“Most significant was that the Ambassador chose to divert from his mission to win investment in Colombia’s agricultural aspirations to talk with us about the refugee crisis and how it is being addressed in Colombia.” — Chris Chancey, General Partner, Amplio Ventures
On the evening of November 11, Ambassador of Colombia to the United States Francisco Santos Calderón stepped into an Atlanta office-building conference room to speak to a small group of invitees working in assorted ways with refugees in various international locations. He had been in Atlanta, and other parts of the U.S., seeking investment in Colombia’s burgeoning agricultural industry. But this evening he would talk about how Colombia is addressing its refugee population of 1.5 million Venezuelans.
When Santos, who served as Colombian Vice President from 2002 to 2010, talks of refugees, he speaks from experience. Working as a journalist in 2000, he received death threats and sought refuge in Spain. He was welcomed and given opportunities to “work and contribute,” he said. Thus, his evident empathy for the Venezuelan refugees currently flooding into Colombia, which he characterized as “a crisis, but also an opportunity.”
Substantiating the characterization, he pointed out that “our poultry industry needs workers,” and added that in 2009, “the Venezuelans saved our coffee crop.”
Given recent political and economic upheaval in neighboring Venezuela, Colombia is taking in nearly 5,000 Venezuelans a day, 3,000 of whom will remain in Colombia, Santos reported. As opposed to closing their borders or sending refugees back to Venezuela, Colombian officials are responding with policies and programs to help the refugees participate in the Colombian economy.
Setting an example
“Colombia is setting an example that not many in the world know about,” he said. A government decree allows any Venezuelan with a contract from a Colombian employer to obtain a two-year working permit. Much of that work is being provided by Rappi, an on-demand delivery service. As well, Venezuelan women are setting up beauty shops throughout the country that are competing favorably in price and quality for the business of Colombian women.
Employment is enabling the refugees to become self-sustaining.
“We have only one refugee camp,” Santos offered, “and that one only because there were so many people in that area sleeping in the streets. But they can only stay for two months, so they have to start thinking about, “Where am I going?” And they have spread out all across Colombia.
The Venezuelan refugee population includes a substantial number of professionals, including lawyers and doctors.
“Many of our cities with as many as 50,000 inhabitants don’t have a doctor,” Ambassador Santos noted. “Doctors from Venezuela can go there and work. We need to integrate them. We’ve been swamped, and those policies take a little longer to make happen, but integration is already happening.”
Santos is enthusiastic about Colombia’s agricultural future.
“I think there are great opportunities in Colombia for companies here in the United States to invest in forestry and agriculture,” he said. “Colombia is the last frontier of agriculture in Latin America. There is no more land elsewhere. We have more than 25 million acres ready to produce exports to America and China.”
Amplio and remote employment
Amplio Ventures General Partner Chris Chancey, who arranged for the meeting with Santos, moved to Cartagena, Colombia for the month of August to learn ways to invest in Colombia’s initiatives on behalf of Venezuelan refugees.
“We lived in Colombia and got to see how they are leading the world in engaging the refugee community and recognizing that how we engage immigrants today affects our economy tomorrow.”
Amplio Recruiting, now in its sixth year, is providing employment for refugees resettled to the United States and to date has placed more than 5,000 refugees into U.S. jobs, Chancey explained. From this experience, Amplio Ventures was born in late 2018 with the mission of channeling private investment to refugee stabilizing enterprises.
Amplio Ventures has created a Remote Refugee Employment Fund (RREF) to “develop a comprehensive framework for the creation of 150,000-plus jobs at a living wage and market rate, and in the process provide a 5 to 8 percent annual return to our investors,” Chancey said.
The RREF invests in selected U.S. and European employers—there are currently 20 companies in Amplio’s pipeline—who are “seeking to develop remote workforces in Latin America and in the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, and committed to the ongoing training and development of refugee talent,” added Amplio Ventures General Partner Dalton T. Sirmans. In Colombia, Amplio has targeted the Norte de Santander region, where the Colombian government is actively building infrastructure to accommodate the refugee population.
A bi-national powerhouse
Ambassador Santos views the Venezuelan refugees as helping to fuel a reunion of the two countries that 200 years ago were founded as the Republic of Greater Colombia, including what are now Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama.
“For many years Venezuela looked at us as poor Colombians who had to export drugs and we looked at them as rich guys who don’t pay taxes and get all their money from oil subsidies,” he said. “I see the future of Colombia and Venezuela as a bi-national powerhouse in the region with lots of resources and culturally integrated.”
Santos said that there has as yet been “no cultural clash” between Colombians and Venezuelans. “Many Colombians went to Venezuela in the 50s, 60s and 70s. The relationship is still there.” He pointed to political rhetoric as a primary threat to the relative calm. “Obviously, fear of migration is always a great way of getting votes. That can happen at any time, so we have to be careful.”
Colombia wants to “lead by example,” he continued, “that you can really benefit from (integrating refugees), that … a democratic country needs to be open in that sense. There are costs, but if it is well managed, it can be a very good policy with many opportunities. There’s a place for refugees, a really interesting space if we create the right incentives.”
“Our firm is in the midst of raising $50 million,” Chancey concluded the meeting. “Part of that raise is targeted for remote employment for refugees in Colombia with U.S. tech companies. Jobs like bookkeeping, data entry, sales research and lead generation can be done from wherever with a wi-fi connection. So we are voicing our commitment to remain engaged with Colombia.”