Colombia Accompaniment Report: Being Venezuelan in Colombia

John Wallace & Ivan Herman

Pure criminals and murderers— every single one of them.” The taxi driver didn’t hold back his disdain for Venezuelans. “All they want to do is steal and kill. And you…” he turned to the two of us North Americans “…they will kill you before they steal from you. You’d better be careful.” We had just asked whether there were lots of Venezuelans in this town. His response was unexpectedly virulent, though not unheard of, and it is evidence of a growing xenophobia.

In every city we visited we saw Venezuelans. They stand in the major intersections, some sporting jackets or ball caps in yellow, blue, and red emblazoned with the arc of eight stars of the Venezuela flag. Unbidden, these young adult men and women quickly wash car windows, hoping for a few coins from the drivers. Others hawk water, drinks, empanadas, or chocolates. Still another with a painted face clowns and goofs around in traffic, hoping for a smile or two while his partners hold a sign, “We are from Venezuela and we need your collaboration to buy merchandise. God bless you.”

Colombia and Venezuela have a long and close history. Simon Bolivar, a Venezuelan military leader, led the revolution against Spanish rule, and was president from 1819-1830 of Gran Colombia, comprised of present-day Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador. We heard Colombians say that that shared history still makes them feel like they are siblings or relatives. The family relationship is clearly strained.

Over 5 million Colombians live in Venezuela, many of them crossed the border in the 1980s and 1990s to find refuge from the violence in Colombia. Now the economic state of Venezuela is causing many to return. The reasons why Venezuela’s economy is changing is matter of political debate and opinion, but the reality is that millions of Venezuelans have left their country. Many of these economic refugees were white-collar workers, and have moved to less-skilled trades because they don’t have legal work permits. One Colombian church member we visited with said she had recently gone to a salon where her hairstylist had left her job as a petroleum engineer in Venezuela to move to Colombia to seek a better economic opportunity.

Two Venezuelans standing roadside asking for assistance.

While the rate of internal displacement within Colombia has slowed in recent years, it does continue to be a significant problem with over 7 million people still displaced from their homes and lands. The addition of economic migrants and repatriated Colombians from Venezuela to the existing large numbers of displaced Colombians is only making the situation more complicated. More than 500,000 Venezuelans now live in Colombia, most without legal residency. At least that many moved through Colombia last year on their way to other countries.

The presence of so many immigrants from next door has also become political and polarizing. Recently, two campaign billboards for the upcoming presidential election used the taglines “I don’t want to live like a Venezuelan” and “So that Colombia doesn’t become another Venezuela.” It caused enough of an uproar that they were quickly covered over, and the candidate the billboards supported denounced the sentiment. Differences in political opinion are also being used to rationalize xenophobic and anti-immigrant sentiments.

Our final day in Colombia was spent with the Sixth Presbyterian Church in Barranquilla. Ivan had been invited to preach, and he focused on the Emmaus story from Luke 24 with emphasis on how the hospitality the two disciples extended to Jesus allowed them to recognize the risen Christ in the breaking of bread. During the prayer time, one of the families in the congregation identified themselves as being from Venezuela, and they expressed gratitude for the ways this congregation has welcomed them and been looking after them. The Presbyterian Church of Colombia continues to model what it means to extend hope and hospitality in the name of Jesus Christ. We have seen it at work in the lives of those who are displaced, those who are immigrants, and we have experienced it ourselves. Colombian Presbyterians are combating fear and xenophobia by sharing the generous love of Christ. In extending hospitality to us and others our eyes have been opened to the risen Christ in them.