There are now 1.2 million Venezuelan migrants in Colombia. How they are treated may help determine a post-Maduro future.
BOGOTÁ — The Colombian government has centered its strategy to manage the Venezuelan crisis and its effects on Colombia around the goal of "ending the usurpation" of government there through a so-called "diplomatic siege." It may have been encouraged to do so by the most radical sectors of the Venezuelan opposition, which have made the Colombian government believe that President Nicolás Maduro's departure was imminent.
Following this strategy, Colombia has accused the Bolivarian government of being a patron of terrorism, for giving refuge to members of the Colombian communist guerrilla army ELN, and of backing destabilizing actions inside Colombia and plans to assassinate President Iván Duque. This type of talk merely takes us back a decade, to the worst moments of confrontation between then-presidents Álvaro Uribe and Hugo Chávez, without contributing at all to resolving the present crisis.
No country in the world has felt the impact of the Venezuelan crisis like Colombia. For this reason, no country is as committed to leading specific actions toward Venezuela's recovery. But this leadership cannot be limited to a diplomatic "siege" nor to pointing out obvious wrongs or even waiting for the internal conditions that will supposedly accelerate the downfall of Maduro and his high command.
The end of the Maduro government does not in itself mean an end to the crisis in Venezuela
Most members of the international community agree that the best way out for Venezuela is a real negotiation that will lead to settling differences through a general election. In fact the Colombian foreign minister's discourse has reiterated that the objective is to generate conditions for elections to allow Venezuelans to freely elect their rulers.
The end of the Maduro government does not in itself mean an end to the crisis in Venezuela. On the contrary, the regime's villains — like the speaker of the pro-government Constituent Assembly Diosdado Cabello or Prisons Minister Iris Varela — have not ruled out resorting to subversion and provoking an armed conflict should the regime fall.
The best way to contain the desperate actions of the Bolivarian junta is to give maximum legitimacy to the next presidential election — which is no easy task. Maduro has already deprived elections of their sense and significance. It is not just the issue of mass distrust in the National Electoral Council or its automated vote-counting system, but the fact that candidates have lost credibility. People may vote for their candidates, but these will later find themselves unable to exercise the power given to them.
The government has made it its business to ensure the diaspora live in the worst possible conditions.
There is very little Colombia can do regarding elections inside Venezuela, beyond backing the electoral process and supervising from afar. But there is one key factor in clinching any election's legitimacy, which is to ensure Venezuelans outside the country, that is 10% of the population, vote. Without the participation of an important proportion of these 3.7 million or more Venezuelans, the next leader's credibility will be weak.
The Maduro government has made it its business to ensure the diaspora live in the worst possible conditions, without papers or consular assistance, and in a state of utter illegality. The regime stands to gain from the disorderly departure of Venezuelans: It reduces the social pressure on the government, limits support for the opposition and the state can receive remittances without having to put them through the financial system, which helps evade international sanctions.
Colombia is the country with most Venezuelan migrants right now: 1.2 million as of March 31, 2019, according to Colombia's migration authorities. Although, with the closure of the border on February 22, we are no longer able to know how many Venezuelans are getting through illegally. While elections do not mean democracy, as Venezuela has shown, electoral participation measured in transparent and credible ways does give elected authorities some legitimacy.
So with the help of the European Union, Colombia could start a process of identifying the Venezuelan community here for its possible participation in elections for the next Venezuelan president. Creating provisional IDs will allow them to vote in elections for the first reform government. That would legitimize an administration that will need to take tough decisions to rectify past policies, but also give us greater clarity on the scope and nature of this migratory and humanitarian crisis.
Colombia is the only country able to organize and lead in the creation of provisional IDs for exiled Venezuelans, and this will have specific effects on the transition. It would dismantle the regime myth of international aggression because it would give back political rights to an exiled population. And it would allow the Colombian state to register, identify and put a name to the migrant population in order to take better public policy decisions.
*Rodríguez is a Venezuela expert at the Politics and International Relations Faculty of the Catholic del Rosario University in Bogotá.