Duque’s Bold Gesture for Venezuelan Refugees Could Be Politically Costly

Duque’s Bold Gesture for Venezuelan Refugees Could Be Politically Costly
Venezuelans cross the International Simon Bolivar bridge into Colombia, Feb. 21, 2018 (AP photo by Fernando Vergara).
It’s not often that a large refugee population is given unexpected reason to feel overjoyed. But that’s what happened last week in Colombia, when President Ivan Duque, standing alongside United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, announced that he would allow all Venezuelans living in the country as of Jan. 31 to obtain residency permits for 10 years. Their official status will grant them full rights to work, study, receive health care and enjoy other benefits available to Colombian citizens. The news came as a surprise, particularly because just a few weeks ago Duque had said undocumented Venezuelans would not be included in Colombia’s planned coronavirus vaccination rollout. That sparked sharp criticism, not just for being inhumane, but also for the obvious reason that the pandemic will not end if large segments of the population, regardless of legal status, are not inoculated. It’s unclear what prompted Duque to reverse course so drastically. In fact, it is something of a mystery why a president not known for taking big risks opted to make a move that is so politically charged just 15 months before the country’s next presidential election. The decision, to be sure, is nothing but commendable from a humanitarian standpoint. The political calculation is much less certain. Colombia, which shares a large border with Venezuela, has taken about one-third of the more than 5 million people who fled that country’s collapse at the hands of its authoritarian regime, which created one of the world’s worst refugee crises. Of the more than 1.7 million Venezuelans estimated to reside in Colombia—some NGOs say the number is far higher—966,000 have no legal status, according to government figures. When Venezuelans started arriving in large numbers, Colombians welcomed them warmly. After all, it wasn’t long ago that Colombia was in crisis and Venezuela the wealthier, more stable country to which many Colombians fled. But over time, the welcome wore out. Tensions increased between the often-impoverished newcomers and the communities where they arrived. Once the coronavirus pandemic struck, conditions for millions of Colombians worsened, and the need for survival overtook the inclination to help. By the time Duque issued the decree normalizing the status of Venezuelans, polls showed most Colombians did not want Venezuelans to stay. Duque’s dramatic opening to refugees is reminiscent of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s startling announcement in 2015 that Germany would take in a million Syrian refugees. But to state the obvious, Colombia is not Germany, and 2021 is not 2015. The coronavirus pandemic has slammed Colombia, as it has much of Latin America, which has seen disproportionate numbers of cases and deaths compared to the region’s share of the global population. Per capita income stood at just $7,500—about one-sixth that of Germany—before the pandemic hit. The economic contraction due to the pandemic has caused extreme hardship for millions of people. For communities, local governments and individuals struggling to make ends meet, the news that Venezuelans would be entitled to full government benefits was not unalloyed good news. Many people reacted with concern and even anger at the notion that there will be more competition for scarce jobs and resources.

It is something of a mystery why a president not known for taking big risks opted to make a move that is so politically charged just 15 months before the next presidential election.

And yet, it would be incorrect to say Duque’s announcement was poorly received. The reception was a mixture of national pride and anxiety. That means that from a political standpoint, this is a gamble for the president. International reaction was uniformly positive. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken commended Duque and declared in a tweet, “The U.S. stands with Colombia….” Grandi, the head of the U.N. refugee agency, gushed, “What the Colombian government has done is extraordinary, and it’s a world-class example.” Even Pope Francis offered praise for Colombia. More than praise, what Duque would like is financial support, for which Colombia has been imploring the international community for years. The U.N., along with private organizations, agree that Colombia’s effort to support Venezuelans is one of the most underfunded international crises the world faces. Within Colombia, too, there was enthusiastic support of the new plan from some unexpected quarters. An editorial in El Espectador, a liberal daily, called the conservative Duque’s plan a “courageous, humanitarian measure, that should be celebrated by everyone without reservations.” First, the paper’s editorial board said, the move is a humanitarian act that will allow Venezuelans to be treated with the dignity they deserve as human beings. Second, it is a good economic investment for the country, since it will allow Venezuelans to support themselves and ultimately benefit the economy, rather than be exploited due to their precarious status. Third, it will help Colombia beat the pandemic by including them in the vaccination program. Still, many in Colombia are left wondering what prompted the normally risk-averse Duque to make such a bold move. Perhaps he was shaken by the harsh reaction to his announcement that undocumented Venezuelans would not receive the vaccine. Perhaps he simply wanted to help the lot of the less fortunate. More likely, though, Duque is calculating that the odds of this move paying off exceed those of staying the course. After all, he is a politician. The year before an election, politicians think about electoral politics. Though Duque is prevented by Colombia’s single term limit for presidents, he would like to pass the baton off to a candidate from his political party, Democratic Center. Polls currently suggest he could instead be a drag on the party’s 2022 candidate. His approval numbers, which were dismal in the first two years of his presidency, climbed in the early months of the pandemic. But they have been sliding since then, dropping to just 32 percent in one recent poll. With the party’s most powerful figure and Duque’s mentor, former President Alvaro Uribe, currently on trial for election fraud, witness tampering and alleged complicity in crimes committed by right-wing paramilitary groups, it can ill afford an unpopular incumbent weighing it down further. To preserve any hopes that his successor in 2022 will come from the Democratic Center, Duque will need to oversee a successful vaccine deployment, a process that has barely started. Then he needs a swift return to brisk economic activity to make up for the ground lost during the pandemic, which included a five-month national lockdown. During the second quarter of 2020, the economy contracted by 15.8 percent, the worst performance in decades, with painful results for the middle class and the poor. For the entire year, gross domestic product shrank by 6.8 percent. The new year is not going to be an easy one, and time is running out for Duque. The coronavirus is still spreading, and the Brazilian variant is threatening South America. There is little doubt economic growth will return after vaccination becomes widespread. If life returns to normal, and jobs become more plentiful, Duque may be able to campaign for his party’s eventual candidate on having shepherded the country through a crisis, while having treated Venezuelans with a generosity that Colombians can be proud of. But if the economic recovery is weak and unemployment stubborn, Duque’s good deed toward Venezuelan refugees will not go unpunished at the polls. Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is a regular contributor to CNN and The Washington Post. Her WPR column appears every Thursday. Follow her on Twitter at @fridaghitis.

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