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Colombia’s Angela Merkel moment

Colombia’s Angela Merkel moment

Colombian President Iván Duque earlier this week announced that as many as 1.7 million Venezuelan migrants currently in Colombia will now be authorized to live and work legally in the country for ten years.

As humanitarian gestures by world leaders go, it's hard to find something on this scale in recent history.


German Chancellor Angela Merkel's fateful "Wir schaffen das" (We can do this) decision in 2015 allowed up to one million refugees to apply for asylum. Duque's move, by contrast, welcomes nearly twice that number of people to stay for at least a decade.

Bold as it is, it could also be deeply unpopular. To refresh, Colombia has received almost a third of the roughly 5 million Venezuelans who have fled economic collapse and political chaos in their home country in recent years. That's more than any other country, by far.

And while many Colombians were initially welcoming to their neighbors in need — in part because in the 1980s and 1990s Venezuela was a refuge for millions of Colombians fleeing violence themselves — attitudes have hardened over time.

Two thirds of Colombians now oppose Venezuelans staying in Colombia, and three quarters say the Venezuelan border should remain closed even after pandemic-related entry restrictions are lifted, according to a January survey by the Medellín-based pollster Invamer.

In part that's because of economic concerns: with the official unemployment rate at close to 16 percent, many Colombians worry about competition to find jobs. Social media-fueled rumors about Venezuelans being responsible for crime spikes in Colombia's big cities have added to the stigma, even though — like most social media rumors — they've been disproven.

Normalizing the status of 1.7 million people will doubtless add to those pressures, while also potentially encouraging more refugees to come if they think there will be further amnesties of this kind in the future.

So why is Duque — struggling with a mere 36 percent approval rating — doing it? For one thing, there are moral and even international legal arguments for the obligation to protect refugees. But there is also a very strong practical one: what's the alternative?

While some Venezuelan refugees have opted to return home — as GZERO media found last July — the overwhelming majority will stay.

Giving them a way to do so legally makes it possible for them to join the formal economy, where they can earn normal wages, receive benefits, and pay taxes. And it gives the state the ability to better keep track of who is in the country and where. Importantly, once they have status, they will be eligible for COVID vaccines — a subject of some recent controversy when Duque said that undocumented Venezuelans wouldn't get the jab.

The alternative is to leave close to two million people in a state of legal and financial limbo, increasing their desperation, making it easier for them not only to undercut Colombian workers, but to be targeted and recruited by criminal groups.

It's by no means an easy decision, and Duque could yet pay a steep political price. What would you have done if you were Duque? Please let us know.


Pop quiz: what percentage of plastic currently gets recycled worldwide? Watch this video in Eni's Energy Shot series to find out and learn what needs to be done to prevent plastic from ending up in our oceans. Plastic is a precious resource that should be valued, not wasted.

This Monday, March 8, is International Women's Day, a holiday with roots in a protest led by the Russian feminist Alexandra Kollontai that helped topple the Tsar of Russia in 1917. More than a hundred years later, amid a global pandemic that has affected women with particular fury, there are dozens of women-led protests and social movements reshaping politics around the globe. Here we take a look at a few key ones to watch this year.

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Jon Lieber, Managing Director of the United States for the Eurasia Group, shares his insights on US politics in Washington, DC:

Another stimulus bill is about to pass the Senate. Why won't the minimum wage be going up?

Well, the problem with the minimum wage is it didn't have the 50 votes it needed to overcome the procedural hurdles that prevent the minimum wage when traveling with the stimulus bill. Clearly support for $15 an hour minimum wage in the House of Representatives, but there's probably somewhere between 41 and 45 votes for it in the Senate. There may be a compromise level that emerges later in the year as some Republicans have indicated, they'd be willing to support a lower-level minimum wage increase. But typically, those proposals come along with policies that Democrats find unacceptable, such as an employment verification program for any new hire in the country. Labor unions have been really, really fixated on getting a $15 an hour minimum wage. They may not be up for a compromise. So, we'll see what happens.

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Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny shocked the world last year when he recovered from an attempted assassination plot by poisoning — an attempt that bore all the fingerprints of Russian government. Then he shocked the world again by returning to Russia and timing that return with the release of an hours-long documentary that catalogued the Putin regime's extensive history of corruption. Virtually no one, therefore, was shocked when he was immediately sentenced to a lengthy prison term. Anne Applebaum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and expert on authoritarian regimes, believes there was a method to Navalny's madness. "His decision of '….I'm going to do something that harms me personally, but is going to be a lesson for Russians. I'm going teach a generation of Russians how to be brave.' I mean, not very many people would have the guts to do that."

Applebaum's conversation with Ian Bremmer is part of the latest episode of GZERO World, airing on public television stations nationwide starting Friday, March 5. Check local listings.

It's not like things are going well in Mexico.

COVID has killed more people there than in any country except the United States and Brazil. Just 2 percent of Mexicans have gotten a first vaccine jab, compared with nearly 24 in the US. The Biden administration made clear this week that it won't send vaccines to its southern neighbor until many more Americans have been vaccinated. Mexico's government has cut deals for doses from China, Russia, and India.

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The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

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