14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Bogota/Havana, 9 September 2018 — Beside me, a woman with two children sobs as she remembers her native Caracas. In the office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service of Bogotá, the Venezuelan accent is heard on all sides, a multitude of exiles who have come from the neighboring country with barely the clothes on their backs and who still have the bewildered look of departure.
In another part of the Colombian capital, near the Plaza de Bolívar, a young man sells arepas very cheaply from a small cart adorned with the eight-star flag. He tells me that he left his two children on the other side of the border and that he is hoping to make enough money to reunite his family “in a safe country.”
A few yards away, another man works as a street artist, becoming a living statue of Simón Bolívar, with the buttoned uniform, a sad look and a sword in his hand. The sculpture breathes under Bogota’s drizzle and seems to symbolize a nation’s fall from grace. From the libertarian summits, through the paths of populism, to arrive at the abyss of the diaspora.
Almost everywhere in Colombia are the displaced people of the regime of Nicolás Maduro. Something similar to what has happened in Ecuador, Brazil and Peru, although the exiles also make it to Chile and Uruguay, in addition to those who have managed to leap the Atlantic and take refuge in Europe and those who have managed to enter the United States.
They have left behind their homes, their neighborhoods and their friends. They are the most recent chapter of the Latin American exodus, but this time starring citizens of a country where, just a few years ago, the president promised a future of opportunities for all. They are escaping from the failure of a system, putting land between their bodies and broken dreams.
The figures of this escape are just beginning to be known. At the end of August 2018, according to official data, 935,593 Venezuelans were living in Colombia, but the real number promises to be much higher. On the corners, at the traffic lights, on the outskirts of the markets you can see them, with the lost look of people trying to grasp their new context and a certain air of relief at having been able to escape.
The authorities of the receiving countries also display a certain disorientation. Most have had a long tradition of emigration and now face the challenge of welcoming their neighbors. The institutional response is clumsy in most cases and, in others, not very hospitable. The exodus has already faced xenophobic responses in some communities.
One of the most interrelated regions of the planet, with the majority of countries sharing a language and customs, has not been successful in crafting joint policies to ease the drama of these exiles. The granting of work permits, healthcare coverage, access to public education for Venezuelan children and the recognition of professional titles occurs at different levels in each host nation, without a common front.
The continent where, a few years ago, the standard-bearers of 21st century socialism joined hands and proclaimed an America for all, is now unable to respond in a judicious and inclusive manner to this humanitarian crisis. Territorial conflicts and the inability to work together are making the exodus more difficult for Venezuelans.
As a curious fact, the escape route does not include Cuba. The island does not appear on the destination map of these migrants. On the one hand, because it is not advisable to take refuge from an evil in the place that promoted and supported the implantation of the system from which you are fleeing. On the other, because behind the false image of a country in solidarity, Cuban legislation is among of the strictest with regards to obtaining residency or sheltering displaced persons.
But the drama is not experienced only by those who have left, but also by those who are left behind. The massive exit of citizens is causing an accelerated depopulation of the South American country, which will be one of the most negative outcomes and most difficult to overcome. Infrastructure can be repaired and capital returned, but the effect of mass emigration becomes irreversible.
Gone are the most daring, the most prepared and probably the most discontented. As in Cuba, the incessant flight of nationals leaves a lethargic population and a country easier to control. Those of us who stay must get used to the farewells and absences. Few of those who leave end up returning.
“If you don’t like it leave,” the acolytes of the Plaza of the Revolution have repeated for decades, and now Nicolás Maduro also embraces that contempt and mocks the emigrants who are “washing dishes in Miami.” For both regimes, exile is a thing of the weak, the refuge of the selfish who did not want to incinerate their lives in the crucible of the cause.
In both cases, the official discourse has passed through denying the escape, applying denigrating adjectives to those who flee, and blaming third parties for the incessant departure of nationals. Both Caracas and Havana also shrug off concern for their exiles, whom they see only as potential senders of remittances, but not as citizens with rights.
Mass emigration is a bloodletting that weakens any country. Every Venezuelan who now wanders the streets of Bogotá, Quito or Rio de Janeiro is a life project that was lost to his homeland.