Greetings from Medellin!

After a memorable month in Guatemala, I’m now spending two months in Colombia! While so far I’ve been having an amazing time here in Medellin, it definitely was hard to leave this majestic mountainous country…. Literally and metaphorically. 

My flight out of Guatemala City was for 6:45am, and with Antigua being over an hour’s drive to the airport, I figured I would just book a hostel close to the airport. I checked into the hostel the night before my flight at around 11pm, which I promptly went to bed. 

I stayed in what was called a “capsule hostel” which felt like I sleeping in a coffin.

I woke up at 4am the next morning, and after repacking my luggage to be flight-ready, I went to check out at around 4:45am. The problem was that the front desk clerk wasn’t there; I did see someone asleep on the couch near the desk, but wasn’t completely sure if that was clerk. I figured that I probably don’t have to check out then, and so I just ordered an Uber, and headed to the airport. We had gotten about ¾ of the way there when I realized that when I checked in, they kept my passport! In horrendously broken spanish, I told the driver that we have to go back to pick up my passport. I then rang the buzzer and woke up the clerk, grabbed my passport and ran back into the Uber. I didn’t get to the airport until around 5:30am, which was putting me far behind my goal of arriving 2 hrs before an INTL departure. 

I was feeling a bit stressed about being behind schedule, but at least I was at the airport. I went to check my luggage in, and the clerk asked for my return flight info. I told him that I hadn’t booked a return flight yet, but I’d be staying in Colombia for a couple of months. He said that Colombia requires proof of an exit, and I wouldn’t be able to board the plane without a return ticket. I was stressed going into this, but now I was slightly freaking out. I quickly did an online search for a cheap flight back to Seattle in September and bought it (I soon found out it’s a 2:45am flight, which I’m definitely not going to be on!). 

It soon became apparent that my stress was quite unnecessary, as I went straight through security with no line, and was at my gate within 10 minutes of checking my bag.

On The Border of a Crisis

When I arrived in Colombia, I was immediately presented with a situation that I previously only passively read about: The Venezualan economic collapse.

After I picked up my luggage, I stood outside to meet a couple other people from the WiFi Tribe that had arrived around the same time I did. While I was standing there, a man with a child in his arms approached me. I couldn’t understand a whole lot of what he was saying, but what I gathered was that he was Venezualan, and he just flew into Colombia but he doesn’t have any money for food. I obviously felt like I was getting scammed here, and I told him I didn’t have any cash on me either, as I also just arrived in this country. He kept insisting that he was hungry, and so I relented and said that if we walk over to the nearby cafe, I would buy him food. I figured if it’s just a scam, he would keep asking for money, but if he really just wants food, then I’m willing to pay for that. When I offered to buy him food, he enthusiastically accepted. To help myself to rationalize this purchase a bit more, I figured this would be a good opportunity to try my first Colombian espresso, and so I bought him a couple of croissants and orange juices along with my coffee. 

He was very grateful and said “Thank you” in english as he left. I then got an alert from Capital One with the transaction summary: total–$3.37 USD. All of that for less than $4, and we’re in airport! I don’t care how much he needed someone to pay for his food, if I provided some kind of benefit, it came at a low cost.

That encounter reminded me how devastating this Venezualan crisis is, and really how little I know about it. 

Venezualan Crisis

While this is an ongoing crisis with a lot of messy parts to it, here’s a quick refresher on what is causing this mass exodus from Venezuela.

The earliest tangible part of this story begins with Hugo Chavez winning the presidency in 1998. He won on a platform of significantly increasing public services, and he quickly began leveraging the world’s largest oil reserves to fund these programs. Since the price of oil had been high through the late 90s and into the 2000s, Chavez was able to keep adding public debt without any repercussions. The more social programs Chavez added to his government, the more dependence on oil they became, which this dependence also meant that fewer resources went into diversifying export production to keep that golden goose up and running.

Hugo Chavez on the right, and his predecessor, Nicolas Maduro, on the left.

Chavez died of cancer in 2013, and his predecessor Nicolas Maduro was elected under suspiciously narrow results, and kept increasing public debt. Chavez was able to keep the house of cards intact, but the transition to Maduro proved to be lethal as inflation started becoming a problem. The inflation rate almost tripled in 2014 from the 15-year average of 19.64% to 57.3%.

