Xenophobic ideology is not new to politics. It is, however, relatively new to Venezuela, which has been one of the more welcoming South American countries to immigrants throughout the second half of the 20th century.
On August 19, 2015, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced “Operation Liberation of the People” (OLP). Since then, over 1,500 Colombians have been officially deported from Venezuela, more than 18,000 have left voluntarily, and thousands more were packing their belongings as of mid-September — lugging refrigerators, suitcases, and furniture — and fleeing back to their homeland. Maduro has closed border crossings and declared a “state of emergency” along Venezuela’s western border with Colombia, permitting warrantless searches and banning protests in border municipalities. Along with the deployment of the military to deport paper-less Colombians, these measures are an attempt to rid Venezuela of the illegal Colombians who he blames for Venezuela’s economic woes.
Although Venezuela still refuses to reverse its decision to seal off much of the 1,400-mile (2,200 km) border, Maduro and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos did agree to gradually normalize relations after peace talks on September 21, 2015.
“First you apply the tourniquet to stop the bleeding and then you cure the wound. This will protect our people from the attacks of paramilitaries, smugglers and drug traffickers,” Maduro announced in a televised address to the public. “I’m not offending Colombia, I’m just telling a truth…From Colombia, all of the poverty and misery is coming over with a people who are escaping for economic needs and fleeing war,” he continued.
This blanket scapegoating of a national group is eerily reminiscent to major ethnic conflicts that have resulted in mass exile and murder including of Jews in Nazi Germany, or of ethnic Tutsis in Rwanda. It is also strangely familiar to recent American politics — specifically, to comments Republican Presidential hopeful Donald Trump has made about Mexican immigrants:
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems…. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people,” said Trump on July 16, when announcing his presidential candidacy.
Despite the fact that Maduro has strongly criticized Donald Trump, decrying the tycoon as a bandit, a thief, and mentally ill, Maduro’s actions are worse than Trump’s words.
The comparison was first made by the Venezuelan Program for Education and Action in Human Rights (Provea), who declared Maduro a “Caribbean Donald Trump.”
“His policies are xenophobic and they break with Venezuela’s tradition of welcoming immigrants,” Inti Rodriguez, a Provea spokesman. “These deportations also resemble strategies implemented by governments in the 1980’s where police tried to stop crime by massively detaining people in the slums.”
Ever since, the comparison has exploded on social media:
La diferencia entre #Trump y #Maduro solo va a ser el color de pelo… pic.twitter.com/sLLioVLSNG
— Don Giovanni (@Giovasierra) August 25, 2015
Translation: The only difference between #Trump and #Maduro is the hair color.
@doserre "Los imigrantes de _________ (inserte pais) solo traen violencia y crimen…" #madurotrump #xenofobo pic.twitter.com/vg5BJEOZPr
— Felix Rios G (@lybero) August 25, 2015
Translation:“The immigrants of ______ (insert country) only bring violence and crime…” #madurotrump #xenophobe
A Historical Perspective
Relations have been sub-par between Venezuela and Columbia ever since the early 1800s, when Simon Bolivar’s plan for La Gran Colombia — a united Latin America, which held the two countries as one — fell through. Since then, they have drifted apart ideologically and politically.
Tensions have increased in recent years over a number of different issues, including Colombia’s accusation that Venezuela has been harboring members of the communist and terrorist rebel army The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The relationship is characterized by constant diplomatic disagreements, especially over disputed maritime borders in the Gulf of Venezuela.
The current crisis started in August after a confrontation between Venezuelan border police and smugglers who buy subsidized staples at dirt-cheap prices in Venezuela then resell them in Colombia for huge profits. In response, Maduro closed border crossings on August 19, saying he wanted to stem the flow of smuggled goods from Venezuela. Since then, both countries have recalled their respective ambassadors and have accused unauthorized aircrafts of violating each other’s airspaces.
Finally, on September 21, both presidents met in Quito, Ecuador in a summit brokered by Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, and the head of Unasur, a regional body of South American nations. A week later, on September 28, Maduro announced that he will allow the deported Colombians to return to Venezuela to legalize their status. However, it remains to be seen whether this announcement will be reflected in reality.
“Stabilizing the Economy”
Maduro’s ruthless and seemingly draconian attempt to ‘stabilize the economy’ is arguably an attempt to boost his appeal before the parliamentary elections in December. Although Maduro’s ruling Socialist Party currently enjoys a majority in the National Assembly, the widespread shortages and soaring inflation has hurt the government’s popularity. In order to regain public approval, Maduro has scapegoated over five million Colombians living in Venezuela, who make up 15% of the population.
The majority of Colombians living in Venezuela immigrated for economic reasons, as Venezuela generally has a lower unemployment rate, a favorable exchange rate, and low cost of state-subsidized goods. Alongside economic reasons, many Colombians flee the guerilla and paramilitary warfare, drug trafficking, and contraband mafia violence. The irony is that Maduro is trying to rid his country of the very people who have tried to escape the same problems he claims to be fighting.
Illegal Colombian immigrants are now being forced out of Venezuela with, at most, 72 hour notice. Houses spray-painted with a “D” are designated for demolition, and residents are often evacuated without food, water, their belongings, or their families. Santos denounced the mass deportations as human rights abuses, and has set up camps to receive the incoming refugees.
The lure of scapegoating
Just as America’s economic woes and social troubles are too often blamed on illegal Mexican immigrants, who mainly immigrate to improve their personal economic livelihood, Venezuela is blaming their skyrocketing inflation, food shortages, and rising unemployment on Colombian immigrants. Both Mexican immigrants in the United States and Colombian immigrants in Venezuela are being forced out in the respective countries, left without their belongings and separated from their families, albeit in very different manners. Similarly, just as anti-Mexican immigration arguments oversimplify the deeper structural and institutional problems in both the U.S. and Mexico, Venezuela and Colombia will both need to come to terms with their unstable economies, rampant crime, drug trafficking, and smuggling. Addressing these problems by targeting an ethnic group, when taken to extreme proportions has been proven again and again to be extremely dangerous.
If Nicolas Maduro’s actions are in fact the real-life representation of Donald Trump’s words, perhaps he should take a real lesson from the Trumpian school of thought and start buying some concrete, hire a construction team, and get on that wall. With the agreement to normalize relations, it seems like he will not follow this path to extremism. Hopefully, he will instead take a lesson from history, and see that scapegoating is not, has never been, and will never be, the answer.