A new program designed to help settle Venezuelans who fled to Colombia could serve as a “model for the world” in dealing with today’s unprecedented wave of immigration and forced displacement, U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Tuesday.
But the program, paid in part by U.S. and European aid, may never get off the ground if Colombia’s new leftist President Gustavo Petro uses a just-announced rapprochement with Venezuela as reason to send immigrants and refugees home.
Blinken spent part of the second day of a weeklong trip through South America to focus on immigration with a stop at a state-run center that connects displaced Venezuelans with government services and offers access to loans, schooling, training and ways to obtain legal residential status.
Of the estimated 6 million Venezuelans who have fled their country as it plunged into economic, political and social crises under autocratic President Nicolas Maduro, about 2.5 million are believed to be living in Colombia as of August.
Last year, Colombia formally offered temporary protected status to many Venezuelans, allowing them to remain in the country and work legally for 10 years. To do that, Colombia has set up the new “integration” program in nine cities.
“This allows Venezuelans to be productive, contributing members of the community, of society,” Blinken said during a tour of the Migration Integration Center in Bogota. ”And we’re not going to have a lost generation of Venezuelans.”
“It is a remarkable model,” he added.
The Biden administration has provided $3 billion in aid to Colombia and neighboring countries to support displaced Venezuelans among other efforts. At last month’s United Nations General Assembly, President Biden pledged an additional $350 million.
Blinken spoke Tuesday against the backdrop of little children romping among brightly colored toys and squishy balls. He was introduced to a young couple, Christian Hernandez, 24, and Annelis Gomez, 23, whose 9-month-old son crawled at their feet. They fled a Venezuelan coastal town seven months ago and are living with his parents, who made the same escape five years earlier.
Hernandez’s mother, Diyana Mendoza, 46, said that when she arrived “we were totally alone,” but that with the new policies, circumstances have improved “100%.” Her son was given a loan to learn how to sew jeans, his wife has been able to set up a small pastry business in her home and the child is attending preschool.
Not everyone was quite as enthusiastic. Ivan Duran, a press officer in the opposition-controlled City Hall in Maracaibo, Venezuela, said he had to leave his home country 11 years ago when loyalists to the president began harassing and threatening him.
While Colombians were initially welcoming, he said, over time they cooled to the arrival of so many people and it became impossible to gain legal work.
Programs to integrate Venezuelans into society and give them legal rights are a positive beginning, he said. But they remain in their infancy, with only limited effect, he noted.
“Outside the story is very different,” he said. “There are barriers everywhere.”
Duran said many in the Venezuelan expatriate community are now worried about a potential new threat. All of the pro-immigrant policies, including temporary protected status, were adopted before Petro came to office in August.Like Maduro, Petro is a longtime leftist, and his decision to reopen Colombia’s long closed border with Venezuela and renew diplomatic and other ties has raised questions about how far he intends to go.
“We live in fear,” Duran said. “What drove us from Venezuela in the first place was precisely this form of government.
“At first it seems good with big plans, but then it shows its dark face.”
In a news conference with Blinken on Monday, Petro would not answer a journalist’s question about whether rapprochement with Caracas was a first step in forcing the Venezuelans to return home. He said he believed that data already show fewer Venezuelans arriving in Colombia, although he offered no proof to substantiate his assertion.
“If that is a result of the normalization of relations, then the free decision of the Venezuelan families in Colombia is what is to be respected,” he said.
At the same news conference, Blinken said his administration’s “strong hope” was for the Maduro government to pursue dialogue with the Venezuelan opposition that leads to elections and restoration of democracy. The goal, he said, is “to create a much better environment, and for all Venezuelans.
“That is fundamentally what is necessary for Venezuelans to not feel the obligation to leave the country that is theirs, as well as for Venezuelans who have left to return.”
U.S. officials doubt Petro would push to deport Venezuelans anytime soon, if at all. It would be an unpopular move, and he is still consolidating his power with many other pressing issues demanding his time.