Last month, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, together with the Director General of the UN Migration Agency (IOM), William Lacy Swing, appealed to the Latin American nations for greater support to alleviate Venezuela’s migration crisis. The appeals are a response to the institution of stricter passport and border entry requirements by the authorities in Ecuador, as well as changes to temporary stay permits in neighboring Peru. The new regulations have impacted hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who were have crossed international borders with paper ID cards, as well those seeking to do so.
The scale of Venezuela’s migration crisis effect upon South America remains under appreciated. According to UN figures, more than 1.6 million Venezuelans have left the country since 2015, with 90% of them residing in neighboring countries. When the crisis first began in January 2016, most Latin American nations opened their borders to Venezuelan migrants fleeing their country’s turmoil, offering temporary residences, aid, and pathways to citizenship. However, as the crisis in Venezuela has morphed into a chronic problem, surrounding states have begun to take steps to insulate themselves from its effects.
Ecuador recently declared a state of emergency in three of its northern states and has called for a regional summit to discuss Venezuela’s mass exodus. Peru now requires all Venezuelans seeking to enter its territory to be in possession of a valid passport. Argentina, ill equipped to deal with any additional burdens due to its own economic crisis, has taken in more than 30,000 Venezuelans since 2011. In Brazil, the authorities were forced to deploy troops to cope with the effects of hundreds of thousands migrants, after residents in the northern most region of Roraima mounted attacks against migrants fleeing southward. By far the most affected country has been Colombia. In the past 16 months, more than a million people have entered the country, forcing Bogotá to issue over 800,000 temporary residences. As a result, the government has sought to internationalize the crisis, requesting a special UN envoy, and a the creation of a “multilateral emergency fund” to help manage the exodus.
Mismanaged by Maduro
Venezuela’s crisis is in large part economic. A 2014 crash in oil prices left Caracas unable to maintain its social system of subsidies and price controls. Since then it has been suffering from chronic hyperinflation, with the official rate rising steadily from 2014, peaking at 536.2% in 2017. Last year, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated that inflation would reach 2068.5% within twelve months, before revising the prediction to encompass an astoundingly projection: 1,000,000%. Consumer prices have risen by 46,305% in 2018 according to opposition-run legislature, which began issuing its own reports last year when the nation’s central bank halted the release of basic economic data.
The country’s problems have been exacerbated by the response of President Nicolas Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian regime, which has adopted desperate measures in an attempt to undermine vocal opponents. What began as a partisan dispute over whether legislators had voted irregularly, morphed into a Supreme Court-sanctioned suspension of the National Assembly, deadlocking the opposition’s efforts to oust Maduro and his supporters through a nationwide referendum. In March of 2016 the court announced it would be taking over Congress’ legislative powers, a move that widespread protest, and the use of force to repress demonstrations.
Maduro claims that his administration is the victim of an “economic war” waged by US-backed opposition groups. To combat economic chaos, Venezuela’s President has sought to revalue the currency, last month announcing a re-branded “sovereign bolivar”. The new currency would be tied to the petro, a virtual currency that the government will links to Venezuela’s oil reserves. The Maduro administration hopes the move will tackle runaway inflation, thereby mirroring former President Hugo Chavez’s currency replacement in 2008. Yet the sovereign bolivar is unlikely to resolve the country’s hyperinflation. In theory, tying the new currency to oil ought to vest it with a degree of stability. Yet since 2017, Venezuela’s oil production has fallen by approximately 20,000 barrels per day. Workers have fled operations, shutting down production sites, and costing the country millions of barrels per month in lost output. Accordingly, the new currency’s introduction has only added to the chaos. On the day new bills went into circulation, thousands of businesses closed, and tens of thousands of workers stayed at home. Many Venezuelans have already lost faith in state-led efforts, turning instead to alternative forms of payment. For instance, many have resorted to using bitcoin in an effort to withstand the country’s currency collapse.
‘No medicine, no food, nada‘
Financial stability has devastated day to day life. The entire Venezuelan health care system is now on the verge of collapse. The Pharmaceutical Federation of Venezuela estimates the country lacks 85% of the medicines it requires, and is experiencing a 90% deficit in medical supplies. These shortages have spurred a black market. In street market across the country, everything from antibiotics to contraceptives are available for purchase alongside fruits and vegetables. Many hospitals lack electricity or other resources, and more than 13,000 doctors have fled the country in the past four years.
Due to tanking production and strict currency controls that limit imports, Venezuela is also experiencing food scarcity. Price controls designed to make food more available to poor Venezuelans have had the opposite effect; forcing many producers out of business. The government, meanwhile, has little money to purchase imports, due to its mismanagement of the public finances. More than $9 billion in bond payments are due later this year. Many Venezuelans have taken matters into their own hands, looting warehouses, food trucks, supermarkets, and outlying farms. However, by doing so, they have fed Maduro’s rhetoric, which claims that the economic collapse has been engineered by the opposition to weaken his administration.
President Maduro claimed victory in last year’s presidential election. While Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and others joined the US in refusing to recognize the results, Venezuela’s old allies of Bolivia, Nicaragua, Cuba, Iran, and Russia backed his continued administration. Largely due to their support, Maduro has been able to withstand critiques and pressure from others in the region, and the United States. However, fending off international criticism offers no respite from a growing opposition. Maduro’s domestic popularity has dipped to its lowest point in years, and the government increasingly relies upon the military to break up protests.
With no end to the economic crisis affecting currency, medicine, and food, as well as an increasingly oppressive political environment, Venezuelans will continue fleeing the country – entering other countries illegally if necessary. Yet its neighbors are showing an newfound willingness to close their borders to stymie the migratory flow, unable to cope with an influx of vulnerable people: adolescents, women, those separated from their families, and unaccompanied children. If the new restrictions succeed in halting large scale migration, they will only deepen the state of emergency in Venezuela, by denying a much needed outlet. However, if they fail, there is a significant risk that other economic and political environments across South America will also be destabilized.