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.

NEXT: Trump's Immigration Pause Is Pure Virtue Signaling to His Base

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  1. “What?? You mean there’s no toilet paper here either?”

    1. I’ve been cleaning my asshole with a sponge soaked in bleach water. Plan on trading my strategic toilet paper reserves for ammunition and prostitutes when society collapses.

      1. Some people pay good money for that bleach process. You might want to rethink your business model.

        1. I remember reading something about high carbon footprint industries. One ones that stuck out to me were electrolysis (for chlorine and aluminum processing) and cement plant. I guess I should have stocked up on bleach and hand sanitizer (aka Lizzy Warren party juice).

      2. Does no one else have mismatched socks?
        I have enough of them that I could wipe my ass for a month and not run out of nice, soft sock wipes.
        I also have a shower in my bathroom, and could spray my ass and not use anything else

    2. Who needs toilet paper? I have a bidet.

      1. I been using mine as a water fountain.

      2. Hannah Work from your house for two to six hrs every day, and start getting averaging 1000-3000 bucks at the end of every week. Read more information here> Read More

  2. //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.//

    As it turns out, when you have nothing left to lose, arbitrary diktats from detached government assholes about how one should live their life become increasingly irrelevant. A glimpse into our American future, perhaps?

  3. I wonder if this will start a revolution. Loads of starving people with nothing to lose usually result in that.

    1. Hopefully it’ll be one of those revolutions that demands more government, not less.

      1. That’s a weird thing for a libertarian to say o.O Sounds like some commie bullshit, but ok

        1. I think either sarc or mistake. DR is no commie unless he contracted CV-19 and it really is a ChiCom weapon.

          1. that was my guess too, (s)he’s not one to huff paint with Chemjeff.

  4. 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.

    The enemy of my enemy is my friend, especially when it comes to principles.


    HPOU’s response to Judge Hidalgo’s draconian mask order:

    “Now we want to be very clear, the Houston Police Officers’ Union believes everyone should be wearing a mask in public, in order to protect themselves from the virus and we are encouraging all of our officers to wear a mask. However, we draw the line at the draconian measures Hidalgo has decided to engage in.”

    See full statement below.

    1. Good to see that these cops at least are willing to push back. Not sure if adding insults into the statement was a wise move though. Leave that to us garbage posters, yeah?

      1. Harris County sheriff deputies are pushing back too.

  6. Trump’s aggressive stance toward Venezuela is both sound and necessary.

    Say Hi to that Reason-writer who said the TPP was a bad deal for liberty.

  7. “…Forced to Choose Between Ruinous Socialism and Colombia’s Pandemic Authoritarianism”.
    No forced choice, Venezuela offers both in abundance.

  8. They’re more likely to die from Cholera than COVID.

  9. Perhaps – and I’m just spitballing here – perhaps they should bring some guns back?

  10. The ghost of Che is just laughing his ass off. Everything is working as planned.

  11. Socialism is worse.

  12. Venezuelans broke their country, they need to fix it, not expect that they can simply migrate somewhere else.

    1. Seriously. Given Latin-America’s general tilt toward socialism, it would not surprise me in the least that if the Venezuelans got rid of Maduro tomorrow, they would turn around and elect another hard socialist within the next dozen years.

  13. Stay home and go on AO Hure for sexy chat pleasure

  14. Newsom keeps the CA economy under gov’t control long enough and you’ll see full planes leaving SFO for Caracas.

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