When you hear Republicans and right-wing media blame President Joe Biden for the so-called “border crisis” and target the growing number of Venezuelan migrants, it’s important to look at the bigger picture.
It’s not a pretty one: Since the country’s authoritarian President Nicolas Maduro took power a decade ago, more than 7.2 million people have left Venezuela as the country’s political, economic, and humanitarian crisis has worsened. That means we’re looking at a mass migration crisis on a scale with that of Syria and Ukraine.
Two decades ago, Venezuela was the wealthiest country in South America, its economy buoyed by high oil prices. If you go all the way back to 1950, at a time when many countries were struggling to recover from World War II, Venezuela had the fourth-richest GDP per capita in the world, 12 times richer than China, according to the World Economic Forum. So what happened?
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As The Washington Post reports:
“Unlike other forced displacement crises around the world, which are the result of armed conflicts, in the case of Venezuela, multiple factors — including insecurity and violence, lack of access to food, medicine and essential services, as well as loss of income, aggravated by the impact of the covid-19 pandemic — continue to figure into Venezuelans’ decision to leave,” William Spindler, spokesperson for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, told The Washington Post in an email last September.
What happened to Venezuela
Venezuela still boasts the world’s largest proven oil reserves at more than 300 billion barrels, concentrated in the Orinoco Belt, edging out Saudi Arabia. But former President Hugo Chavez kicked most international oil companies out of the country and fired many experienced workers from the state-owned Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA) after they went on strike. He then replaced them with government loyalists. Chavez relied on oil revenues to pay for ambitious social programs to reduce poverty and inequality.
The situation was made worse when the Trump administration tightened economic sanctions on Venezuela between 2017 and 2019 with the aim of ousting Chavez’s authoritarian successor, Nicolas Maduro, in favor of bringing the U.S.-backed government led by Juan Guaido to power. The sanctions barred the government’s access to the U.S. financial system and blocked PDVSA from exporting oil to the U.S.
Venezuela’s highest-ever oil production occurred in 1998 at 3.5 million barrels per day (BPD). That was the same year that Chavez won the presidential election. The country hit a record low of 337,000 barrels per day in June 2020. It has since rebounded to 700,000 barrels per day in February 2023. But where Venezuela was once among the leading oil-producing countries, now it is ranked No. 20.
Venezuela has become an economic disaster zone. The Economic Commission for Latin America said Venezuela’s GDP contracted by about 75% between 2014 and 2021, according to the BBC. It also reported said there was a slow recovery in 2022, but the poorest Venezuelans have still been left far behind.
The national currency, the bolivar, has become almost worthless due to hyperinflation. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, annual inflation zoomed to just over 130,000% in 2018; it has slowed in recent years but still remained at 234% in 2022.
More recently, Maduro’s government has introduced a mild economic liberalization even though its human rights record is abysmal. According to Foreign Policy, the latest National Poll of Living Conditions (ENCOVI), released by the Andrés Bello Catholic University in November 2022 showed that the share of households whose income is below the poverty line fell from 90.9% in 2021 to 81.5% in 2022.
That same ENCOVI poll revealed that Venezuela is among the most unequal countries in the world, with the richest 10% of the population earning 70 times more than its poorest 10%, Foreign Policy reported. ENCOVI said Venezuela has the second-highest malnutrition rate in the Americas. Foreign Policy wrote:
Even the professional class is struggling. Elvia Jurado, a law professor, has taught at the University of Carabobo for 32 years. Her wages—around $35 every two weeks—are still paid in rapidly devaluing bolívars. Raises are “not consonant with the economic reality,” she said. “It’s a depressing and shameful situation.” Her colleagues, Jurado added, wear torn shoes, cannot afford birthday cakes for their children, and have to choose between buying beef and filling up their cars’ gas tanks. “We are academic paupers,” she said.
And so Venezuelans continue to leave the country.
Where do Venezuelan migrants go?
And where have all these Venezuelan migrants gone over the past 10 years? More than 80% of the 7.2 million migrants have gone to 17 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Colombia tops the list with 2.5 million; Peru is next with 1.5 million; and Ecuador, Chile, and Brazil each have taken in more than 400,000 Venezuelans.
