Colombia needs help as it bears brunt of Venezuela's refugee crisis

Colombia needs help as it bears brunt of Venezuela's refugee crisis
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Colombia has a new president at its helm. The election of Iván Duque, a U.S.-friendly, American-educated, pro-market, legal professional means that Washington will continue to have in Bogotá the sort of strident and committed partner we’ve gotten used to over the past years. But all is not roses. 

Duque, as it’s already clear, has two gargantuan challenges ahead of him as he begins his presidency. The ongoing process of implementing the country’s landmark peace accords — itself a daunting endeavor — has now been compounded by a massive influx of migrants and refugees from Venezuela. 

It is squarely in the United States' interest to make sure we’re behind Duque every step of the way as he tackles these two challenges. Both the implications of failure and the dividends of success will reach far beyond Colombia’s borders.

It’s not for nothing that the Andean nation came to be our strongest ally in the region. When the U.S. decided to take a chance on Colombia 20 years ago, we quickly found that investing in this country yields returns with few parallels throughout the world.

With just the equivalent of 2 percent of our spending on the Iraq War, we were able to play an instrumental role in helping Colombia transform itself from the verge of state failure in 1999 to Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) accession in 2018.

It’s precisely for that reason that U.S. assistance to Colombia has maintained such strong bipartisan support throughout four successive administrations.

In that time, the country slashed its homicide rate by two-thirds, halved its extreme poverty rate and, importantly, ended the hemisphere’s longest-running war by reaching a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016.

Cognizant of the fact that reaching the peace was only half the battle, the Obama and Trump administrations have both maintained U.S. assistance to help Colombia implement it.

While President Duque has called for revisions to some specific terms of the agreement, he has repeatedly affirmed his commitment to consolidating peace. He, like all Colombians, has no interest in seeing the country return to war.

But as Colombia continues to face the Goliath that is peace implementation — dealing with everything from slim resources to FARC dissidents to the assassination of social leaders — another Goliath has reared its head. 

An unfettered humanitarian catastrophe in next-door Venezuela has sent millions fleeing for a chance at survival. Colombia is, by far, bearing the brunt of these outflows, with over 1 million new arrivals in just the past year.

The country has nobly kept its borders open, providing refuge to those escaping dictatorship, hunger, repression and violence — but the influx is taking its toll. 

The state is being stretched thin, aware that a failure to allocate adequate resources to public health, education and resettlement could lead to new outbreaks, damage social cohesion and upend Colombia’s stability in border areas.

His hand forced by circumstance, Duque has proposed redirecting $300 million earmarked for peace implementation to instead go to refugee assistance. This should be our wake-up call. This is not a choice Bogotá should have to make.

Both of these two Goliaths will be arduous and extremely expensive endeavors for Colombia. A high-income country would struggle to attend to these migrants and refugees while carrying out so painstaking a process as the FARC peace.

As a middle-income country, Colombia is quickly becoming overwhelmed. At this absolutely pivotal time, one thing is clear: Colombia needs more help.

The U.S. has joined the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in providing the country with funding to address the refugee crisis — including $2.5 million for Colombia and $16 million for the region at large.

But as Bogotá finds itself forced to consider diverting nine-digit sums from peace implementation to refugee assistance, there’s no getting around the fact that we need to seriously ramp up our commitment. Meanwhile, we should also put into high gear efforts to encourage other countries to do more.

If (and when) things get worse in Venezuela, it will become an increasingly tall order for Colombia to receive much larger influxes of suffering Venezuelans. 

The good news: Colombia has already proved time and again how worthwhile an investment it is. A strong Colombia, we’ve learned, projects stability beyond its borders, especially as a counterbalance to the locus of instability in Caracas.

Today’s Colombia is a diplomatic heavyweight, one whose values and priorities demonstrate a seldom-matched level of convergence with ours. Militarily, Colombia exports its expertise northward, helping to train security forces in Central America, the epicenter of the United States' own migrant crisis. 

The fact that we have so much to gain from a strong Colombia — and so much to lose from a weak Colombia — speaks volumes. Assistance to Colombia isn’t aid; it’s an investment. If we double down on our support at this watershed moment, there will be dividends to reap down the line.

For two decades, U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have ensured that we stood by Colombia when the going got tough, and we’ve been rewarded mightily for it. Now with the stakes higher than ever, our message to the new administration in Bogotá should be just as clear.

Jason Marczak is director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, and director of the Council’s bipartisan Colombia Peace and Prosperity Task Force.