While inflation was starting to be disruptive, Venezuela was able to float during the first half of the year, but in June, 2014, the levees broke as oil prices dropped from $113 to $58 by December. The whole economy was dependent on the value of oil, but when the main cash source was halved, Venezuela’s capacity to pay its debts crashed, and triggered the death spiral of hyperinflation. Venezuela stopped reporting economic data, and there are many conflicting reports on what the actual inflation rate is presently in Venezuela, ranging from 80,000% to 2,500,000%, but what is certain is that Venezuela is experiencing historical hyperinflation rates.

4 Million Refugees.

The house of cards have fallen, and with it has brought the Venezuelan economy to its knees, along with political chaos and a spike in crime. As a result, already over 4 million Venezuelans have fled to other countries. The primary destination? Obviously the free-loading land of the USA, right? Wrong. It’s Colombia.

Colombia is Venezuela’s western neighbor (with Brazil to the south, and Guyana to the east), and has been the most accessible gateway out of Venezuela. Most refugees travel to Colombia to seek asylum, or just as a means to travel to other destinations; primarily being south to Peru, Ecuador, Chile and Argentina, but also north to Panama and Mexico. 

Colombia is the end destination for approximately ⅓ of all Venezuelan refugees as Colombia has now over 1 million refugees, over 4x the amount that the U.S. has. In fact, the U.S. is barely the third primary destination for Venezuelan refugees, with Chile and Ecuador at almost the same rate:

  1. Colombia: 1.3 million
  2. Peru: 768k
  3. U.S: 290k
  4. Chile: 288k
  5. Ecuador: 263k
  6. Spain: 208k

An opportunity to say Thank You

Why has Colombia opened its borders and have allocated numerous public services to refugees goes back to when Colombia was crippled by a 50+ year civil war with a guerrilla rebel group called FARC, which also has been the primary player in the Colombian drug smuggling that has made Colombia synonymous to cocaine. These years of conflict has displaced millions of Colombians over the years, and especially during the 90s, many of these refugees made their way across to Venezuela. 

In 2016, Colombia and FARC came to a peace agreement that has ended years of conflict and over 200,000 people dead. This monumental moment was further validated by the global community as Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to ending the civil war violence. 

As Colombia is stabilizing, people are returning back to the country, and so is the money. In 1994 Foreign Direct Investment inflows were only $1.4 Billion, but as of 2017, that number has increased by almost 10x with $13.8 Billion.

GDP overall has seen a sharp increase as well, with GDP up over 300% in the last 15 years.

Now with the change in tides with Venezuelans seeking refuge, Colombia as a whole and the individuals themselves have opened their borders and doors to refugees. 

What Am I to Do?

It has been great to see how Colombia, a country that is just getting itself reestablished in the global market, is trying to use what resources it has to assist the Venezuelan refugees, but it is not seamless. Just because they can enter this country, and can have access to some resources, doesn’t mean everything is going well. For the most part, many of these refugees are still unemployed and homeless. 

The man at the airport wasn’t the only encounter I had with Venezuelan refugees; I soon discovered at night, the streets of Medellin are saturated with refugees that have taken up street vending as means to get an income. There are outright beggars on the street, with signs saying they are Venezuelan, but most walk around with open briefcases with an assortment of small consumable items for sale. They walk the streets selling gum, candy, cigarettes, and yes, drugs. 

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To be honest, I don’t know what is the equitable thing to do, personally. It is quite disturbing and uncomfortable walking the streets at night, because you assuredly will run into a vendor every other minute of your walk, and it’s so easy to just dismiss them and say “no gracias.” 

I hate saying no, but also I’m not sure what is the right thing to do. On one hand, those who are selling things are trying to provide a service instead of outright begging, so would a more collective approach to purchasing small items help to provide some form of stability that allows them to then progress to higher forms of commerce, which then could help them be self-reliant afterwards? I don’t know. 

I have so far been saying no, but have made an intentional effort to at least make eye contact with them and smile as I say it, to at least not to dehumanize them in the process. But I want to actively do something here. My most recent approach is last week I bought some groceries, and I decided to at least ask if they would like a banana, and handed out a few that way. But again if they are conducting business, is it more equitable to partake in that to stimulate production? I think my next step is I’m just going to walk around with a few pesos in my pocket, and buy $0.25 worth of something whenever someone approaches me. If it’s money I’m already setting aside to give out, then maybe this could be a small step I could take. We’ll see.