TAMPA — Armando Echeverri is worried about Colombian President Gustavo Petro, a former rebel, who won the general election and in August was sworn in as the country’s first-ever leftist president.
Echeverri, 74, thinks Petro will bring more political and economic instability to his homeland.
“It’s a horrible feeling because I want the best for my country,” said Echeverri, a longtime Thonotosassa resident.
Some Colombians in the Tampa Bay area wonder if the new government will trigger another exodus from the Latin American country. And recent immigration numbers show this may already be occurring.
In June, U.S. officials at the U.S.-Mexico border stopped and processed more than 14,000 Colombians, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The number represents more than a fourfold jump from October, when U.S. border officials processed over 3,000 Colombians.
Colombians are using a new migration route: First they fly to Mexico, where they enjoy visa-free travel, and then they head to the U.S. border. Historically, Colombians have come to the U.S. on visas or sought asylum, as past attempts to get temporary protected status for the country’s residents have stalled.
Colombians are the largest group of South Americans living in the U.S. with 1.2 million people, according to the 2017 American Community Survey. Florida contains about a third of all Colombians in the U.S. (390,000), predominantly in South Florida, Orlando and Tampa. More than 35,000 Colombians live in Tampa Bay, the sixth-highest population of any metro area in the United States.
During the 1980s — known in Colombia as the “decade of terror” — Echeverri owned a successful textile company. But the internal violence convinced him to leave in 1984 with his wife and three kids.
“I had to look for alternatives, options and, thank God, I found it in this country, where the doors were opened for me and my family,” Echeverri said.
The South American nation, which had a relatively stable economy during the last two decades, is struggling with inflation, unemployment and inequality exacerbated by the pandemic.
Petro, 62, a former mayor of Bogotá, won with more than 11 million votes in the second presidential round (50.4%) held on June 19.
Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
His message was seen as a rejection of the elites and a voice for people living in poverty, especially after the pandemic. In Colombia, COVID-19 left about 6 million people unemployed. Petro announced a tax reform to target oil exports and wealthy individuals to pay for social programs, education and subsidies for single mothers.
Fabio Andrade, a South Florida activist, has helped 60,000 Colombians over the past 20 years process their asylum petitions through his group, The Americas Community Center (ACC), a South Florida nonprofit that helps those who are forced to flee.
More than 42% of Colombians live below the poverty line, up from 36% three years ago, according to the country’s National Administrative Department of Statistics.
“It is a sad situation for many Colombians who want to stay in their country but are forced to leave for themselves and their families,” said Andrade in a recent interview with the Tampa Bay Times.
Liliana Patricia Armstrong, 47, of Wesley Chapel fled Colombia 23 years ago to work and seek new opportunities in the U.S. as a business administrator.
She doesn’t regret her decision to leave Colombia. In Tampa, she married an American and had a daughter. She got a Realtor’s license and, with her husband, founded Armstrong Traffic Management, a company that builds, installs and maintains traffic signals.
“At the end of the day is your future and your life,” said Armstrong. “So, I think that I made the best decision.”
The Colombian migration and the political crises in Latin American countries such as Venezuela are complex, said Javier Torres, executive director of the Migrant Foundation, an immigrant advocacy group in Tampa.
Torres, a Venezuelan lawyer who fled his country two decades ago, said the flow of Colombians began with a political change and has now become a matter of economic survival.
“Venezuelans view with concern new governments in Latin America that sympathize with and support the Venezuelan dictatorship,” said Torres. “We do not doubt that the citizens of those countries, including Colombians, feel more concerned thinking that (the Venezuelan experience) could be repeated in their countries.”
But Beatriz Padilla, director of the Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean at the University of South Florida, said the idea of a Colombian exodus is alarmist.
“This does not mean that some Colombians who support the previous administration and other allies would leave,” said Padilla. “We could think the other way around, that is, maybe all the Colombians who voted and elected the new government will stay and give the new government an opportunity to change things in Colombia.”
Fleeing from violence
Echeverri opened a successful ice cream business and bought a home for his family in Thonotosassa, where he still lives with his wife of 53 years.
But he recalled what it was like to live in Colombia during the 1980s, when kidnappings, extortions and violence were common.
“There was no social and economic stability,” Echeverri said.
Henry Correa, 42, of Tampa came to Florida four years ago to open La Hacienda, a Colombian restaurant on Armenia Avenue.
Correa, an agricultural engineer and a father of a 12-year-old daughter, fled Colombia with his family because he was tired of hearing promises of change. He worked in Colombia on alternative projects in rural communities to stimulate the economic development of local farmworkers from the Cauca River valley to the Gulf of Morrosquillo on the country’s northern coast.
But the internal violence and lack of investment and commitment from the government prompted him to leave.
Correa said President Petro will likely increase disparities and confrontations to reestablish a direct relationship with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
“Democracy is sacred for me,” said Correa. “It’s painful to leave your country, but when you have a family and you don’t see a future, you need to act.”
Data editor Langston Taylor contributed to this report.