A Venezuelan exodus?

December 4, 2018

Venezuela is going through a migrant crisis of unprecedented proportions for the country and all of Latin America. While the U.S. mainstream media is purposely misleading about the roots and the extent of the situation, the left has generally not known how to honestly assess how much of a disaster the country finds itself in. Keymer Ávila describes the magnitude of the crisis and explains its root cause in an essay first published in NACLA and the left-wing journal Nueva Sociedad, and translated by Alejandro Q.

THE MASS migration from Venezuela has become a topic of political debate, bilateral negotiations between countries and the work of NGOs — and, no less importantly, of ideological propaganda.

The Venezuelan government denies the dimensions of this exodus and promotes a “return” plan for publicity purposes. Meanwhile, xenophobia is growing in Latin America, and the need to work on new ways to tackle the problem is more and more evident.

During the past few months, Venezuelan migrants have become the subject of international media attention and the agendas of political leaders.

By land, sea and air, they move in search of better living conditions. Some trek under great risks for 16 hours a day, over routes that can stretch more than 2,000 miles. Many sleep in the streets; others risk their life at sea or try to sneak onto airplanes.

Venezuelan migrants making their way to Peru pass through Tulcán, Ecuador
Venezuelan migrants making their way to Peru pass through Tulcán, Ecuador

Colombia is demanding economic help to assist the migrants. Peru has declared a state of emergency on its northern border and is mobilizing troops. The special representative for Venezuelan refugees for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) considers this migratory crisis to be unprecedented in Latin America.

Much has been speculated about this phenomenon, but what is the real magnitude and who is migrating? How can we distinguish between propaganda and reality? What political and economic functions lie beneath these events? In this essay, I will attempt to answer these questions.

The UN estimated in 2017 that over 1.4 million Venezuelans had migrated. The IOM’s statistics are much higher. By early 2018, it counted more than 2.3 million migrants, a 900% hike from 2015. This amounts to around 7 percent of Venezuela’s population.

The UNCHR’s numbers show a shocking increase of 4,304 percent in asylum and shelter applications between 2014 and 2018. And these numbers merely represent officially registered migrants, meaning that they still underestimate the real dimensions of this phenomenon, which is characterized by informality and precarity.

Some History

Until a few decades ago, Venezuela was known as a country that took in immigrants. Still present in the collective memory of society are the policies of the dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez in the 1950s, promoting the immigration of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese workers and peasants, impoverished after the Second World War, in an attempt to “modernize” and “whiten” the country in a new iteration of colonial ideologies of racial formation in the Americas.

By contrast, migrants coming from Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and the Caribbean, who saw in Venezuela a land of opportunity, were stigmatized.

Starting with the oil boom in 1973, another large wave of migrants came to Venezuela fleeing the military dictatorships of the southern countries of the continent. However, this period of prosperity and toleration of migration changed with the successive devaluations of the Venezuelan currency, starting with the 1983 “Black Friday” and the socioeconomic austerity crisis that culminated in the 1989 Caracazo revolt, marking political and institutional fissures in the country.

After these events, we can identify the first waves of migrants away from Venezuela, many of them professionals and descendants of the 1950s European immigrants.

During the epoch of Chavismo in power, we can distinguish three migratory waves. The first came in 2002 and 2003 after the failed coup attempt against President Chávez; the second was in 2006 and 2007 after Chávez’s first re-election; and the last and biggest, during the past eight years, has increased in magnitudes over time, especially since 2015.

In the first two waves, the profile of the migrants remained that of the 1980s and 1990s: professional, entrepreneurial, middle and upper class.

The last wave has a much more general character, involving people from across Venezuelan society, including a larger number of working-class or impoverished people.

The End of Oil Revenue Redistribution

The government narrative between 2008 and 2012 claimed that Venezuela was among the happiest countries in the world.

That depiction no longer reflects reality. Socioeconomic conditions in Venezuela have worsened, affecting economic, social and cultural rights, along with civil and political ones. These all constitute factors generating the current migration wave.

