Venezuelan Migrants Are Returning Home, Forced to Choose Between Ruinous Socialism and Colombia's Pandemic Authoritarianism

Despite economic ruin in their native country, Venezuelans have no reason to stay in increasingly locked-down Colombia.


BOGOTA, COLOMBIA—In the midst of a pandemic, hitchhiking isn't a very good way to preserve social distancing and stop the spread of a killer virus. Yet thousands of Venezuelans are now trying to hitch rides along Colombia's roads and highways. 

The situation isn't new. For years, I have seen groups of young Venezuelansoften entire families carrying infants and heavy luggagetrekking on foot on the highway that leads from Tunja, a city some 95 miles northeast of Bogota's colonial city center, to the Colombian capital. 

The striking scenes regularly include makeshift, roadside camps for nighttime shelter from the Andean cold and collective washing sessions at gas station bathrooms. Venezuela's so-called "21st century socialists" created a 21st century Völkerwanderung, a mass migration movement comparable in scale to the large waves of people that rolled across Europe and the Mediterranean between the 4th and 6th centuries A.D., during the Western Roman Empire's decline and fall.

To speak of civilizational collapse isn't far-fetched. According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, the projected number of displaced Venezuelans6.5 million people, or as much as 19 percent of the country's total population according to another estimatecould soon surpass that of Syria, where civil war has unleashed a humanitarian calamity. 

As I wrote when I visited the Colombian border city of Cúcuta, an uninformed observer might think that the hundreds of Venezuelan evacuees sleeping in parks or pedestrian roundabouts were escaping war or natural disaster. They had actually escaped a man-made catastrophe known as socialism.

Seen from Colombia, the reversal of our neighboring country's fortune defies belief. I grew up in Bogota in the 1980s and early '90s and remember the regard for Venezuela as a land of opportunity almost akin to the United States. At school, Venezuelan candy was an exotic luxury. Older, well-heeled Venezuelans will still share fond memories of their Colombian nannies or gardeners. 

While the worst phase of the drug war devastated Colombia, hundreds of thousands of nationals migrated to Venezuela, which was still Latin America's richest nation in GDP per capita. In 1998, Colombia was under siege by the communist FARC guerrillas, who took over the drug trade and used its enormous proceeds to mount an offensive that left the country on the verge of becoming a failed state. Then, in December of that year, Venezuelans elected Hugo Chávez as their president. 

Since that time, Colombia has avoided Venezuela's fate and received nearly 1.5 million of its refugees. Colombia didn't attract large-scale immigration by becoming a free market outpost such as Hong Kong or Singapore; it simply managedbarelyto steer clear of full-throttle socialism of the Chavista or Fidel Castro variety.

While this extreme geopolitical volte-face was two decades in the making, the worst pandemic in a century has brought about a new type of upheaval in a matter of weeks. In its belated yet draconian response to COVID-19, the Colombian government is eroding economic and individual liberties to a degree that Chávez himself would have endorsed with gusto.

The Colombian economy has ground to a halt. Mayors of towns and cities have imposed curfews, only allowing citizens to shop for basic goods on certain days, depending on their gender or national ID number. Food is being rationed, the government is fixing prices, and, unsurprisingly, the authorities are abusing their increased and arbitrary powers. In fact, the police are frisking people's groceries at checkpoints, purportedly to halt the circulation of "non-essential" items, and handing out fines to those who leave home to buy medicine if they deem their documents lacking. 

Venezuelans who have sought refuge in Colombia are all too familiar with chronic shortages, price controls, mass unemployment, and the petty abuses of power ("Papers, please!") that mark the turn toward a police state. There is no incentive for them to stay in a country that has rapidly come to resemble their own. 

For weeks, I have seen Venezuelans in large numbers heading northeast along the Bogota-Tunja highway, as they return to their native land. 

Many were scraping by in Bogota, as Bloomberg reports, often as informal vendors or beggars on now-empty streets, and could no longer pay for housing. Once evicted, they have no choice but to go home. In Venezuela, migrants "have more of a support network to fall back on" if they return, even if the health care system collapsed years ago, a Migration Policy Institute expert tells Bloomberg. While this is true, other factors are also at work.

In 2019, Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro tacitly recognized socialism's inevitable failures and took a series of steps to reverse the country's total economic breakdown. As The Wall Street Journal reported at the time, this included a limit to frenzied money printing, mandatory salary increases, and devastating price controls, which produced yearly hyperinflation levels of 2.6 million percent. Maduro also eased restrictions on the private sector, which was at an utter standstill, and freed the flow of cash somewhat. 

Crucially, much of the money now circulating in Venezuela consists of U.S. dollars. As the Journal explained, this results from large inflows of remittances from abroad, but also from a loosening of strict currency controls for importers and private businesses that now accept dollar payments. 

The de facto dollarization of Venezuela has come at a good time. In Colombia, the local currency has lost over 26 percent of its value against the dollar in the last year due to relatively large amounts of debt and plunging oil prices. Now, as Colombia faces a grim economic future in the near term, any good news out of Venezuela, however slight, could offer hard-pressed immigrants an additional incentive to return home.

For Venezuelan socialists, however, any economic reprieve might come too late. In March, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted Maduro, several of his henchmen, and two of their FARC allies on drug trafficking and related charges. President Donald Trump then sent the largest maritime anti-narcotics operation in the region's history towards Venezuela's Caribbean coast.

The Trump administration argues that it doesn't seek to imprison a foreign head of state since it considers Maduro's dictatorship to be illegitimate. Instead, it recognizes opposition leader Juan Guaidó, Trump's guest at his last State of the Union address, as interim president.   

Although I oppose the drug war, I must admit that in terms of pure realpolitik, Trump's aggressive stance toward Venezuela is both sound and necessary. It certainly contrasts with the Obama years, when the U.S. strengthened Maduro's hand with its appeasement of Cuba's communist regime, the power behind the scenes in Venezuela, and its gullible support for the previous Colombian government's peace deal with FARC, whose leaders gained unearned seats in Congress even though thousands of their former comrades remain up in arms, as they traffick large amounts of cocaine and terrorize certain areas of the countryside. 

Are Venezuelans returning home because they sense an imminent end to their socialist nightmare? Maduro is under unprecedented amounts of pressure; at $15 million, the bounty on his head puts him alongside characters like Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian dictator ousted in 1990 after an American invasion. 

Although a military onslaught against Venezuela would be ill-advisedespecially if it involves subsequent "nation-building"Trump certainly should hope for Maduro's ouster, possibly as a result of betrayal by regime-insiders or negotiations with the U.S. and the largest stakeholders in the country, including Vladimir Putin. However, whether Maduro ends up like Noriega or Fidel Castro, who died as a happy 90-year-old despot, is anybody's guess.

As with so much else, the U.S. presidential election could determine the result.