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Why Venezuela’s neighbors are facing a huge refugee emergency

Fleeing political turmoil and a country in economic freefall, millions of Venezuelans have fled for the surrounding countries in South and Central America. Does Nicolas Maduro’s government feel any pressure to try and make life better in the country? Nick Schifrin talks with Javier Corrales of Amherst College.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Next, we turn to the crisis in Venezuela and beyond.

    Venezuelans are now the largest group by nationality seeking asylum in the U.S. Last year, more than 28,000 people applied for that status, five times the number in 2015. They're fleeing political turmoil and a country in economic freefall that is threatening its neighbors.

    Today, the Brazilian military is deploying to a region along its border with Venezuela that has suffered a spike in violence since Venezuelan refugees arrived. Millions of Venezuelans have fled the surrounding countries in South and Central America.

    As Nick Schifrin reports, it is a refugee crisis that the United Nations warns could soon equal the one ongoing in the Mediterranean.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For millions of Venezuelans, the line between starvation and survival is the border with Peru. Refugees bring only what they can carry, along with their entire families, fleeing their homeland.

    On the Ecuadorian border, refugees take over a highway they have been walking for hundreds of miles in hope to escape a life that has become unbearable.

    And on the Brazilian border, little girls carry what's most valuable. Families at the border wait for their turn, wait for what they hope is a better life.

  • Man (through translator):

    I came here to work and help my family, because you can't back there.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has overseen an economic catastrophe. Inflation is predicted to be 1,000,000 percent, pulverizing incomes, spreading hunger and crumbling health services.

    Sky TV recently filmed in a hospital in an area held by the opposition. Patients sleep behind staircases in dark corridors. Most doctors have left due to lack of salaries. Those still here work for nearly free.

    Margaret Gamboa is a medical student.

  • Margaret Gamboa:

    Everything here is so sad. I cannot help them because I need help. There is nobody here.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    one of the few remaining doctor shows off cabinets supposed to be for medicine, today empty.

    This boy needs antibiotics the hospital doesn't have. And in a nearby room, a mother shows cell phone video of her daughter, once a dancer in the orange dress, now nearly immobilized by a brain tumor.

    But there's no cancer medicine in Venezuela. So her mother, Emyuri Fuentes will try and make the difficult journey to Colombia.

    Emyuri Fuentes (through translator): Because she's my daughter, I have to support her. We have been here for two months.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The conditions have created an exodus of 2.3 million and a regional migration crisis, says Colombia's migration director, Christian Kruger.

    Christian Kruger (through translator): We cannot lie to ourselves. We are talking about a nation of nearly 30 million residents that clearly will continue leaving their country. Regional nations must unite.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    To try and fix the economy, the government recently raised salaries by 3500 percent and introduced a new currency with five fewer zeros. But in a country full of long gas lines, ATM lines and groceries that can cost two weeks of people's salaries, that may be too little too late, says Venezuelan business organization president Carlos Larrazabal.

    Carlos Larrazabal (through translator): Without controlling the hyperinflation, the impact of these incremental changes will be totally counterproductive.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Maduro government says it's preventing chaos and fighting internal and external enemies. Maduro himself urges Venezuelans to stay home. Even if life isn't perfect, he says, leaving is worse.

    Nicolas Maduro (through translator): Some Venezuelans who left the country to clean toilets — I'm saying this even if it hurts — have left to become economic slaves abroad.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For more on all this, I'm joined by Javier Corrales, professor of political science at Amherst College.

    Javier Corrales, do the countries that these Venezuelan refugees are arriving in, do they have the capacity to accept so many refugees?

  • Javier Corrales:

    They don't.

    These are countries that are not necessarily impoverished, but they do not have the capacity to have a refugee crisis of this magnitude, and happening at this speed.

    There's no question that these governments are going to have to respond. These are a large number of people in dire need suddenly arriving. Some of them are incredibly honest people. But there's also a lot of contraband and illicit trade and criminal activity happening at the same time.

    And all of this is arriving at a fast speed. And so it is a real emergency situation in many communities.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Inside Venezuela, we saw last year a lot of resistance to the government. We have seen less resistance recently.

  • Javier Corrales:

    Yes.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Why is that?

  • Javier Corrales:

    Well, you have to understand that it is very difficult, number one, to resist in the midst of such economic devastation.

    The average salary is $1 a month. And there is complete scarcity. Also — and this is the second reason — last year, the government inflicted quite a bit of repression, and it has continued to do so. But last year's repression was pretty brutal, signaling to the rest of the population that it can be very costly to engage in political activism.

    So, most Venezuelans are either giving up or spending time trying to survive or just opting to leave.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Has the repression worked? In some ways, has the Maduro government won?

  • Javier Corrales:

    The repression absolutely worked.

    Venezuelans feel very watched and not safe from the government. And it is taking a toll. This silence on the part of the opposition, together with this exodus, is a sign that the government is prevailing.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And as the government is prevailing, to use your words, do they feel any pressure to make some of the reforms that are required?

  • Javier Corrales:

    This is what's so interesting.

    Under normal circumstances, any government facing this type of economic calamity would try to do something to stop it. But what I believe is happening in Venezuela is that the government has realized that this economic crisis works to its advantage, because it completely decimates the private economy, and it also decimates civil society, and leaves only one actor standing, and that is the state.

    So the administration, the Maduro administration has concluded, strangely, that this economic crisis is politically convenient for them, and so they have no incentive necessarily to put an immediate end to the economic crisis.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But we have seen some sign, right, that there's some cracks within the rank and file of the elites, and perhaps even within the military.

    So does that mean that the government really feels no pressure to try and make life better for everyone in the country?

  • Javier Corrales:

    Well, one incentive to try to fix the situation is that the economic environment is unbearable for almost everyone. So the government is responding — is responding with the classic combination of co-opting some groups and repressing those that are a bit more uppity.

    And so you see that a lot of the repression now is being directed not just at opposition forces, but also sectors of the ruling party that are beginning to show discontent.

    There are reports of about 200 military personnel having been arrested, for example. And that tells us that the government is trying this combination of co-opting some groups, but also applying some force inside the movement itself, including the military.

    And the government feels that this is a battle that it can win, that this is a game where they can be good at.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, quickly, in the time we have left, if they're not feeling insecure, can they just maintain the status quo and perhaps buy time until, for example, oil prices increase again?

  • Javier Corrales:

    That's essentially what I think they are hoping for, that all they need to do is to wait it out for a few more months, and that at some point the price of oil will go up, and this will give them some more room for maneuvering.

    So it's a matter of just holding steady for a little longer, make sure that they don't introduce drastic change, and wait for the price of oil to go up.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Javier Corrales of Amherst College, thank you very much.

  • Javier Corrales:

    My pleasure.

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