Washington, May 6: The recent escalation in the confrontation between the Nicolás Maduro regime and Venezuela’s pro-democracy forces has demonstrated the absolute desperation of a population reduced to abject poverty. A Monday report in the Washington Examiner by Scott Mastic, vice-president for Programmes at the International Republican Institute, narrated the story of Gladys (not her real name) who he met with her two sons at a casa de paso, a short-term shelter run by the Archdiocese of Bogotá, Colombia.
Here goes the story:
Gladys’ four-year-old is a ball of energy, charming and silly. He introduces himself and his little brother and shows me around the large room they share with half a dozen other families from Venezuela. He shows me where he and his brother sleep and jumps from bed to bed, telling me the names of those who sleep in each and where in Venezuela they come from.Gladys and her family left Caracas a few weeks ago, wearing out their shoes on the 300-odd miles from the Venezuelan border. I ask her about why she left Venezuela: “One has nothing. Nothing to eat. Nothing to wear. Everything is horrible.”
Venezuela was once the richest country in Latin America and a haven for Colombians fleeing violence in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, the roles have reversed: Venezuelan migrants are pouring out of the country into Colombia in search of the most basic necessities. According to the United Nations, nearly 3 million Venezuelans have fled their country, and it is estimated that the number will double by 2021. While the Maduro regime continues to block essential humanitarian assistance from entering the country, the Colombian Government and numerous faith-based groups are feeding Venezuelans, accommodating them in halfway houses, sending Venezuelan children to Colombian schools, and providing them with medical treatment.
It is not just people crossing the porous border between the two countries. Coca production and narcotics transport is on the rise, and drug use is increasingly afflicting Colombian youth. Black market currency, gasoline trading, human trafficking, and diseases including measles, diphtheria, and malaria are also pouring into Colombia as a result of Venezuela’s breakdown. The strain of these efforts on Colombia’s limited resources is becoming increasingly evident. In meetings with government officials in Bogotá, I was told that as many as 130,000 Venezuelan kids are now attending Colombian schools. In Bogotá alone, an estimated 18,000 Venezuelans have used the hospitals and have accessed around 600,000 health services.
While the costs associated with these services are funded by the national government, the reimbursement process is slow, increasing the strain on scarce local resources. It's threatening to undermine social cohesion and cause wider political disruptions within Colombia that destabilize that country’s democratic progress. With the crisis showing no signs of abating, Colombia and its neighbors in both North and South America must unite to strengthen the country’s ability to cope with these unprecedented pressures. In addition to the vast humanitarian needs that must be addressed as part of an ongoing regional partnership, Colombia’s neighbors — and the US in particular — should be sharing expertise to help the government better cope with these strains and inoculate their own democracy against the destabilizing effects of the crisis.
The absence of strategic discussions about how to cope with the long-term fallout of this crisis by Colombia’s leaders in government, civil society, and the private sector is worrying. For example, as poor coordination between Colombia’s national and local governments impedes effective management of the crisis, local communities may feel increasingly detached from their representatives in both the local and national governments. Lawmakers must stand ready to address the inevitable unintended consequences of this influx of refugees, including potential health crises, an uptick in crime, and the potential for resentments to develop between migrant communities and Colombians. Such long-term challenges may not make headlines, but they pose serious risks for Colombia’s democracy.
While some of these problems can be addressed through increased bandwidth and resources, improved communication between government, civil society, and ordinary citizens is crucial. The US in particular is well-placed to help our allies in Colombia look beyond the humanitarian efforts to prepare for the long-term effects of this crisis. This includes helping Bogotá to develop policy responses, equipping local governments with the tools to manage the long-term burden on public services, and assisting in efforts to bridge the gap between the capital and the territories most affected by issues like migration, so that national politicians can better respond to the issues affecting the entire country.
This is not only the right thing to do — it is the strategically prudent thing to do. With our own migrant crisis at our southern border, the US can ill afford further regional destabilisation. We would suffer if one of our key allies in the region succumbs to economic and political dislocation. The heartbreaking journey of Gladys and so many like her shows us the very human costs of the Maduro regime’s disastrous policies. Just as the US continues to stand with the Venezuelan people in their struggle to restore democracy, it is vital that we help the Colombians strengthen their governmental capacity to cope with these challenges so that their hard-won democratic gains are not reversed. (UNI)