Wade Davis is the author of 20 books, served as explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society from 2000 to 2013, and is currently professor of anthropology at the University of British Columbia. His latest book is Magdalena: River of Dreams. In 2018, he became an honorary citizen of Colombia.
In the United States, a land that once welcomed the huddled masses of the world, more people today favour building a wall along the frontier with Mexico than supporting health care and protection for the undocumented mothers and children knocking in desperation at its doors. Central American refugees arrive by the day, having struggled north, many walking hundreds of kilometres as they flee homelands – Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador – convulsed in violence that began with Ronald Reagan’s proxy wars of the 1980s, and continues today with the criminal networks, the gangs and cartels, that feed America’s enduring obsession with cocaine. Along the southern border, some 545 children were still in U.S. custody last October, having been deliberately separated from their parents, whose location remains unknown. America has turned its back on the victims of its own political follies and cultural failings.
Colombia, by contrast, played no role whatsoever in the agonies of Venezuela, as the nation with the greatest oil reserves in the world, long the richest in Latin America, collapsed into abject poverty, a descent precipitated by systemic corruption, grotesque mismanagement and brutal dictatorship. In less than a decade, inflation grew to 3,700 per cent, with poverty rates approaching 90 per cent, and infant and maternal mortality reaching levels not seen in a century: In 2017 alone, the average weight of a Venezuelan fell by 11 kilograms. At the helm of this failed state is Nicolas Maduro, a former bus driver, who, with his predecessor Hugo Chavez, deliberately betrayed his neighbour to the west by providing rhetorical support and physical sanctuaries for the very guerrilla forces that for 50 years waged war against the Colombian people and their state.
Within Colombia 220,000 would die, 100,000 go missing and seven million be driven from their homes in a war fuelled almost exclusively by the profits of the drug trade. Colombians, most of whom have never used or seen cocaine, have long acknowledged their culpability, even while recognizing with some irony and bitterness that ultimate responsibility for their suffering lies with those countries that both consume and criminalize the drug; notably the United States, which spends almost US$50-billion a year to combat drugs, even while its citizens inhale 165 metric tonnes of cocaine, annually infusing the illicit trade with US$40-billion.
Remarkably, through all its most difficult years, Colombia maintained civil society and democracy, grew its economy, greened its cities and added millions of acres to a national park system already the envy of Latin America. In 2010, then-president Juan Manuel Santos, a politician forged in war, found his way to peace, putting his entire legacy on the line in a single-minded quest to bring the conflict to an end, returning stability and prosperity to the country. With the signing of the peace accords in Cartagena in 2016, Colombia took on the herculean challenge of implementing an agreement that included 578 conditions, key commitments from the government concerning the welfare of rural Colombians: promises of universal access to education, potable water, electricity and roads, economic investments and subsidies. The cost of implementation, a process upon which the very destiny of the nation hinged, was US$45-billion. And this at a time when the price of oil, Colombia’s largest source of foreign capital, had plunged 70 per cent in less than two years.
Then came the greatest humanitarian crisis in the history of the Americas, as Venezuelan refugees, desperate to escape economic ruin and the political tyranny of the Maduro regime, poured across the Colombian frontier at Cucuta. Colombia as a nation faced an existential and moral crisis. Though the diversion of resources was certain to undermine the implementation of a peace process upon which the very hopes and dreams of a long-suffering nation rested, the government did not hesitate for a moment before coming to the aid of what would grow into a sea of humanity, 1.7 million men, women and children fleeing a country incapable of providing its people with even the most basic commodities such as food, gasoline and medicine. Not only did Colombia welcome its desperate neighbours, it fed and housed them, provided medical care and placed their children in schools. It is difficult to recall any other nation, in its own moment of peril, responding to such a crisis with such generosity, decency and grace.
But even this was not enough. On Monday, Colombian President Ivan Duque announced that his government had taken the unprecedented step of unilaterally granting legal status for 10 years to any refugee to have entered Colombia before Jan. 31. In what Filippo Grandi, head of the UN Refugee Agency, described as the “the most important humanitarian gesture” of the last many decades, Mr. Duque with the stroke of a pen transformed the lives of tens of thousands of innocent families fleeing injustice and living in uncertainty, granting them official residency and thus access to universal health care, education and legal employment opportunities. To be sure, there were practical considerations, as Mr. Duque readily acknowledged. “We have close to a million migrants,” he noted in announcing the initiative, “who are in our country whose names we don’t know.” For reasons of national security, public health in a time of COVID-19, law enforcement and political stability, he added, it was essential to bring all of these new arrivals out of the shadows and into the public square.
Without doubt, there was in this gesture an element of reciprocity, with memories of a time when a prosperous and functioning Venezuela welcomed tens of thousands of Colombians fleeing conflict and instability in their own country. But the scale of the intervention suggests that greater and more mysterious forces are in play. Former defence minister Jorge Alberto Uribe describes Colombia’s actions as “a demonstration of humanity, solidarity and gratitude that has very little precedent in the history of the world.” That such sentiments would be expressed by a scion of the conservative right suggests a nation united in compassion, motivated not by politics but rather charity and grace. Surely if Colombia in its own moment of crisis can respond in such a way to a neighbour, the rest of the world can awake to the economic needs of Colombia, as the country struggles to build an enduring peace in the wake of a war in which all nations played their part, if only as consumers of a drug that poisons the soul of all humanity. As Colombia has given to Venezuela, let’s open our hearts and our wallets to Colombia.
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