Those figures, last updated at the end of March, were provided by R4V, an interagency platform led by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration. Other Venezuelans have gone to Canada and European countries, in particular Spain with more than 438,000.
These countries have taken in the migrants largely without the anti-immigrant histrionics fostered by Republicans in an effort to damage Biden. Less than 10% of the Venezuelan migrants, more than 545,000 people, have come to the U.S. over the past decade, according to R4V.
The hypocrisy and cruelty of Republicans like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, now a presidential candidate, is evident when you consider how much the Venezuelan migration mirrors that of Cubans after Fidel Castro came to power.
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Politico reported that the initial Venezuelan diaspora began after the rise of Chavez and Maduro’s authoritarian leftist governments. These were mostly middle- and upper-class Venezuelans who arrived by plane and settled mostly in South Florida and Texas, where many former oil workers found jobs. This group was more conservative, and in the 2020 presidential election in Florida many bought into Trump’s claims likening Democrats to socialists.
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But in the past two years, several hundred thousand mostly poorer Venezuelans have arrived in the U.S., making the perilous overland journey across the Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama to eventually reach the U.S. They resemble the poorer Cuban migrants, known as “Marielitos,” who poured into Florida starting in 1980 when Jimmy Carter was president. Carter was hurt politically by distorted reports that Fidel Castro was releasing criminals from prison and forcing them onto boats bound for the U.S.
Some Republican House members promoted a baseless conspiracy theory that first appeared last year on the right-wing Breitbart website claiming that Maduro was emptying prisons and sending violent criminals to the U.S. border.
Last September, DeSantis, possibly inspired by then-Fox News host Tucker Carlson, pulled that cruel stunt of flying about 50 Venezuelan migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in an effort to own the libs, including former President Barack Obama who has a summer home there. DeSantis instead could easily have let the migrants integrate into Florida’s Venezuelan community, which is the largest in the U.S.
Trump’s comments in essence have provided justification for Venezuelans to claim political asylum. In 2019, in a speech in Miami, Trump said, “Maduro is not a Venezuelan patriot, he is a Cuban puppet.” And in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly in 2017, he said, "The Venezuelan people are starving and their country is collapsing. Their democratic institutions are being destroyed.”
The State Department’s 2022 report on Venezuela found “significant human rights abuses.” It concluded: “The Maduro regime took no effective action to meaningfully identify, investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who may have committed human rights abuses or engaged in corruption.”
How the U.S. and international community can help
So what can be done by the U.S. and the international community to better deal with the Venezuelan migrant crisis? The U.S. could take some lessons from our Latin American neighbors.
Countries like Colombia have moved more quickly to integrate Venezuelan migrants into the local labor force. But under U.S. law, there’s a 180-day waiting period for asylum seekers to receive work authorization eligibility. Sometimes the waiting period is even longer due to processing delays.
Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine has introduced legislation that would reduce the waiting period to 30 days, “Asylum seekers—many of whom are living in shelters and hotels with help from local governments and nonprofits—are lawfully protected to be here, and they deserve the right to be self-sufficient and become part of their new communities,” Pingree said in a news release. “With my bill, asylum seekers will no longer be subject to an arbitrary waiting period before applying for work authorization and would be eligible to receive a work permit just 30 days after applying for asylum.”
Brazil introduced an “interiorization” program in 2018 to ease pressure on the country’s far northern state of Roraima where Venezuelans have been flowing across the border, The Associated Press reported:
The program moves the migrants to other cities with better economic opportunities, especially in the country’s rich southern states. It has taken in about 100,000 of the 426,000 Venezuelans who have migrated to Brazil during the crisis — with the highest monthly rate so far in March of this year with 3,377.
Those accepted into the interiorization program receive documentation, temporary shelter, vaccines and relocation flights. It also offers classes on Brazil’s labor market, laws and rights.
A federal program to relocate migrants from border areas and provide temporary housing would be preferable to letting Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott and DeSantis pull their political stunts to bus migrants to Democratic-run cities to stir up anti-immigrant fodder for right-wing media outlets.
