Castaways of the Revolution

A Venezuelan and his son waiting at a border control office in Pacaraima, Brazil, last month to apply for refugee status.CreditCreditNacho Doce/Reuters
A Venezuelan and his son waiting at a border control office in Pacaraima, Brazil, last month to apply for refugee status. CreditNacho Doce/Reuters

Images showing masses of people fleeing Venezuela by foot seem to increase by the minute. Every day, we hear new heart-wrenching accounts about refugees. Venezuela’s crisis has become a regional problem that grows by the day.

How long is the journey by foot from Venezuela to Colombia, Ecuador or Peru? How desperate must a person be to embark on such a journey?

The flow of people out of Venezuela is one of the largest mass migrations in the history of Latin America, with more than 1.6 million people having fled the country since 2015. What has become of the Program for the Homeland, a national development plan proposed in 2012 by President Hugo Chávez whose aim was to transform Venezuela into an economic powerhouse by 2019? What once seemed a charming dream for the richest country in the region has now turned into a dismaying present.

For many years, Mr. Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” practiced a type of diplomacy based on handing out money and spreading corruption throughout the region. Now, the children of Bolívar no longer export dollars, but misery. Corruption and mass migration are intertwined and thus cannot be analyzed separately. They are different legs of the same journey.

Recent efforts by Ecuador and Peru to control the flood of Venezuelans into their countries, and outbreaks of violence against migrants at the border in Pacaraima, Brazil, confirm that Latin America is facing a severe crisis for which it was ill prepared.

One astonishing statistic gives a hint of the scope of the crisis: The number of Venezuelan refugees visiting health clinics in the Brazilian border state of Roraima rose from 700 in 2014 to 50,000 in 2017. In just the first quarter of this year, 45,000 were treated.

Such huge problems mean that it’s no longer a matter of whether a country wants to help Venezuela, but of capacity. Venezuela’s neighbors have been generous in aiding immigrants, but their resources are becoming strained.

The situation is fertile ground for surges of intolerance and xenophobia. While being an immigrant is difficult, it is far worse for Venezuelans, who have rarely been forced to leave their country. Venezuela has long been a country that received migrants but Venezuelans never expected to be migrants themselves. Dealing with masses of immigrants is no easy task for their neighbors. In the first week of August alone, more than 4,000 Venezuelans a day crossed into Ecuador. That is an unwieldy number for any government.

But the castaways of the Bolivarian Revolution are not adrift willingly. They have been effectively expelled by an immoral regime, which is happy to pass the crisis on to its neighbors rather than take responsibility. Immigrants have become the victims not only of wrong policymaking, but of an establishment that has accumulated wealth at the expense of the rest of the country.

The government in Caracas hasn't yielded to pressure from its beleaguered neighbors and the United States to ease the crisis. It has also rejected humanitarian aid from international organizations. It acts with such intentional cruelty that it is criminal.

Stalwarts of Chavismo, the doctrine created by Hugo Chávez, have stubbornly refused to face the reality. They have even played it down. Only one year ago, as Venezuelan children were dying of hunger, the current vice president, Delcy Rodríguez, said. “There is no humanitarian crisis here. What we have is love, what we have is a crisis of the right-wing fascists.” A year before that, at a meeting of the Organization of American States, she also said that there was no humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.

In hindsight, those statements seem even more callous. Nothing has changed. Mr. Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, still makes fun of hard-working people who go abroad to make a living cleaning toilets. This is the attitude of a wealthy man who finds serving others humiliating. Just as his administration trivialized Venezuelans’ hunger, he is now denigrating them for migrating to survive.

The international community should establish a more direct link between migration and corruption. Governments rigidly regulate movement of foreigners into their countries; they should do the same for money. Nations require more documentation from refugees than from dollars derived from corruption. They are stricter when it comes to victims than to their tormentors.

The United States, Colombia, Mexico and Panama met recently to share information on fighting corrupt financial networks based in Venezuela. It’s an encouraging step, but the problem demands a broader and more aggressive strategy. What’s needed is an orderly and definitive search for all the money ransacked from Venezuela in recent years. On Aug. 22, a former executive for a Swiss bank, Matthias Krull, pleaded guilty in federal court in Miami to a role in the laundering of $1.2 billion embezzled from the state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela. This is only the tip of the iceberg.

The United Nations warned recently that Venezuela’s refugee crisis risks spinning out of control. We urgently need to promote solidarity and tolerance, and crack down on xenophobia. But we equally need to pressure the Venezuelan government and to fight the migration of ill-gotten gains, tracking down those in government and business who are also to blame for this shipwreck.

Alberto Barrera Tyszka, a television writer, is co-author of Hugo Chávez: The Definitive Biography of Venezuela’s Controversial President and the author of the novel The Sickness. This essay was translated by Tania Castro Rodea from the Spanish.

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