Venezuelan citizens cross the Simon Bolivar International Bridge to Colombia. (George Castellanos/AFP/Getty Images)
THE LONG-RUNNING crisis in Venezuela, which has undergone a catastrophic economic collapse even as its authoritarian regime has consolidated power, has now spread across its borders. The president of neighboring Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, said this week that his country’s most serious problem could be the mass influx of desperate Venezuelan refugees: More than 600,000 are now in the country, and thousands more are arriving every day. Tens of thousands of Venezuelans have swamped the Brazilian Amazon city of Boa Vista, 140 miles from the border. More than 60,000 have asylum appeals pending in the United States.
This human outflow, which the United Nations says amounts to more than 1.1 million people, is the largest displacement of people in Latin American history. But Venezuela’s refugees are attracting far less attention or international aid than those fleeing Burma or Syria. That needs to change.
The reason for the exodus is simple: Once proud citizens of the richest nation in Latin America, Venezuelans now are starving. A social survey released this week showed that more than 90 percent say they do not have the means to buy sufficient food, and 61 percent say they go to bed hungry. Though it controls the world’s largest oil reserves, the regime founded by Hugo Chávez has wrecked not just oil production but the economy as a whole, leaving stores empty of food and hospitals deprived even of common medicines. Inflation is skyrocketing above the 2017 rate of 2,600 percent, and rampant homicide has made Caracas one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
Compounding the crisis is the refusal of the Chavista government, now headed by Nicolás Maduro, to accept humanitarian aid, which it describes as a means for foreign invasion. Rather than take basic steps to feed people or stabilize the economy, Mr. Maduro, steered by Cuban advisers, is preparing to stage a rigged election for every office in the country in April, which would allow for the elimination of all formal political opposition. The regime already put down a pro-democracy uprising last year with mass repression that led to more than 120 deaths.
Latin American nations that for years avoided addressing the collapse of democracy in Venezuela now are reaping the consequences in a very human form. Foremost is Colombia, which for years pandered to the Chavista regime and now finds its border cities overrun with desperate refugees, some of whom are reduced to sleeping in parks and begging on the streets. In an effort to stem the tide, Mr. Santos suspended border passes for 1.5 million Venezuelans and deployed 2,000 troops to block informal entry routes into the country. That may slow the refugee arrivals but at the cost of denying relief to hungry people.
Mr. Santos said his government is ready to accept international aid. But though the United Nations’ refugee agency is on the ground in Colombia and Brazil, the response has been nothing like that devoted to servicing refugees from Syria or Burma. Many Venezuelans are finding shelter with family or friends in other nations, but as Mr. Santos said, “the number of people that need to be attended to is growing exponentially, and no state has the capacity to absorb it.” With no solution to the crisis inside Venezuela in sight, it’s time for the United States and other nations to do more to mitigate its external impact.