Additionally, a group of progressive and border state House Democrats have sent a letter to Biden urging him to lift all sanctions against Venezuela that “exacerbate the humanitarian situation” in the country, The Washington Post reported. The lawmakers suggested that such a move would help ease the border surge. The letter read:
“Experts widely agree that broad-based U.S. sanctions — expanded to an unprecedented level by your predecessor — are a leading contributing factor in the current surge in migration.”
The Venezuelan opposition’s envoy in the U.S., Fernando Blasi, has also urged the Biden administration to relax crippling oil sanctions on Maduro’s government, the Associated Press reported.
However, Democratic Sen. Rob Menendez of New Jersey, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, opposed the House Democrats’ calls for the Biden administration to reverse its sanctions policies on Venezuela as well as Cuba. “The truth is that Cubans and Venezuelans are leaving their homeland because of one simple fact: they are suffering under the yoke of brutal dictatorships that violently repress their citizens and that have destroyed their countries’ economies through widespread mismanagement and graft,” Menendez, a Cuban-American, wrote in response to the House Democrats.
“These actions, not U.S. sanctions policies, are responsible for the ongoing exodus of Venezuelan and Cuban refugees and migrants. Removing U.S. sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela will only betray our democratic values and further empower criminal dictators,” he continued.
The Biden administration has expressed a willingness to ease sanctions, including the ban on oil imports, provided the Maduro government resume long-suspended talks with the opposition on establishing the conditions needed to hold free and fair presidential elections next year, The Wall Street Journal reported. “There are no plans to change our sanctions policy without constructive steps from the Maduro regime,” Adrienne Watson, spokeswoman for the National Security Council, told the WSJ last September.
Prominent Republicans have criticized any move by Biden to ease up on sanctions against Venezuela, describing Maduro as a corrupt Russian lackey.
enough aid to go around?
But the welcome mat for Venezuelan migrants in host countries in Latin America is starting to wear thin, and there is an urgent need for the international community to provide more funds to the countries who have taken in the most Venezuelans to help them integrate into the local economy and thrive until the day comes when they can return home.
James Bosworth, a Latin America political risk analyst, wrote in World Politics Review:
In South America, the hesitant but at times generous welcome of Venezuelan migrants and political exiles in the years before the pandemic is now a distant memory. Amid popular backlashes and low approval ratings, leaders grappling with other priorities have sent migrants back to Venezuela on forced deportation flights. Some are now beginning to militarize their borders.
USAID has been providing funds to governments and non-governmental organizations to help support Venezuelan migrants in such countries as Peru and Colombia. Menendez, in his letter to House progressives, said he supported providing “additional financial resources towards programs to help migrants integrate into communities hosting them across the Americas.”
In November 2022, during negotiations in Mexico City, the Maduro government and the opposition party agreed to create a $3 billion U.N.-administered fund drawn from various Venezuelan seized assets to invest in education, health care, and infrastructure repairs. The Biden administration has advised the U.N. that the money could operate within the U.S. financial system without the risk of creditors seizing it to repay outstanding Venezuelan debt.
Back in 2019, the Brookings Institution was already warning that Venezuela’s refugee crisis was likely “to become the largest and most underfunded in modern history.” Brookings updated its report to say in 2020 total international funding amounted to $3,150 per Syrian, but just $265 per Venezuelan. The advocacy group Refugees International told The Washington Post last September that the regional migrant response plan for Venezuela was vastly underfunded compared to a similar plan for Ukraine.
The “staggering and sobering” scale of the flight from Venezuela “highlights the depth of this crisis and the enormous gap in attention compared to a crisis with similar numbers, like Ukraine or Syria,” Rachel Schmidtke, senior advocate for Latin America at Refugees International, said in an email to the Post.
“Countries in Latin America urgently need funding to ensure Venezuelans can access work and protection” in the region, as well as safe transit, Schmidtke said.
But these are just drops in the bucket given that we’re dealing with a migrant crisis on a par with Syria and Ukraine, and likely to get worse. The International Monetary Fund estimates “Venezuelan migrants will number around 8.4 million by 2025—more than 25 percent of the country’s population in 2015.”