How generosity can help end Latin America’s biggest crisis

As Venezuela falls apart and triggers a mass exodus, Colombia extends a welcome to the refugees, perhaps encouraging international moves to end the crisis.

AP Photo
A woman carrying a baby crosses into Colombia from Venezuela through Simon Bolivar international bridge in San Antonio del Tachira, Venezuela, Aug. 3.

On an international scale, here is what generosity looks like – and what it can potentially do.

Just before he stepped down as Colombia’s president on Aug. 7, Juan Manuel Santos granted temporary residency permits to 440,000 refugees from Venezuela, doubling the number given in recent years. It was an act of solidarity with innocent people fleeing starvation, violence, and hyperinflation in their country. Since 2015, Colombia has been the largest receiver of Venezuelan refugees – more than 1 million.

The move sparked Mark Green, the head of foreign aid for the United States, to tweet: “The world owes Colombia a debt of gratitude for welcoming Venezuelans fleeing [the] Maduro regime.” Similar statements have come from United Nations officials. A few days later, the US, which itself is the largest humanitarian donor to the refugee crisis, decided to send a Navy hospital ship to Colombia to provide medical aid to the Venezuelans.

Yet the biggest impact of Colombia’s open-arms policy may be in Venezuela, where an estimated 7 to 12 percent of the population has so far left the country, a migration approaching the flows in Syria.

Perhaps embarrassed that neighboring Colombia was widening its welcome mat, President Nicolás Maduro announced Aug. 17 that he would try to solve the country’s economic crisis. He introduced a new currency that knocked five zeros off the value of the old one, hoping to curb an annual inflation rate estimated at 1 million percent. And he also promised to raise the minimum wage – by 34 times.

Venezuela used to be Latin America’s richest country. It also holds the world’s largest known petroleum reserves. Yet years of mismanagement, corruption, and clampdowns on dissent have left it a failed state. The country’s decline, especially in its democracy, really began to impact its neighbors this year with the flow of refugees. “The capacity of the region is overwhelmed,” says one UN official. Ecuador and Peru have started to restrict the entry of Venezuelans. Last week, Brazil sent its military to the border to quell local violence against the refugees.

Colombia’s generous response could be a result of the lessons it learned during its own crisis. During a half-century of civil war that ended in 2016, millions of Colombians were displaced. Part of the peace process includes generous compensation to the war’s victims. Helping Venezuelans may now seem like a natural extension of the compassion shown to its own people.

Efforts to help the refugees can be one way to encourage stronger international action toward restoring democracy in Venezuela. In particular, Colombia’s generosity will create hope for Venezuelans that they are not alone. It lays a moral groundwork for an eventual solution to the biggest crisis in Latin America.

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