Venezuela vs. Colombia: The Battle Over Emigrés

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Charlie Devereux

Fredys Villanueva, 55, from Barranquilla in Colombia, went to Venezuela for work

Fredys Villanueva has abandoned his native Colombia for neighboring Venezuela. But he's not quite like the hundreds of thousands of Colombians who have fled their country's bloody 44-year civil war for the safety of the land of Hugo Chávez. Instead, he's like the 2 million or more Colombians who have moved to Venezuela because it offers greater employment opportunities and a more secure social-safety network. Perched on a sofa on the porch of his home in El Aguacate, a barrio outside Caracas, Villanueva is more than happy to be caught in the ideological wrestling match between South America's most polarizing rivals: leftist Chávez and conservative Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.

After going to Venezuela from Barranquilla, Colombia, in 2003, Villanueva, 55, found steady work with decent pay at an aluminum factory, a job that came with a free house and other benefits. "There's a health clinic over there," he says, pointing down a dusty road lined with haphazardly constructed brick houses. "The Cuban modules are nearby too," he adds, referring to the free clinics, started by Chávez, that use Cuban doctors in poor neighborhoods. "They give me free pills for my hypertension."

The U.N. estimates that some 200,000 Colombians are indeed in neighboring Venezuela as war refugees. But as many as 75% of the more than 3 million to 4 million Colombians living there moved for economic reasons. Juan Carlos Tanus, president of the Association of Colombians in Venezuela, says Venezuela's advantages include jobs and subsidized food and health, which has been provided for the past 10 years by Chávez's socialist government. In fact, Tanus notes, from 2002 to 2008 — even as Colombia got safer thanks to Uribe's offensive against leftist guerrillas — the number of Colombians emigrating to Venezuela each year rose from 21,200 to 93,000.

That's a potential embarrassment for Uribe, whose success against the rebels has been an economic boon for Colombia. Economic growth from 2002 to 2008 averaged an impressive 5.3% annually. But the number of working-class Colombians bolting for Venezuela hints that Uribe has yet to make that new wealth trickle down — a failing that could simply continue the kind of inequality that has fueled civil wars in Colombia for centuries. "The economic growth statistics published in the media are one thing," says Patricia Yañez, a sociologist at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas who studies Chávez's anti-poverty programs. Colombia's migratory data "suggest something different." Venezuelan state television has even been rolling out Colombian expatriates to praise Chávez's social programs and support him in his spat with Uribe over Colombia's recent decision to let U.S. troops use Colombian military bases.

Still, Venezuela's own migratory numbers suggest a different story than the one Chávez's "21st century socialism" promotes. While tens of thousands of poor Colombians might be flocking to Venezuela, just as many middle-class Venezuelans are leaving. A report by the Latin American & Caribbean Economic System, a multi-lateral organization based in Caracas, finds that from 1990 to 2007, Venezuelan emigration to developed countries rose 216%. Erick Castro, a Caracas-born engineer, left for Canada last month thanks in large part to the Venezuelan capital's out-of-control violent crime, 30% annual inflation and what he insists is the Chávez government's hostility to private enterprise.

Castro believes that Chávez's oil-fueled Bolivarian revolution (named for 19th century South American independence hero Simón Bolívar) discriminates against the middle class. When he recently applied for a mortgage to buy a new house in a safer neighborhood, he says he was offered an exorbitant interest rate, set largely by the government, because of his economic status. "I came out with the impression that they give priority to the lower strata," he says. It's admirable to boost the poor, who before Chávez were largely ignored by Venezuela's élite. But Flerida Rengifo, a demographics analyst at the Central University, says stories of the Venezuelan middle-class brain drain are getting more common. "There's no support for private industry," she says, "so people feel unsupported by the state in terms of their ability to invest in the country."

That, in turn, has Uribe supporters crowing — especially since Colombia's improved security situation and business-friendly policies are prompting a return of many middle-class expats. Spain, in fact, reports that under its new program to help expats from around the world return to their home countries, Colombians have been filing the second highest number of requests for aid.

As is usual in the constant duels between Chávez and Uribe, the truth lies somewhere between their left-right bluster. Both could stand to listen more to their countrymen who have voted with their feet. "I want to die in my country," says Fredys Villanueva, but not if he first can't find a job and affordable health care under Uribe. At the same time, says Castro, Chávez's "Robin Hood–type" government and its promotion of "social resentment" threaten to keep alienating a large swath of his country. As things are, however, it's doubtful that such voices stand to be heard above either Alvaro or Hugo.