By Olin Wethington
As the crisis in Venezuela lurches from bad to worse, the chaos unleashed by the country’s slow collapse is threatening to undermine the stability of the entire region—and neighboring Colombia in particular.
Colombia is bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis caused by Venezuela’s failing state, and the burden is stretching the country’s limited resources to the point where it may fall into crisis itself. This would be a particularly tragic development given the recent progress Colombia has made toward building a safer, more democratic country. In his recent inaugural address, Colombian President Iván Duque pledged to build a prosperous and secure country based on “a culture that respects the rule of law.” Hopes are high that Duque will further strengthen economic growth and democratic governance, foster justice in the further implementation of the 2016 peace agreement ending Colombia’s 50-year-plus civil war, and eliminate burgeoning coca production and narcotrafficking.
Duque’s approach stands in stark contrast with that of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, who presides over an authoritarian state where the population struggles to feed itself, inflation has skyrocketed to nearly 1 million percent, lawlessness and corruption are rampant, and the military is sustained by drug money.
Thus far, Colombia has managed to cope with the mounting economic and security challenges arising from Venezuela’s disintegration. Yet the regional fallout from Venezuela may soon become overwhelming.
While the bilateral relationship between the United States and Colombia is strong, this is a pivotal moment requiring even closer cooperation on issues of strategic importance.
The accelerating exodus of desperate Venezuelans into Colombia and other neighboring countries makes this a particularly stark crisis. The numbers are staggering. On a recent fact-finding mission to Cúcuta’s Simón Bolívar Bridge crossing at the Colombia-Venezuela border, I personally witnessed a steady stream averaging between 50 and 60 people per minute crossing the border during my visit. An estimated total of about 25,000 people crossed that day.
Cúcuta has seen a high of more than 60,000 people crossing in a single day. Between 20 and 30 percent of these people do not return to Venezuela—meaning that Colombia is absorbing around 5,000 to 7,500 migrants per day and 150,000 to 200,000 per month via the Cúcuta crossing alone. These numbers do not factor in several other official border crossings (though smaller than Cúcuta), as well as illegal border crossings, estimated to be between 3,000 and 10,000 per day—bringing the total to an estimated 200,000 to 250,000 per month, and if projected forward, an additional 1 million people by the end of this year.
Living conditions of refugees in the Colombian border region are bleak, with necessities such as housing, food, and medical care in short supply. The majority of refugees are women, children, and the elderly—among the most vulnerable to rising crime.
In addition to the tremendous humanitarian, logistical, and economic challenges posed by this massive influx of people, Colombia must also contend with the rise of criminal activities driven by the Venezuelan crisis, including drug trafficking, smuggling, profiteering, and prostitution. Economically desperate Venezuelans, many of whom are arriving with next to nothing, are doing what they can to survive.
Colombia has to date adopted a relatively open posture toward the inflow of Venezuelans, but the humanitarian assistance from Colombia itself, neighboring governments, private relief organizations, and the international community is insufficient and will become even more strained as the volume of displaced people mounts.
The international community is only now coming to grips with the enormity of this crisis. Earlier this month, 11 Latin American countries signed a joint declaration in Quito urging for a substantial increase in resources to address the migrant crisis. The Permanent Council of the Organization of American States convened to address the issue that same week.
These are positive steps forward, but the response remains embryonic. The international community must urgently formulate a robust and coordinated response that addresses the multiple dimensions of this challenge. This should extend not only to mobilizing international financial resources but also to coordinated and complementary immigration infrastructure and screening procedures, cooperative mapping of country needs and capabilities of governments and civil society, burden-sharing for migrant relocation, and intelligence- and information-sharing among affected countries.
More fundamentally, the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela will persist until Venezuela returns to democratic governance and the rule of law. Authoritarian measures such as the installation of a new legislative body to compete with the legitimately elected National Assembly and the continued imprisonment of opposition political figures have cemented Maduro’s status as a despot. He has lost all legitimacy and must let citizens decide the future of their own country through free competition at the ballot box.
Colombia has a compelling leadership role to play in bringing increased international pressures to bear for political change in Venezuela. The United States should enhance its own strategy of building concerted international pressure, including through targeted sanctions and international bodies such as the OAS.
Over the past two decades, the United States has supported Colombia through economic, diplomatic, and military assistance, particularly in combating drug trafficking and transnational crime. Continued strong support from the United States in this arena will be crucial to ensuring that Colombia is able to attack its narcosecurity issues, and the evidence indicates that Duque will be a strong partner in these efforts.
The United States has also helped Colombia strengthen its citizen-centered institutions. Continued partnership in fostering democratic governance will be crucial to achieving long-term stability for both Colombia and the wider region. U.S. government-supported efforts by democracy assistance organizations such as the International Republican Institute, where I am a board member, are an important component in this strategy, bringing decades of experience in strengthening governance practices at all levels.
U.S. engagement with Colombia to support its continued economic, security, and democratic development is vital. Colombia as a vibrant and prosperous democracy will mitigate against instability in the wider region and advance the interests of the United States and the entire hemisphere.
Olin Wethington is a member of the board of the International Republican Institute. He served in several senior positions under Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.