Prosperous Colombians Fleeing, Many to the U.S.
By JUAN FORERO
BOGOTÁ, Colombia, April 9 — Sergio Foschini's construction supplies
store is gone now. He also liquidated three shops in other cities and
shuttered his once profitable construction company on the Caribbean coast, leaving dozens of employees without work.
With his wife and children, he then left Colombia, joining hundreds
of thousands of his compatriots — many of them college-educated, a growing
number of them affluent like Mr. Foschini — who have fled conflict and economic stagnation for the United States and beyond.
"We spent two years thinking about it, two years of losing money and
not producing," Mr. Foschini, who has been in Miami since last June, said
a recent telephone interview. "And finally we decided on another adventure, another path. It's not what you want, though. You want to stay in your
Frustrated with four years of recession and terrified by the crime and
kidnappings that feed on and flourish in a grinding civil conflict, many
Colombia's most promising young professionals and business people have reluctantly abandoned this country in the hope of finding success and
In all, nearly 1.1 million of Colombia's 40 million people have departed
since 1996, the government says, a mass migration that rivals the exodus
Cubans after Fidel Castro's revolution in 1959. Many have wound up in the United States, which the Census Bureau estimates has a
Colombian-American community of 435,000.
In the United States they have injected new life into a decades-old
community in Queens and added muscle to an increasingly politically active
enclave in Miami. Still others have made new homes in far-flung locales like Australia, Toronto and Madrid, while some have started businesses in
The departure has meant more hopeful lives for innumerable families
and a flow of remittances from abroad that are sure to help others who
struggling here in Colombia. But the size of the departure has started to raise concerns about the long-term effects here, both to Colombia's
economy and to its battered psyche. Some entrepreneurs and investors are liquidating businesses and laying off workers, contributing to an
economic morass that helps to feed the social unrest that led to armed conflict in the first place.
According to conservative estimates by business organizations, the flight
of capital — in closed bank accounts, investments and other assets — has
reached $2 billion in two years, sizable in a country with a $90 billion gross domestic product.
Some academics and intellectuals here say the exodus has also deepened
the class-based schism that is ingrained in Colombian society. Many who
leave are urban middle- or upper-class Colombians who have the bank accounts and property that permit them to obtain travel visas.
Poor Colombians, those most vulnerable in the country's largely rural conflict, have virtually no chance of leaving legally.
Perhaps most distressing, some Colombia experts and economists say,
the migration is draining the best and brightest from the solid middle
the kind of people the country sorely needs to rebuild.
"The departure of educated people from Colombia represents a significant
brain drain," said Bruce Bagley, a leading Colombia expert at the
University of Miami. "The talent pool, more and more, is being reduced. If they get rid of all the professionals and all of the entrepreneurs, then all
you're left with is the political hacks. And that is not good for Colombia."
The conflict that has spawned the exodus is increasingly brutal, pitting
leftist guerrilla groups against an ineffective military and an illegal
paramilitary army responsible for most of the massacres.
Although most who flee the country are rarely touched directly by war,
a growing number say rebels have taken aim at them for extortion or
kidnapping. Colombia is the world's leader in kidnappings: last year 3,706 people were taken hostage, 66 percent of them by the two largest rebel
Colombia has also been hard hit economically in recent years, reversing
decades of economic stability and one of Latin America's longest-
sustained growth rates. The economy contracted by 4.5 percent in 1999 and grew by 2.81 percent last year. The unemployment rate stands at 20
percent, Latin America's highest.
The overwhelming sentiment here is that those who can leave Colombia should.
Yet perhaps because there is also a sense that the exodus could make
an already difficult situation worse, a nascent movement involving business
people, academics, students and the media has begun to try to reverse the trend.
Jorge Giraldo, owner of Publik, a company specializing in electronic
billboards, has begun a multimedia campaign called "Here I Stay," in which
country's attributes are lauded. At the University of the Andes in Bogotá, art students have plastered streets with posters and handed out fliers that
ask people, "Why haven't you left for Miami?" — a question meant to spur debate.
And at RCN Radio and Television, a daily campaign asks Colombians, "Why
are you proud to be Colombian?" Those who answer with poems,
drawings and essays can win computers or scholarships.
"The campaign is looking to confront the large-scale skepticism that
we have in this country and reduce the number of people who leave," said
Constanza Escobar, manager of marketing for RCN. "We're trying to inject some positive feeling for the whole population."
Not everyone who follows the economy agrees that the exodus will have negative repercussions.
Álvaro Cadavid, director of an executive headhunting firm in
Bogotá, said many Colombians who left could not find work and so
served as an economic safety valve. "It's too bad people have left," he said, "but it's good, too, because they opened space for others."
Many economists and academics disagree.
"There's no question that this is a very worrisome trend," said Donald
F. Terry, manager of the Multilateral Investment fund of the Inter- American
Development Bank in Washington. Colombia has enjoyed a strong entrepreneurial class and a force of well-educated workers, Mr. Terry said.
But if large numbers of those people leave, he said, "then one of Colombia's
most positive aspects in terms of growth will be adversely affected."
He said that if the trend continued over a decade, "then I think it is Pollyannish to think that this is in any way positive."
Many Colombians who have left or are planning to leave agree that the mass migration is detrimental.
"We're losing a youth that's prepared," said Augusto López, 64,
who left Colombia in 1999 and runs a venture capital firm in Miami. "They're
coming from good universities in Colombia and also good ones in the United States, and then they haven't gone back."
But prospective immigrants in Bogotá as well as recently arrived
ones in Canada, New York and Miami said in interviews that the country's
problems left few options.
"You might try to say to yourself, `Stick around, things will get better,'
" said Miguel Pinedo, a Bogotá resident and business manager who
leave for New York. "But in the next 10 years I don't see things getting better."
Jenny Romero, 24, a biologist, said her professional future had dried
up because she could no longer carry out her work in the rebel-controlled
countryside. She said half of the biology students who graduated from college with her had also left the country.
"You don't have a real motivation to stay, because it's quite difficult
to get a job," said Ms. Romero, who is now working on a graduate degree
Canada. "And if you have a job it's hard to get into the countryside."
Most Colombians are leaving for well-established Colombian-American
communities in the United States, with 256,831 people traveling on tourist
visas last year, up from 136,584 in 1996.
Many later extend tourist visas for up to a year or switch to student
visas, which can be used for longer periods. Wealthy entrepreneurs can
for an investor visa, and highly skilled workers can obtain temporary or even permanent work permits.
A growing number are also applying for political asylum, with 1,165
Colombians, or 65 percent of applicants, winning approval in 2000. In 1993
only 17 Colombians received asylum. Others are joining an illegal population of Colombians that numbers an estimated 85,000.
Those who have embarked on new lives, even professionals with plenty
of work experience, say it has not been easy. The spacious apartments,
maids and country homes of Colombia become a distant memory.
María Robles, 34, and her husband, Oswaldo Ovalle, 35, architects
who owned a construction company in Bogotá, left for Miami after
demanded money. Now, Mr. Robles works at a construction job.
"It's been traumatic to the point that sometimes we say, `Let's go back,'
" Ms. Robles said. "But the security issue is so important, and then we
think about our children."