EL ESPECTADOR

Shame And Amnesia: On Colombian Treatment Of Venezuelan Migrants

People in Colombia seem to have forgotten that in the not-too-distant past, they were the ones seeking refuge abroad, and that Venezuela offered a tolerant and helping hand.

Venezuelans in a migrant camp in Bogota on Oct. 3
Venezuelans in a migrant camp in Bogota on Oct. 3
Lisandro Duque Naranjo

-OpEd-

BOGOTA — The biggest of many differences between Colombia and Venezuela is that, at the start of the 20th century, our Venezuelan neighbors opened their doors to migrants. They welcomed, among others, Italians, Portuguese, Spaniards, Poles, Germans, Yugoslavs, Jews, Lebanese, Turks and Chinese, all of whom contributed to creating a rich mix with local inhabitants.

Later, many Latin Americans made their way to Venezuela as well. People fled the region's dictatorships and settled in that mecca of cosmopolitan culture and abundance. In the 1960s, there were millions of Colombians in Venezuela, and at the start of this millennium, at a time of paramilitary lawlessness in Colombia, their numbers increased.

Colombia is quite the opposite. Some 20 years ago, the Labor Ministry registered barely 109,000 foreigners living here, most of them gringos (U.S. citizens). It's like we never really needed or wanted anyone else.

During World War II, then Foreign Minister Luis Lopez de Mesa closed the doors on European Jews, saying they were "so crafty." In his novel El rumor del astracan (Rumor of an Astrakhan), Azriel Bibliowicz wrote about the few Jews who did manage to settle here in that time. Later, when Chileans sought to escape from the regime of General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), our security services made sure they couldn't enter.

More recently, authorities discovered 150 Chinese hiding in Colombia. Turns out they didn't even plan to stay here. Nevertheless, Francisco Santos — a conservative who serves as ambassador in Washington — went so far as to warn of a "Chinese invasion."

Venezuelan migrant showing his ID in Bogota, Colombia — Photo: Juan Manuel Barrero Bueno/ZUMA

This rather xenophobic DNA of ours has deprived us of the benefits of mellowing our idiosyncrasies with some multicultural variation. It's also bad luck for the desperate people in Venezuela, who seek refuge here only to be met with uncouth chauvinism. The situation has become even worse under Colombia's new president, Iván Duque, who replaced Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018) earlier this year.

In the past three months alone, 99 Venezuelans were killed —13 women and a 86 men — not to mention all the children who have starved to death or those who have died of exposure or from exhaustion on the roads. It hurts just to write about it.

Last week, in Bogota, a Venezuelan man, a 23-year-old father of two, was lynched. He'd been selling sweets, and a criminal who saw him and "suspected" him of being a child snatcher used WhatsApp to organize a lynch party. The zealot and his "civic" collaborators finally caught up with the man and kicked him to death on the street, in broad daylight.

Also in the capital, two Venezuelans were separately reported to have been menacingly cornered on a Transmilenio bus platform, though they managed to get away when the bus arrived. And elsewhere in the country, refugees have had their tents and shacks set on fire, or been shot.

It hurts just to write about it.

Such collective hatred has much to do with the deceptive way the media and state officials handle information on migrants, whom they accuse of bringing disease, crime or prostitution. It's our version of what Donald Trump says about people from the Third World.

The situation is taking on aspects of a humanitarian crisis. It's also clear that the government has little interest in addressing it. This is a government, after all, that isn't even willing to address problems in the healthcare system or in the schools, even though state universities are literally falling apart. A government that won't protect people who are being killed for demanding restitution of their stolen lands, and that will soon apply a hunger-inducing VAT to food products.

Still, what a disgrace when ordinary Colombians are doing the government's dirty work, frightening and killing migrants from a country to which we are historically indebted.

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Economy

Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.


Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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