Colombia’s History of Immigration: Venezuelans

Incredibly, it has already been 2 months since I moved to Barranquilla and this weekend marked one month since moving to my current home. I love my home and wouldn’t trade it for anywhere else in the city.

Two months here makes me feel finally fully adjusted to the city. I have a regular group of friends, I can figure our which bus to the to get me just about anywhere, and I learned the names for just about all the tropical fruits in the market. I do NOT, however, what my barber says to me ever. The hair cutting and restaurant industry is dominated by immigrants from Maracaibo, Venezuela who are known for a pretty distinct accent. 

Venezuelan license plates are common in this part of the country. This one I saw is from the central state of Carabobo, but most Venezuelans in Barranquilla come from Zulia and other border states.

Barranquilla is something like the New Orleans of Colombia. It’s a coastal city along the largest river in the country and is home of the second largest carnival in the world (Mardi Gras is essentially the same idea). It’s also a city of rich immigrant tradition and multicultural heritage. The Caribbean coast is home to many descendants of slaves kidnapped from the coasts of West Africa, as well as some 10 indigenous communities that populate interior parts of the region. The majority of the people here are triracial descendants from indigenous American, European, and African roots. Adding to this heritage is the strong presence of immigrant communities from the Arab world (Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria) as well as Eastern Europe and even North America (the university I work at was founded by the son of an immigrant from Iowa!).

Immigration has continued up until today—it is impossible to miss the millions of Venezuelans who now live in Colombia, most of whom come from Maracaibo or other parts of the Zulia state, just an 8-hour drive away. Maracaibo is a sprawling petroleum city the size of Philadelphia and has been particularly hard hit by the crisis in Venezuela as its once flourishing oil industry crumbled. Its proximity to Caribbean Colombia means many migrants make the hard decision to leave and try their luck in the neighboring country.

This week while taking the bus to the Museo del Caribe, a 20-something year old woman got on the bus to sell headbands. Bus venders are very common in much of Latin America, but the crisis in Venezuela has made the industry proliferate. The bus driver turned down the music as she spoke to the passengers with a strong and unwavering voice, first asking for forgiveness for disrupting everyone’s peace and quiet (not that a bus ride anywhere in Barranquilla can be considered a “peaceful” or “quiet” experience). She announced that she was a trained artisan from Caracas, Venezuela and had been forced to leave the country due to the bleak economic situation. She began interacting with passengers, asking them how much eggs and corn flour cost in Colombia and compared it to the relative cost of the same products in Venezuela. Once, she said, she had waited a full day in lines to buy a packet of harina P.A.N.—a corn flour that serves as the base of arepas and by extension, virtually every meal in Venezuela.

A typical scene in my neighborhood, La Playa, which is home to many Venezuelans. There are two “veneco” (Venezuelan-Colombian) restaurants within walking distance of my house.

I was most taken aback by how she was able to keep from losing her composure—something I imagine had come with practice after getting on so many busses to sell her products. She continued, telling the riders on the cramped bus how embarrassing it was for her as a professional in her home country to have to get on busses to sell headbands for 1,000 pesos ($0.29) each. I can’t seem to shake her words from my head—“I never imagined I would one day make a living in a foreign country selling headbands on busses.” For months, she said, she had been getting on busses to sell her hand-made headbands, even while in an extremely pregnant condition. She had given birth to a child just six weeks earlier and was already back on busses selling.

Many Venezuelans with artistic skills (like the woman I heard on the bus this week) have put their skills to use performing and making art of all kinds. A few weeks ago in Santa Marta, I met a Venezuelan man selling wallets woven out of all but worthless Venezuelan money. I bought the “whole collection” of Venezuelan banknotes for him for 10,000 pesos. In reality, the small stack of money was worth just 500 pesos ($0.15), but I was happy to support his work regardless how much I was being overcharged. More musically-inclined can make good money performing on busses. One guy who was probably hardly 20 years old got on my bus one night with a boombox and performed traditional Venezuelan music with maracas. These bus vendors tend tap me to “assist” them in magic tricks and other mid-bus ride performances. In this case I got tapped to play his maracas while he tried to convince someone on the bus to dance with him. I was hopelessly lost in the rhythm and none of the passengers wanted to dance with him, but he was a very talented singer.

I know many Venezuelans who live in Colombia, some of whom I count among my friends. The lucky ones who arrived early often have jobs in companies comparable to those in their home country. Later arrivals often have not been so lucky—many, including adults with university degrees, find themselves working in traffic lights as window washers, selling traditional drinks like peto and chicha on the streets, or engaging in sex work. On gay dating apps, it is common to see Venezuelans offering sexual services as “scorts,” regardless of whether or not they’re gay. The stories of Venezuelan migrants in Colombia are often so heart-wrenching that Colombian beggars are known to imitate their accent to invoke sympathy from passersby.

At the time of writing, acquiring passports in Venezuela has become virtually impossible. Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and Panama have all locked down their formerly lax admission of Venezuelan migrants and now require visas. Colombia is ultimately the last accessible destination to seek better prospect and send money to family in Venezuela.

Unfortunately, there is no end in sight to the conditions provoking migration. The U.S. trade war with China has had major effects on economies in Latin America. In Colombia, currency devaluation has made my monthly wage worth $50 less than it was the day I arrived. In the same time period, 1 dollar went from being worth 11,000 bolívares to 21,000 bolívares in Venezuela—a 50% loss in value. The government has finally relented and began producing 50,000 bolívar bills so people don’t have to walk around with hefty bags of currency. 

I always ask Venezuelans I meet how they’ve liked Colombia. The response is usually the same—it’s nice for now, but will never be the same as Venezuela. The separation is excruciating for many in a culture where family is everything. “It’s great to be able to work here and make money, but it’s so hard being away from my family,” one friend told me. “I miss them so much.”

Venezuelans remain among the warmest people I’ve ever met despite the high degree of discrimination and rejection they often face in Colombia. I will always look forward to the day when I can visit their country and experience its richness from the lightening storms of Catatumbo to the ice cream shop with 900 flavors in Mérida.

See here an article I wrote for City Paper Bogotá in 2018 after interviews with several Venezuelans living in Cartagena. 

Vandalized mural of the late leader of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, Hugo Chávez, seen at the Universidad del Atlántico. Public university students come from some of the most poor neighborhoods and tend to support left-wing politics and have decorated their campus with leftist slogans and portraits. The caption reads, “Here nobody gives up, here nobody tires. Giving up is treason, tiring is lack of consciousness.”

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