BUENOS AIRES — It’s a chilly fall afternoon in the Argentine capital, and for many around the circle at Our Lady of Guadalupe parish hall, the climate feels distinctly foreign.
Only one hand goes up when Jose Guerra, moderator of the day’s workshop, asks how many of the two dozen recently arrived Venezuelan refugees in the hall have lived through four distinct seasons. The rest, it turns out, arrived only within the past few weeks or months.
They are just a small part of the massive wave of Venezuelans turning their backs on their homeland and its beleaguered socialist government. Countries across Central and South America are struggling to deal with the massive outflow. Regional analysts say the out-migration threatens to destabilize Venezuela’s neighbors and prove a massive drain on South American resources and economic development.
The Venezuelan refugees in Argentina, driven from their homes by massive shortages, political upheaval and raging violent crime, have traveled 3,000 miles to find welcoming immigration laws and a thriving expatriate community. But not every country is dealing with the influx so smoothly.
The handling of the crisis by Venezuela’s beleaguered president, Nicolas Maduro, figures to be a prime topic of conversation when regional leaders gather at the end of the week in Peru for the Summit of the Americas. President Trump, whose administration has taken several steps against the Maduro government and sanctioned many top officials in Caracas, will not be in Lima for the discussion.
Mr. Trump announced Tuesday that he was canceling the trip and a subsequent visit to Colombia so he could monitor the crisis in Syria. Vice President Mike Pence will attend in his stead.
Syria’s civil war has destabilized much of the Middle East, but many Latin American specialists say the Venezuelan problem is a comparable catastrophe unfolding at a slower clip. An estimated 1.5 million or more Venezuelans are currently displaced in countries across North and South America, with a twentyfold increase in asylum claims since 2014.
“That is the kind of economic collapse that has, I think, almost never been seen outside the context of a war or a natural disaster in a very small state,” said Brad W. Setser, a top Treasury official in the Obama administration and now a senior fellow for international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It is significantly deeper than the fall in output in Greece, and Greece was much deeper than the kind of financial crisis contractions observed in Latin America in the 1990s.”
Venezuela, he said, “is in free fall.”
Some analysts say the international community has failed to acknowledge the dimensions of the crisis. Some resist terms like “refugee crisis” because, unlike Syria, Venezuela is not a war zone, said Dany Bahar, an economist with the Brookings Institution.
“But, to be honest, if you look at the numbers, the humanitarian crisis that is happening in Venezuela is as bad [as] in any country having a civil war,” Mr. Bahar told a panel last week on the crisis at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank.
Colombia and Brazil, which share long land borders with Venezuela, have been under particular pressure. They initially tried to accommodate the fleeing Venezuelans but tightened their border controls in recent days as thousands continued to pour into their territory.
“The borders are unstable at the moment due to both the humanitarian situation and to the number of criminal and violent actors,” Ivan Briscoe, Bogota-based Latin America director with the International Crisis Group, told the news website RefugeesDeeply.com. “I do not think that Colombia has either the resources or experience to be able to manage a large outflow of migrants on its own.”
Even here, far from Venezuela, the refugee explosion presents a challenge.
In the first two months of this year, Argentina’s National Immigration Office issued nearly 150 residency permits a day to Venezuelan applicants, and the 31,167 permits given out in 2017 almost tripled the previous year’s total. Over the past five years, meanwhile, the number has increased sixteenfold.
“The jump in 2017 was tremendous,” Jose Garcia, who heads the office, told The Washington Times. “Clearly, things are getting worse and worse in Venezuela, and so Argentina, with its open-arms policy … will be a center of attraction.”
Still, local numbers pale in comparison with those of Venezuela’s neighbors. Colombia alone hosts some 600,000 Venezuelans, including economic refugees, asylum seekers and others, according to estimates.* One in 10 Venezuelans have left the country, and the UNHCR expects 1.7 million more to pack their bags this year.
Though they make up a mix of migrants and refugees, the size of the challenge is undeniable, said Michele Manca di Nissa, the regional representative for UNHCR’s southern Latin America office.
“In Argentina, they’re talking about 300 [Venezuelans] per day that are coming in. In Peru, we have between 500 and 800 asylum applications per day,” Mr. Manca di Nissa said. “Do I need to say more?”
At the same time, Mr. Maduro — widely blamed for an economic and social services collapse that has led to a Third World infant mortality rate, staggering hyperinflation and empty supermarket shelves — still has powerful friends in New York.
Neither his regime’s biggest creditor, China, nor the beneficiary of its “fire sale” oil exports, Russia, is keen on U.N. “crisis” rhetoric that might upset Caracas — or please Washington, said Shannon O’Neil, a specialist on Latin American affairs at the Council on Foreign Relations.
But the mere fact that the U.N. refugee body is tackling the outpouring and expanding its footprint on the ground “implies a certain recognition of this situation,” Mr. Manca di Nissa said.
Still, border zones in Colombia and northern Brazil have clearly struggled with the influx. As both neighbors tighten border controls, Panama is requiring Venezuelans to obtain visas.
Not so Buenos Aires, which has all but rolled out the red carpet for the often young and highly educated newcomers who defy a typical immigrant profile. Many of the Venezuelan exiles are viewed not as a drain on local resources, but as assets.
Among the Venezuelan arrivals in Argentina were some 4,100 engineers, Mr. Garcia points out, and his immigration office is working with industry groups to put the refugees to work.
“We have a shortage of qualifications [in Argentina]; we don’t have engineers,” he said. “If someone has an interesting skill, it’s a loss if [he] works, for instance, as a waiter in a bar, because this resource could be beneficial for him … and for the country as well.”
So the famously bureaucratic immigration body is expediting waivers and deferrals for hard-to-obtain documents and continues to treat Venezuelans as part of Mercosur, even though the regional bloc last year cut ties with the Maduro regime.
“We don’t sanction the people of Venezuela,” Mr. Garcia said. “We maintain the suspension Mercosur has applied to Venezuela, but we open our arms to Venezuelans and try to ease conditions so they come to Argentina.”
Many Venezuelan arrivals eventually realize that even if the Maduro regime comes to an end, returning home may not be as easy as buying a plane ticket back to Caracas, said Vincenzo Pensa, head of the Association of Venezuelans in Argentina.
“A good number [of Venezuelans] have decided to set up roots,” he said. “It’s very difficult to leave your country, set up roots in another, start from zero — just to then return to your country and [again] start from zero, especially in a country where more than 4 million residents have left.”
Many expatriates, he said, don’t trust the Maduro government, even in Buenos Aires.
“The vast majority of us feels like the [Venezuelan] Embassy is the enemy,” said Mr. Pensa. “If you need to get documentation at the embassy, you hesitate — and you hesitate a lot.”
As they talk about the challenges of their new lives, many immigrants zoom in on the key concern of finding jobs. But the worst deprivation, virtually everybody says, is the separation from friends and family.
In one small group, filmmaker Nathalia Hernandez, 21, made friends with two of the older attendees, Syria Rosario, 46, and Yesenia Rodriguez, 61, both of whom followed their children to Argentina.
Telling her countrymen about her decades as a preschool teacher in Venezuela, Ms. Rodriguez could not hold back her tears.
“What do I do now in Argentina?” the petite, gray-haired woman whispered. “Whatever it takes to survive,” she said while being comforted by her fellow recent arrivals.
“I’m here alone, [too],” Ms. Hernandez reassured, only to be corrected by Ms. Rosario, who pointed to the crowd: “Look! You’re not alone anymore already.”
*The original version of this story incorrectly characterized the population of Venezuelans now in Colombia. Not all are considered refugees.