The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Venezuela’s refugee exodus is the biggest crisis in the hemisphere

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A 7.3-magnitude earthquake shook the northern coast of Venezuela on Tuesday night, knocking items off supermarket shelves and causing tremors as far away as Bogota, the Colombian capital. Authorities reported no casualties.

But amid economic devastation and political havoc, the country is still feeling many other shocks. A popular satirical website tweeted that the earthquake was the result of a tectonic plate trying to flee Venezuela — a dark joke gesturing to the thousands of Venezuelans seeking to escape the country every day.

According to U.N. figures, some 2.3 million Venezuelans — about 7 percent of the population — have left their homeland over the past couple of years. Other estimates place the number at closer to 4 million.

The exodus is the consequence of severe economic deprivation and mounting desperation among Venezuelans. The country’s economy has shrunk by half in just five years, and inflation is nearing a staggering 1 million percent. Shortages of food and medicine have led to a crisis in public health, with once-vanquished diseases such as diphtheria and measles returning and the rate of infant mortality rising sharply. U.N. officials claim that some 1.3 million Venezuelans who left the country were “suffering from malnourishment.”

The vast scope of the crisis has drawn bleak parallels. “Comparisons with Syria’s refugee crisis — the worst man-made disaster since the second world war, with almost 6 million refugees out of a prewar population of 20 million — may be inexact,” noted an editorial in the Financial Times. “In terms of scale and raw numbers, however, they no longer seem entirely far-fetched.”

The stream of refugees is straining Venezuela’s neighbors as well. Over the weekend, violence broke out in the northern Brazilian town of Pacaraima between Venezuelan migrants and local mobs, which burned a number of squalid migrant encampments. But neither the anger of locals, who resent the burden of refugees in an already-impoverished part of the country, nor a beefed-up military presence on the border stopped hundreds more Venezuelans from crossing into Brazil every day this week.

While the bulk of the refugees have crossed into Colombia, many are moving on from there to other countries, including Ecuador, Peru and Chile. Peruvian officials say 20,000 Venezuelans arrived there last week. On Sunday, authorities in Ecuador closed border crossings with Colombia to Venezuelans who do not have passports. Many poor Venezuelans do not have passports, which are increasingly difficult to obtain.

Dylan Baddour, reporting on the crisis for The Washington Post, encountered members of one family stranded at the Ecuadorian border who had sold their TVs, household appliances, a computer and a motorbike to finance their escape. It took that money plus scraped-together loans from relatives to buy bus tickets from Venezuela to Lima, the Peruvian capital. Now their attempt to find a semblance of a normal life was being cut short.

“Imagine people like us who have sold everything, down to our beds, to come here, and they close the door on us,” said Jonnayker Lien, 18, standing alongside his relatives. “We don’t know where to sleep, and we don’t have money to go back.”

On Wednesday, Ecuadorian officials called for an emergency regional summit so Venezuela and its neighbors can collectively reckon with the crisis. “The capacity of the region is overwhelmed,” said Yukiko Iriyama, a representative in Colombia for the U.N. refu­gee agency. “The magnitude of the situation really requires a regional comprehensive approach."

In Venezuela, blame falls on President Nicolás Maduro, whose government, through widespread graft and incompetence, transformed what was once one of the region’s richest nations into a humanitarian calamity.

Maduro himself points the finger at “imperialist” foes abroad seeking to reverse the country’s “Bolivarian revolution” begun by Hugo Chávez, Maduro’s predecessor as president. Over the past week, Maduro’s government has tried to address the economic meltdown by devaluing the bolivar, Venezuelan’s currency, by some 90 percent and tethering it to a new, invented cryptocurrency called the petro. It didn’t seem to help. “With economists saying the new economic measures could make a bad situation even worse, people rushed to supermarkets and gasoline stations to stock up on necessities, while some business owners considered closing for good,” my colleagues Rachelle Krygier and Anthony Faiola reported.

Despite heated protests and challenges to his rule, Maduro remains firmly in power. And while countries in the region are trying to mitigate the crisis, “none of them have taken the initiative to provide a sustainable solution to the problem,” wrote Dany Bahar of the Brookings Institution. “It is up to the United Nations, together with the Organization of American States, to step up and recognize this problem as a refugee crisis so that the world can turn the proper attention to it and provide solutions.”

The Trump administration, meanwhile, has loudly condemned the Maduro government and slapped sanctions on some of its leading officials. But at a time when White House officials are seeking to suspend refugee flows to the United States, they are hardly taking the lead on dealing with a hemispheric refugee crisis.

The humanitarian plight of Venezuelans rarely gets any real attention in the United States. The country is more often invoked by conservatives as a cautionary tale about the supposed perils of socialism, a parable they hope will scare U.S. voters away from left-wing Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections.

In an op-ed in The Post, Venezuelan commentator and vehement Maduro critic Francisco Toro rejected this line of argument, pointing to the near-ubiquitous adoption of socialist policies across Latin America by various governments at various times in history. Nothing in these instances suggested the tragedy in Venezuela was inevitable.

“All Venezuela demonstrates is that if you leave implementation to the very worst, most anti-intellectual, callous, authoritarian and criminal people in society, socialism can have genuinely horrendous consequences. But couldn’t the same be said of every ideology?” Toro asked, before concluding: “It’s a question that supporters of the current U.S. administration would do well to ponder.”

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