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The Bright Side of the Venezuelan Exodus

By: Andreina Seijas - Dec 30, 2013, 1:00 pm

EspañolWorld leaders and migration experts met in New York in October to participate in the UN General Assembly High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development. Participants discussed the growing impact of migrants’ contributions to the economic and social realities of member countries and the need to include migration as a key topic in the development agenda.

The recent world economic crisis led to a new socio-economic landscape — particularly in Latin America, where intra-regional migration flows increased significantly as a result of fewer employment opportunities and tighter immigration policies in Europe and the United States. Countries like Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay became popular destinations for international migrants.

All countries in the region are greatly benefiting from an increased commercial and demographic interconnectedness, except for one: Venezuela.

For many years, Venezuela was a very popular migrant destination. Particularly between 1940 and 1970, thousands of immigrants from Europe and other countries in Latin America — particularly Colombia — saw Venezuela as an ideal place to escape from civil wars, dictatorships, and economic crises. Back then, the South American country had a vibrant economy and was one of the most politically stable nations in the Western Hemisphere.

The economic boom lasted until the 1980s, when the collapse of oil prices crippled the Venezuelan economy. Venezuelans’ living standards fell dramatically as a result of failed economic policies, increasing corruption in government, and a rise in poverty and crime. It was in this period that, for the first time, a significant number of Venezuelans decided to look for better opportunities abroad.

But the Venezuelan exodus did not attain its current dramatic proportions until the Hugo Chávez era. Between 1999 and 2013 — the 14 years of Chávez’s presidency — Venezuela witnessed unprecedented human capital flight. Though there are no official records of the exact number of Venezuelans living abroad, some experts estimate that about 1 million Venezuelans have fled their home country, 3.5 percent of the country’s population. This includes the emigration of half of Venezuela’s Jewish community — a constant target of the regime — by the time Hugo Chávez died in March 2013.

Due to geographic and cultural proximity, Colombia is the quintessential destination for Venezuelan migrants in Latin America. Some believe that Colombia’s current oil boom can be directly attributed to a rare breed of experts: the thousands of high-skilled Venezuelan oil professionals that were barred from working in the industry following the 2002-2003 Paro Nacional, or national strike. Besides Colombia, Venezuelans have congregated in Miami, Panama City, and Madrid, and are increasingly sighted in less conventional places, such as Sydney, Calgary, and Santo Domingo.

One of the characteristics of this exodus is that Venezuela is now exporting much more than gray-haired oil professionals. For some time, students have been the country’s main exports, as they have greatly benefitted from Venezuela’s twisted currency control regime known as the Comisión de Administración de Divisas (CADIVI). Thousands of Venezuelan students have decided to enroll in universities abroad as a means to escape the Bolivarian drama. With CADIVI dollars at a preferential rate — currently six times lower that the parallel black market rate — many students pursue not one, but two and sometimes three academic degrees, an expensive crusade to postpone the hardest decision of all: going back home.

But there is a bright side to the drama and the brain drain. According to Michael Clemens, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington, D.C., emigration has many overlooked benefits for countries of origin. In a recent report about skilled migration and development, Clemens says that “even if migrants do not return to their countries of origin, they transfer money, skills, technology, and even democratic ideas; their stories can inspire investments in education in sending countries; and they expand their own life opportunities in ways not possible without moving.”

This and other studies reveal that, besides being a fundamental source of remittances, migrants can also promote entrepreneurship and transfer knowledge and skills that are crucial for the growth and well-being of their countries of origin. Venezuela’s diaspora has traditionally been comprised of high-skilled professionals. And if we add the thousands of younger Venezuelans — who, in the past 14 years, have attained a high-level education overseas — we end up with a solid professional base with unbelievable potential. So how can we capitalize on this human capital in ways that benefit Venezuela?

An engaged diaspora is the sine qua non to development in countries where the number of emigrants is very high. We don’t have to go too far to find examples. Mexico — a country that, unlike Venezuela, has a long history of migration — has discovered the secret ingredient: connecting migration to development. Mexico’s Institute for Migrants Abroad (Instituto de los Mexicanos en el Exterior — IME) coordinates a long list of initiatives through its broad consular network aimed at strengthening the ties between Mexican citizens: those living in Mexico and abroad. Through the “3×1 program,” for instance, Mexicans living in the United States can directly invest in their communities of origin. For every Mexican peso provided by migrants, the federal, state, and municipal governments contribute an additional peso.

Venezuelans abroad are already moving in this direction. VenMundo, a non-partisan network of Venezuelans in Canada, Chile, the United States, and Spain, has drafted a set of proposals that include a comprehensive census of the Venezuelan migrant population and an incentive program for returning migrants. However, greater resources and political will are still missing to get these ideas off the ground.

In a recent speech in Doral County, Miami — the largest Venezuelan immigrant community in the United States — the opposition leader and governor of Miranda State, Henrique Capriles Radonski, asked the Venezuelan community to continue pushing for change in the country they left behind. “I’ve come to take you home,” he said. “The best country in the world is called Venezuela.”

This article first appeared in Americas Quarterly and is republished with permission.