The political and institutional crisis intensified in 2013, as a result of different problems, but mostly manifested itself economically. The country faced a recession and a sustained reduction in oil revenues, starting at least three years before the financial sanctions imposed by the Trump administration in the U.S.

This situation produced a fall in GDP, along with a combination of hyperinflation; generalized scarcity of consumer goods, food and medical products; steep currency devaluations; and a fall in working-class purchasing power. This led to increased impoverishment, made worse by a deterioration of the state’s welfare and basic public services.

In the political and institutional fields, the death of President Chávez in 2013 sparked a leadership crisis, along with a loss of legitimacy of the government party, the PSUV. In December 2015, the opposition won a majority of the seats in the National Assembly, but its victory was undermined by a series of legal and institutional challenges over disputed elections.

A wave of protests in 2017 was harshly repressed. This was followed by the imposition of an illegitimate Constituent National Assembly, which removed the attorney general. Regional and presidential elections are questioned and seen as illegitimate by broad segments of the population.

Finally, high murder rates (62 victims per 100,000 inhabitants in 2017), driven by institutional violence (26 percent of murders are committed by police and other security forces) reproduce and increase a vicious cycle of structural violence. According to Human Rights Watch, these factors together show why the status of refugee is merited for anyone fleeing them.

Silent Mourning

As pointed out earlier, the main migration from Venezuela was at first composed of professionals. This profile seems to have continued at least until 2014, and the outflow of professionals has not stopped. By 2016, more than 883,000 professionals had left the country. Some 90 percent of these migrants had university degrees, 40 percent had master’s degrees, and 12 percent had PhDs and postdoctoral degrees.

But most important is the experience possessed by these migrants, with the case of medical doctors being the most emblematic.

Research suggests that a migration rate between 5 percent and 10 percent for people with such qualifications can be considered normal or even beneficial for the economic growth of the country they came from. Unfortunately, “qualified” migration from Venezuela surpasses those percentages by a great deal.

In 2017, student dropout rates for the Central University of Venezuela hit 29 percent, a high point for the decade. The situation is similar in postgraduate studies. In the schools of Medicine and Science, 50 percent of students have dropped out.

The scarcity of work materials, chemicals, medical equipment and professors makes finishing a university degree difficult. The desertion of professors has reached 40 percent overall, and in scientific disciplines, it can reach 80 percent. Universities are extremely underfunded, receiving only between 15 percent and 18 percent of their necessary budgets.

According to a 2016 Datincorp survey, the desire to migrate is highly polarized along lines of political preferences: 71 percent who consider themselves oppositionists wanted to leave the country, while a similar percentage of government supporters wanted to stay.

But as stated above, the profile of migrants has become more popular over time. It now spans all social classes, which also affects how migration takes place, along what routes and with what destinations.

At first, migrants left mainly by air to the U.S., Spain, Panama or Colombia, but the routes have changed. Many now cross the Colombian or Brazilian borders by land, aiming to settle in these countries, or to continue on to Ecuador, Peru, Chile or Argentina. Others risk their lives at sea trying to reach Caribbean islands.

A survey by Consultores 21 in January showed that at least 33 percent of working-class people want to live abroad. This weakens the country’s workforce.

The migration of impoverished lower-middle- and working-class Venezuelans has led to a wave of xenophobia in host countries that formerly welcomed Venezuelans as qualified professionals or wealthy tourists — especially when they came armed with credit cards loaded with cheap government-sold foreign currency to sell on the black market. But this festival of “currency exchange tourism” is long over.

Xenophobia and Discrimination

These effects are intensified by the arrival of impoverished migrants willing to take the lowest-paid work in the worst conditions, which others aren’t willing to do, so they are thus used to help maintain the status quo for the comfortable and privileged. Venezuelans abroad become scapegoats to cover up deep problems in the host countries.

Venezuelans are not only scapegoated as the cause of increased crime in host countries, but they are also accused of all sorts of other pathologies. In Colombia, Venezuelan women have been blamed for husbands who have affairs and the disintegration of families. Any negative event in these countries can be blamed on the perfect culprits, with Venezuelans presented as the incarnation of evil.

