Hovered under umbrellas, a group of about 50 Venezuelans gathered in Bogotá, on the day before their country’s vote to choose members of the constituent assembly. With Venezuelan music playing and food vendors selling arepas, it could almost be mistaken for a Venezuelan cookout if it were not for the homemade signs condemning Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
The demonstration happens in the shadows of Bogotá’s Heroes Monument with a statue of Simón Bolivar reigning above the crowd. With a tinge of irony that most Venezuelan refugees oppose the Bolivarian Revolution in their own country, it also reflects Colombia’s and Venezuela’s shared history.
“In every corner of the world, there is a group of Venezuelans that want to see change in Venezuela” Erikson Quintero, 26, said while waiting for his friends to arrive to the protest. “We want to return to our country. I don’t want to stay in Colombia forever.”
Quintero and his wife just arrived in Bogotá a week ago from their hometown of Caracas. Just before fleeing, Quintero and his wife were victims to an attempted kidnapping in their own home. Quintero, who used to participate in the protests in Caracas’ streets, said the human rights violations became too much for him. Violent, ongoing protests for the past four months, have left 121 dead, nearly 2,000 injured and over 1,000 protestors remain detained, reported El Tambor, an independent media outlet in Venezuela. Quintero and his wife left behind everything – family, pets, their house and auto shop businesses – in search for stability and safety.
For decades, Colombians fled to Venezuela to escape the armed conflict, but now the roles have reversed. “In Venezuela, many Colombians found refuge and were received by their neighbors, who helped them build a new life,” said Regina de la Portilla, Associate Public Information Officer with the United Nations Refugee Agency in Colombia. “Today it is Colombia that’s receiving Venezuelans, and we hope that Colombians open their arms to their neighbors, who are going through difficult moments, and accept them into their communities.”
The UN Refugee Agency told The City Paper that those crossing the border are a mix of Venezuelan refugees, Colombians returning home and mixed families. The agency added that even within the Venezuelan immigrant community, the motivations for leaving vary from escaping the violence to basic needs for medicine and food. Regardless, all Venezuelans dream of returning home to a changed country.
There are approximately 300,000 Venezuelans in Colombia, according to Colombia Migration. About 200,000 are undocumented with nearly half having entered legally but surpassed their visa stay.
The UN Refugee Agency is working with the Colombian government to monitor the border and help identify people in need of international protection.
“It’s really difficult for Venezuelans to leave their country, because we’re not accustomed to immigrating,” Pedro Jiménez of Puerto Ordáz, said while selling “besitos de coco”, or “coconut kisses” in English, at the protest. “Venezuelans are like a big family. To leave your people, is painful.”
Jiménez moved his family to Bogotá three years ago. In Venezuela, he worked for a factory that produced materials like aluminum. But without a work visa, his options are limited. Many Venezuelans who flee are forced to change professions, often settling for lower-waged employment.
The UN Refugee Agency said the biggest challenge for asylum seekers is the waiting period for their requests that often leaves them without work visas, endangering them to exploitation.
On July 28, Colombian Foreign Minister María Angela Holguín issued the Temporary Stay Permit − PTP for its Spanish acronym − which will allow about 210,000 Venezuelans already in Colombia, legal rights and protections such as worker permits and access to public services.
While some Venezuelan immigrants feel accepted or even at home in Colombia, others have experienced discrimination.
Two years ago, Adalberto Perez Antuñez, 27, a journalist from Caracas, experienced one of the worst moments in his life. During this time, the border between Colombia and Venezuela was closed after three Venezuelan soldiers were killed and President Maduro deported thousands of Colombians while closing the border for a year. In desperation Antuñez paid someone to drive him across the border on improvised roads.
It was raining on this September day, and their car slid across the muddy, makeshift road, slamming into a tree. Antuñez, terrified but physically unharmed, was forced to carry his suitcases in hand and walk across the border. “It’s sad to say this, but when I got to Colombia, I felt tranquility,” said the journalist.
But this newfound serenity was short-lived when Antuñez found out him and his partner would be fined by Colombian Migration for crossing without permission. He sensed that Venezuelans were not welcome. So, he left for Ecuador, but with limited job opportunities there, Antuñez returned to Colombia six months later.
He has found a Venezuelan community in the northern Bogotá neighborhood of Cedritos, or as it is known now: Cedrizuela, as it has the highest concentration of Venezuelans in the city. He lives in an apartment with all Venezuelans who have also fled their homes for better lives.
Sitting on his living room couch Antuñez reflected on how the crisis has torn apart his family. His voice filled with emotion as he explained that his sister also dangerously crossed the border into Panama, while his mom is still in Venezuela.
Identifying as apolitical, Antuñez said all he wants for his country is freedom and peace. He hopes that the world will not leave Venezuela behind.
“Venezuelans are not a threat,” Antuñez said. “When we feel this rejection, this xenophobia towards us when all we’re trying to do is escape a completely horrible reality, it is difficult.”
After the July 30 vote, the crisis has only intensified in Venezuela leaving many refugees, like Antuñez, concerned. The voting day left more protestors, police and even a candidate dead. Ten countries, including Colombia, have vowed to not recognize Venezuelan’s new constituent assembly. At the time of this article, the latest news is the Venezuelan Intelligence has detained several of the Opposition’s leaders, including Leopoldo López who was only recently released on house arrest.
At the protest, standing quietly were María del Sol Villamizar, from Bogotá, and her Venezuelan husband, Alfredo Velásquez. The couple left Venezuela 10 years ago to Costa Rica, and three years ago moved to Bogotá. Although this is Villamizar’s home-town, tears rolled down her cheek as she explained that Venezuela is a big part of life.
“Although I wasn’t born there, I want to stand in solidarity,” Villamizar said. “There’s been many deaths, too much blood running through the streets and so much pain. Enough is enough.”