By Sarah Waggoner, Senior Staff Writer

The Compounding Problem:

As COVID-19 continues to spread across Colombia, Venezuelan migrants in the country are again being forced to flee in hopes of survival. Transplanted out of one crisis context into another, Venezuelan refugees are increasingly reversing migration patterns by returning to the country they fled not so long ago. The unthinkable decision to return to Maduro’s Venezuela—a country marked by political corruption, social collapse and economic failure—is a choice that can only be understood as borne out of desperation. 

On March 24, following the precedent set by national leaders around the globe, Colombia’s President Iván Duque instituted a nationwide lockdown in an effort to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus. From a health perspective, the necessity of this move is unquestionable. From a livelihoods perspective for Venezuelan migrants, however, the situation is far more complex. For Venezuelan refugees, quarantine has many far-reaching consequences which—if left unchecked—could exacerbate both Colombia and Venezuela’s most pressing development challenges.

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Colombia continues to climb, with the highest number of confirmed cases in Bogotá. Bogotá is one of the handful of cities at the forefront of the Venezuelan migrant crisis. Despite not being located along the border, Colombia’s capital has nonetheless become home to more than 400,000 Venezuelan migrants fleeing economic collapse.  

In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Bogotá’s Mayor, Claudia Lopez, promptly declared an eviction ban as a measure of protection for vulnerable Venezuelan migrants. Unfortunately, this decree has thus far proven unenforceable. Migrants in Bogotá have continued to be paradoxically kicked out of their homes amidst strict lockdown orders. To make matters worse, Lopez has also explained that Bogotá’s local government can only provide food and shelter to Colombian citizens. Already covering the health and educational expenses of thousands of migrants, Bogotá’s local government is stretched thin and needs national government support to extend emergency relief to migrants. 

Since the majority of migrants work in the informal economy, thousands of Venezuelans are now facing joblessness, homelessness, and possible starvation amidst the unfolding pandemic. With no other options, many in Bogotá are now choosing the unthinkable: trekking over 1,000 km of precarious terrain to return to the country they once fearfully fled—all amidst a highly transmittable and potentially life-threatening pandemic. 

Since the Colombia-Venezuela border has been officially closed as part of Colombia’s lockdown strategy, most of the remaining routes home are illegal, with the exception of “humanitarian corridors” established by Colombia’s Immigration Authority. In the absence of access to corridors, Venezuelans effectively forced to flee their place of refuge must return to the country they once chose to flee and to do so illicitly, likely with the help of smugglers. 

Those who do successfully cross the border back into Venezuela are returning to a country plagued not only with socioeconomic collapse and authoritarian rule, but a rapidly worsening national health crisis. To date, Maduro’s regime has shown itself to be significantly ill-equipped to effectively respond to the COVID-19 crisis. Driven to the point of collapse by the country’s prolonged economic turmoil, Venezuela’s health system cannot withstand the pandemic’s impending pressure alone. 

The Evolving Response:

In order to most effectively tackle the transnational challenges brought on by COVID-19, Colombia and Venezuela must renounce their political standoff and work together. For such international cooperation to become a viable option, Maduro and Guaidó must first reach a temporary agreement of their own. As international donors continuously decline COVID-19-related aid requests from Caracas, citing the need for clarity on national leadership as an essential prerequisite, pressure is mounting for cooperation between the two opposing leaders. 

On March 31, the Trump Administration proposed that both Maduro and Guaidó step down, to make way for an interim government to unitedly respond to the health crisis. Under the proposed Democratic Transition Framework for Venezuela, the United States would promptly lift sanctions on individuals in the Maduro regime who cooperatively resign from their current posts. In order for wider-sweeping sanctions on Venezuela’s oil and energy industries to be lifted, however, the United States would need official resignations from both national leaders. 

Accepting this proposal would mean clarifying legitimate national authority in Venezuela and thus freeing up the international funding that the country so desperately needs in order to effectively combat COVID-19. Importantly, the framework also allows for the possibility of both Maduro and Guaidó running in elections after the temporary government’s conditional rule. Yet, perhaps somewhat predictably, Maduro still chose to quickly reject the offer.  

The context of these unfolding events is critical, as the spread of COVID-19 is taking place in tandem with a worldwide oil price collapse and a reversed migration crisis in Venezuela, leaving Maduro increasingly out of options for consolidating his control. In order to leverage the increased vulnerability of Maduro’s hold on power, U.S. officials should consider amending its proposal to include rescinding its indictments against Maduro and his allies in return for Maduro’s resignation. 

While the U.S. indictments show an appropriately firm stance against Maduro’s flagrant corruption and illegitimate rule, the charges also negate any possibility of Maduro’s agreement to step down. As fallout from the spread of the pandemic continues to place pressure on Maduro, the Trump Administration should amend its Democratic Transition Framework in order to take full advantage of the unique set of current circumstances. 

By rescinding the indictments, the United States could seize the unprecedented potential for true political progress in Venezuela while also unlocking COVID-19-related international aid flows. By properly incentivizing Maduro to accept a political transition plan that results in his resignation, the United States would also pave the way for the restoration of cooperation between Colombia and Venezuela—the type of cooperation needed for both countries to most effectively combat the transnational consequences of the pandemic. 

Sarah Waggoner is an M.A. candidate at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs with a concentration in Political Development in Post-Conflict Contexts. She holds a B.A. in Political Science and International Studies from the University of Michigan. Her professional experience includes three years as an international development practitioner at a democracy and governance organization.