By Joel Bowman, Editorial Director, International Man
February 21, 2019
MEDELLÍN, COLOMBIA – You can ignore reality, goes the old saying, but you can’t ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.
Here in the so-called “developing world,” facts have a way of hitting you square in the jaw, especially when you’re not looking.
“I just hope Señor Trump doesn’t involve the U.S. military,” our taxi driver remarked while navigating the traffic heading into town this morning. “I mean, it may come to that… but I hope it doesn’t.”
Outside our window, lined up along the hilly sidewalks, passed the blurred faces of countless Venezuelan refugees. They appeared desperate. Disconsolate. Yet somehow still determined.
Whole families camp out on the median strips and under trees lining the streets, their meager possessions – usually whatever they could carry with them over the border – lay sprawled out on the grass and concrete in front of them.
By some estimates, as many as 3 million Venezuelans have fled their embattled nation, primarily over the Colombian border. Some plan to continue on to Ecuador. Most won’t make it that far.
Under the beating midday sun, they hold signs at the traffic intersections, painted in the blue, red and yellow of their national flag…
“Somos Venezolanos. Por favor ayudenos. Somos tus hermanos y hermanas. No tenemos nada. Por favor.”
(We are Venezuelan. Please help us. We are your brothers and sisters. We have nothing. Please.)
Some sell candies and beaded necklaces that the women and children thread on the sidewalk. Others dance or juggle or sing or wash car windows.
Many just sit around, not knowing quite what to do next.
Over the radio, a news reporter relayed the latest from the frontlines… in rapid-fire Spanish. We caught snippets between the music and general commotion coming from the streets...
“Trump says Venezuelan military authorities set to ‘lose everything’ if they stand with [President Nicolás] Maduro…”
“Food and medical aid ready at the border… trucks being burned… tear gas… rubber bullets… four dead…”
“US seeks peaceful transition… but ‘all options open’…”
The driver lowered his window and dropped a few coins into a weathered, outstretched hand.
“Buena suerte,” he nodded in encouragement, waving away the proffered red candy.
“We’ve had enough bloodshed in this part of the world,” he shook his head, then turned and eyed us in the rearview mirror.
“I know it is not popular to say this,” he said after a long pause, “but I respect Mr. Trump. I may not like him… but I respect him. He is standing against Maduro. It is easy to do nothing. To make nice words and send sympathies. But to help, that is the hard thing.
“[Former President Hugo] Chavez promised these people everything. Healthcare… education… free social services for everybody. The government was going to take care of it all. Of course, the government didn’t have the money… or the expertise.
“Chavez promised to make the rich people pay. But the rich didn’t like being squeezed… so they packed up and left. And because the government didn’t know how to run the industries, they soon collapsed.
“Now the country is in crisis. The people have nothing left. They have no food or medicine. And their money is worthless. Nobody even knows the rate of inflation there anymore. Millions of percent, probably.
“The government that promised them everything has left them with nothing.
“We had problems in this country, too, not so long ago. And we still do. Many, in fact. But now, it is our turn to help.
“I just hope the situation can be resolved before a military conflict.”
Outside, the traffic signal changed from red to green… and the small band of jugglers and candy sellers ambled across the street, their signs waving in the breeze, towards the slowing cars at the opposite corner.
“Somos Venezolanos…” their voices trailed off.
Joel Bowman for International Man