'The tipping point': More and more Venezuelans are uprooting their lives to escape their country's crises

Venezuela’s economic and political crises have shown no signs of abating, and in response, more and more Venezuelans have decided their future is brighter outside of the country.

The embattled government of President Nicolas Maduro appears to have fended off a recall referendum that, had it happened this year, would have triggered a new election.

His continuing presence means there will likely be little or no change to policies that have contributed to spiraling inflation, widespread shortages, and rampant violence.

More and more young professional Venezuelans and those with advanced degrees have elected to relocate abroad rather than deal with daily challenges like scrounging up satchels of cash to pay for lunch or waiting hours in lines to scour barren supermarket shelves.

A 2015 Datanalisis survey of Venezuelans found 10% of respondents were working on exit paperwork. A Datin Corp poll conducted in September this year found that 57% of registered voters, some 12 million people, wanted to leave the country, among them many people who said they admired late President Hugo Chavez.

“They are Chavistas and they declare themselves as such, but they are angry at President Nicolas Maduro because of the country’s situation,” Jesus Seguias, political analyst for Datin Corp, told Fox News Latino.

US government figures from earlier this year this year showed that Venezuelans were behind only the Chinese and Mexicans for the number of asylum requests submitted to the US.

In recent months, Venezuelans have also started migrating en masse to other parts of Latin America, where their personal connections are few, but the economic situation is more promising.

Even though Venezuela has seen a “pretty sustained level of outmigration” over the last decade or so, said Alejandro Velasco, a professor at New York University, “There’s definitely been a spike over the course of the last year, for sure, and I think it’s picked over the course of the last four, five months.”

That increased outflux appears in part driven by the August reopening of the border with Colombia, which the Venezuelan government closed in August 2014 out of what it said were security concerns.

The arrival of skilled Venezuelan oil workers in past has been credited with reviving Colombia’s oil industry, but more recently the government there has deported Venezuelans working without authorization.

Recent reports indicate many Venezuelans have elected to make the more arduous trek to Chile.

“In the last five years, the number of Chilean visas issued to Venezuelans rose from 758 to 8,381,” Univision reported in September. “Almost 90 per cent of visas issued to Venezuelans last year were work visas, most of them for immigrants ages 20 to 35.”

Chile, on the opposite end of the continent, also has an economic situation considerably different from Venezuela’s, with the region’s third-highest minimum wage and a relatively easy immigration policy.

“In Chile, the people that I’ve mostly heard of that are going are sort of younger professionals” and people who have or are pursuing advanced education, Velasco told Business Insider. “The Chilean government has facilitated some of that through scholarships that are specific for Venezuelan students.”

That’s not to say the trip to Chile is easy.

For some of the people interviewed by Univision, aeroplane tickets were too expensive, leaving them to take an overland journey lasting nine days, using ferries, boats, and buses that must cross thousands of miles of jungle and navigate perilous mountain roads and remote rivers.

They often arrive in Chile penniless, and some with injuries sustained during the trip. All of them must start off anew, regardless of their credentials.

“They are accountants, engineers, teachers, the majority of them very well-educated,” Delio Cubides, executive secretary of the Catholic Chilean Migration Institute, told Univision. “Before they can work in their own fields they work as janitors, in restaurant kitchens or any other jobs that Chileans don’t want.”

Venezuelans who’ve travelled to the US recently often arrive with nothing and rely on donations to get by while living cramped in single rooms or in converted spaces in warehouses.

“Miami is the capital of Latin American exile,” Jose Antonio Colina, a Venezuelan immigrant in Florida, told PRI in March. “And Doral in recent years has become the capital of Venezuelan exile,” so much so that it has earned the nickname Doralzuela.

The waves of outmigration in recent years have taken many of Venezuela’s skilled workers, and many more who are in their prime working years. Experts in the country calculated at the end of 2015 that about 5% of Venezuela’s roughly 30 million people had already left, and international headhunting firms have started seeking out Venezuelan professionals.

This brain drain has not only pulled away oil professionals at a time when the country’s energy industry is struggling. It has also led to many medical workers and students leaving the country, either to finish their training at functioning institutions or to avoid the hardships that plague Venezuela’s health industry.

As Velasco noted, migration itself is not a recent development, but the makeup of the outflow has changed over time.

Between the end of the 1990s and 2003, many of the country’s elites, driven away by political changes wrought by the administration of then-President Hugo Chavez, professor Emilio Osorio told news site Efecto Cocuyo.

Between 2004 and 2009, Osorio said, more talented and educated people departed the country, and in a third wave, running from 2010 to the present, young people and the middle class have headed for the exits.

“I think that the issue with the brain drain is … part of a longer history in Venezuela that’s been going on certainly since the 1990s,” Velasco told Business Insider.

“And in part I think … that earlier sort of outward flow in the 1990s has facilitated the deepening of this brain drain now,” he added.

Networks of Venezuelan expatriates had helped new arrivals get established, Velasco said, not only in communities like Doral but also at institutions like the Harvard Kennedy School, where economist Ricardo Hausmann has criticised Venezuela’s floundering economy, much to Nicolas Maduro’s chagrin.

Despite the financial, emotional, and sometimes physical shock of uprooting and relocating their lives to new countries, many Venezuelans who’ve emigrated seem uninterested in returning, at least to Venezuela in its present circumstances.

“I couldn’t raise a child there. Venezuela was bad, and it’s only got worse,” Veronika Leniz, who left the country for Miami after becoming pregnant, told Reuters in October 2014. “It’s an incredible difference, living here. I miss Venezuela so much, but I wouldn’t go back,” she said at the time.

“If anyone is thinking of going back [now], listen to my story and don’t throw in the towel, don’t give up,” Enrique, who left Venezuela with his wife at the end of 2015, told the Miami Herald this summer. “Don’t go back yet.”

Osorio, the Venezuelan professor, told news site Efecto Cocuyo in November that 72.4% of Venezuelans who had left said they would not return to the country in its current situation. He also noted that there had been a “feminization” of the outflux, made up of 67 men for every 100 women.

“I think what you see now is that there are fewer and fewer educated professionals, younger people, who are opting to stay, or even considering opting to stay,” Velasco said.

“The tipping point basically, I think, has been reached where opportunities outside [the country] are far easier to come by and certainly better to imagine that opportunities inside.”

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