These dynamics have obvious consequences. Protests and assaults against Venezuelan migrants have been reported in Panama, Peru, Brazil and Ecuador. Mass graves holding the bodies of migrants have been uncovered. In Brazil, a Venezuelan migrant was lynched; in Colombia, the deaths of Venezuelans have risen by 244 percent; and between 2017 and 2018, at least 18 Venezuelans have been murdered abroad.

According to Human Rights Watch and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, requirements for border crossings, migration permits and requests for asylum have become much more difficult to obtain for Venezuelans.

On the other hand, the official posture of the Venezuelan government denies the existence of a migration phenomenon at all, calling it “a campaign against the country,” a “fabrication” or “fake news.”

The government claims that migrants are part of an anti-Venezuela bourgeoisie, consisting of the wealthy, or of middle-class children of European immigrants who either have let themselves be fooled by opposition lies and end up “cleaning toilets” abroad, or who take massive amounts of money with them.

The economic and political causes leading to the exodus are not discussed. Neither does the government take responsibility for the fact that the poor and the marginalized — those in whose name it rules — are also leaving the country in droves.

In these ways, the government attempts to downplay the reality, while attacking those who have decided to leave. The deceptive message of the government on mass migration is similar to its posture on many other pressing national problems.

More recently, the government responded by resurrecting older nationalist and xenophobic themes. It claims that Venezuela has spent enormous sums of money on welfare for Colombian, Peruvian and Ecuadorian migrants — and it has gone so far as to make claims for compensation.

As a propaganda tool of last resort, sparked by the attacks on Venezuelans in the Brazilian state of Roraima, the government has even announced a “Plan of Return to the Fatherland” to aid the return of Venezuelans. However, this plan has no resources that could have a real impact, nor does it confront the source of the problem.

The Profitability of the Diaspora

The migrant wave from Venezuela has been very useful, politically and economically, to many people.

From the political point of view, the rulers of host countries now have a new set of scapegoats to distract attention from their own agendas and national problems. For the Venezuelan government, it is a population that has cut into the capacities and numbers of the political opposition, as well as a safety valve for the boiling social tensions caused by the crisis.

In addition, host governments can now request international humanitarian resources to deal with the migrants. The European Union and the United States have promised at least $136 million to these countries since 2016. The Venezuelan government is trying to request $500 million from the UN to repatriate Venezuelans — without losing sight of the flow of family remittances coming from those migrants abroad.

Meanwhile, all sorts of business opportunities have trickled down the pecking order. Bureaucrats at different levels charge migrants hundreds and thousands of dollars for necessary documents. The more difficult and risky the journeys, the more profitable. Human traffickers see new opportunities, and vulnerable migrants are exposed to labor and sexual exploitation, along with violence, discrimination and xenophobia.

Finally, there is the proliferation of “experts,” op-ed writers, study groups, foundations and NGOs for whom these topics are lucrative sources of financing and media visibility.

If host countries fail to adopt policies to integrate this migratory wave, they will be condemning vast groups of people to enduring exclusion and illegality, which could come back to haunt them in the form of worsening political problems. These governments must follow the recommendations issued by the UNHCR, the IAHRC and HRW.

For its part, the Venezuelan government must, first of all, acknowledge the situation, meaning that it must struggle for the protection of the human rights of its citizens, both inside and outside the country, starting with making it easier to obtain identity documents needed for legal international travel.

Venezuelan migrants are made doubly invisible by their government: first, by its refusal to recognize the critical situation that led them to decide to migrate, and second, when they aren’t assisted or recognized by Venezuelan consular authorities in their host countries.

Meanwhile, as Venezuelan citizens, we must think creatively about how to act regarding this exodus.

The causes leading to this mass migration do not have a quick or magical solution. We must find ways to maintain links between migrants and our country, and build networks and connections between those who have left and those who remain. Beyond the economic issue of remittances, we have to think about flows of knowledge, information and technical capacities to build spaces for reconnecting and collective labor.

We have to build an alternative to these hard times in which we live. Uniting these many people who are affected will be necessary for the reconstruction of our country.

Translation by Alejandro Q

Further Reading

From the archives