Juan Fernando Cristo is the former Minister of Interior of Colombia. He led the push for the adoption of legislation on the constitutional balance of power, the most comprehensive constitutional reform since the 1991 Constitution. He drafted a law on victims’ reparations and land restitution during his time as a senator. Mr. Cristo has also worked as Private Secretary of the Minister of Economic Development, Consul in Caracas, Communications Adviser to the President, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Ambassador of Colombia to Greece.
Harvard Political Review: Your study group this week focused on the Venezuelan migrant crisis at the Colombian border. What do you think the international community can do to better support the Latin American countries taking in refugees?
Juan Fernando Cristo: I think that we need much more cooperation from the international community. In fact, the humanitarian crisis at the Colombian-Venezuelan border is the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world. It’s bigger than the Syrian crisis. The political crisis that the Syrian immigration has caused in some countries in Europe. Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru are making a great effort to attend to the people coming in from Venezuela. I think that the United Nations, European Union, and the United States must create one unique foundation with one directive in order to better support the countries in Latin America. I don’t mean for them to just give us money but, more specifically, to create economic and social policies in the Latin American countries to absorb the Venezuelan migrants into these countries.
In the case of Colombia, we have been able to take care of the Venezuelans in terms of health and education, but not to help them reconstruct their lives. We are not in a condition to do that because of the social and economic conditions of Colombia even without the migrant crisis. I think that in terms of helping the people leaving Venezuela find employment, the international community could do much more.
HPR: You have mentioned that you are from Cucuta, Colombia, a town on the border of Colombia and Venezuela. How has the border crisis impacted the border towns?
JFC: It’s terrible. The impact of the Venezuelan migrant crisis is very big and difficult in Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador overall so you can only imagine the impact it has on the border towns. The only thing you need to do to cross from Colombia to Venezuela is cross a small bridge — it’s exactly like crossing the bridge from here to Harvard Business School — so the impact of the social, economic, and security problems caused by the informality of some of the Venezuelan migrant status causes problems like an unemployment rate of 20% on the cities at the border. The informality of the Venezuelan migrants has increased, so there are more people coming into Cucuta and cities on the border from Venezuela. The cities at the Colombia-Venezuela border are facing a humanitarian tragedy — not a crisis. It’s a tragedy.
HPR: What can the international community do to better address the humanitarian crises happening in Venezuela?
JFC: For one moment, I will say that I hope the United States, Europeans, even the United Nations just forget the politics of this issue and focus on the humanitarian crisis. If you try to use humanitarian aid to do politics, this will be very bad for Venezuela, Latin America, and everyone else. We need to focus on the humanitarian crises happening, on the four million people from Venezuela who left and the estimated one million Venezuelans expected to leave this year. The responsibility right now is all on Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and other countries receiving the migrants.
HPR: How, if at all, do you think Latin American countries that are receiving a large number of Venezuelan refugees will change their immigration policies as a response?
JFC: For Colombia, this is a totally new situation. Colombia has never received so many immigrants. Colombia, fortunately, has taken a very positive and open attitude towards the Venezuelans. We receive them now just as Venezuela received a lot of Colombian migrants over the last three decades. The immigration policy in Colombia will change to receive these people coming in from Venezuela and we will continue to receive them. What we need now is international cooperation.
HPR: What changes within Latin American countries do you think can help reduce the amount of corruption in politics and promote regional political stability?
JFC: The first problem is that democracy, not only in Latin America but all around the world, is political parties. Political parties don’t represent their people today and people don’t have trust in their parties. People look for new movements and more citizen-driven movements or civic movements beyond politics. In Latin America, we see populists and authoritarians becoming a problem but we see that in Asia, Africa, and even in the United States. We need to develop a common set of democratic values to defend democracy. We need to get away from extremes and create a center that believes in democratic values and morality not to think in the right or left with a set of values we can all defend.
HPR: What do you believe are the best chances of restoring democracy in Venezuela?
JFC: The resolution for Venezuela needs to be peaceful, democratic and rapid. It needs to result in transparent elections and a peaceful consensus out of this crisis without violence on the inside and outside of Venezuela. Not only can violence break out in Venezuela but also between Venezuela and Colombia. We need a careful and peaceful democratic solution to help restore democracy in Venezuela.
Image Credit: Flickr/Inter-American Dialogue.