R.S. worker, does not come off as being remotely optimistic. At the same time, through his weariness, he never hints at giving up. “Colombia has to remember what countries in this region have represented for us in the past, as countries that welcomed our people. We have to make historical memory of that hospitality. We must not now be inferior to the challenge of history.”
Simón Bolívar’s dream of a united Colombia and Venezuela is surely part of that challenge. Bolívar’s memory continues to exert a powerful pull on the imagination of both countries. There is a reason Hugo Chávez claimed Bolívar’s name for his revolution. Perhaps there is still some feeling of siblinghood between Colombians and Venezuelans waiting to be rediscovered.