We don't have to go too far back in history to find a time when some Colombians found refuge in neighbouring Venezuela, to escape the terrible bloodshed and uncertainty back home. Politically speaking, before Hugo Chávez's 'socialism for the 21st century' took hold in Venezuela, the two countries were quite similar. The difference was Colombia was seen as a violent backwater best avoided, while Venezuela, from a Western, capitalist perspective in any case, was something of a model for the rest of Latin America to follow.
It's not stretching it to say that now we have the reverse situation: Colombia's external image seems to get brighter by the day while Venezuela's plummets.
In Venezuela's pre-socialist days, so it is said, 'la Colombiana' was the one who came to clean the house of the well-off, the one who worked in the bakeries and bars, the work many locals felt was beneath them. Now it's the Venezuelans -- men, women and children -- who are crossing the border in their thousands to work in whatever they can find in Colombia. Chronic food and medical shortages, hyper-inflation and safety concerns, alongside a seemingly incompetent government to deal with these issues are what have them leaving in droves.
How many have actually relocated here is difficult to measure exactly. This is simply because on a daily basis the toing and froing of Venezuelans into Colombia, and vice versa, all along the over 2000 kilometre-long land border has been constant and not tightly regulated. This is when the border hasn't been closed by order of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro that is, as has happened on occasions over the last couple of years.
The United Nations Refugee Agency in Bogotá does state that there has been "a notable increase of Venezuelan nationals coming to and remaining in Colombia." From an official viewpoint, however, it acknowledges the figures it works off from Colombian immigration are not terribly accurate and more than likely underestimate the volume.
Alongside the informal, unregistered crossings, the agency points to the lack of data on Venezuelan nationals remaining in Colombia as well as the fact that official asylum claims are quite low as this process in Colombia is somewhat cumbersome.
Notwithstanding the difficulties of getting an accurate figure, Daniel Pages of the Association of Venezuelans in Colombia estimates that between legals and illegals there are over 1.2 million of his countrymen currently in Colombia. The association itself, set up five years ago to provide assistance for Venezuelans looking to live and work legally in Colombia, has now over 15,000 people on its books.
Alongside the estimated numbers, Colombians themselves are quick to tell you that the Venezuelan accent is being heard much more of late than had been the case just a couple of years ago. And we're not talking here about illegal border intrusions into Colombia by Venezuelan military personnel, which caused a stir in recent months, damaging further official relations between the two republics.
No, this isn't just temporary border-hopping stuff; Venezuelans are travelling as far into Colombia as Bogotá to set up shop.
A visit to any of the capital's bog-standard bread shops or restaurants and it's a safe bet that there'll be at least one Venezuelan working there.
The problem, as some locals see it, is that these unregistered foreign workers are taking potential jobs from the many hard-pressed Colombians in need of employment. As store owner Laura Lancheros puts it: "Many of these unregistered Venezuelans coming here are willing to work for anything, so for some employers they're a good option because there's no real paperwork involved in hiring them."
Indeed, in Bogotá for one, there appears to be little sympathy for the plight of their neighbours. A lot of this stems from the Venezuelan government's decision to remove thousands of Colombian nationals from the country a couple of years back, the deported accused of being involved in paramilitary activities and other illegalities. President Maduro's almost daily jibes at Colombia also don't help, where he regularly accuses it as the source of many of his own country's problems.
Be that as it may, for the Venezuelans now living and working in Colombia, many are quick to distance themselves from what their government says and does.
What’s more, as 25-year-old Bogotá bread shop employee Angie Salcedo, who arrived here from her native eastern Venezuela earlier this year, points out: "Some Colombians would do well to remember the past. Venezuela was always welcoming to foreigners, but now that we're in trouble, we're not getting the same treatment from others. Not everybody is received with open arms."
A young, university-educated woman, Angie's story is typical of the Venezuelans flocking to Colombia: here illegally, engaged in unskilled work for barely the minimum wage.
Angie's co-worker, 22-year-old Yorkely Casanova, sees Colombia as just a temporary stopover. Like other Venezuelans, she has her eyes set on Chile as the process to become a legal worker there is shorter, more straightforward and less expensive than Colombia.
For the moment she, along with her husband, are working 12-hour plus days for no more than US10 dollars a day to save money for that journey further south.
It's far from ideal, but as Yorkely sadly notes, it's better than being in Venezuela right now.
LatinAmerican Post | Brendan Corrigan