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Venezuela’s Brain Drain and the Specter of Barriers to Exit

By: Contributor - Dec 15, 2014, 8:36 am
(Twitter)
For the Maduro regime, professionals who receive subsidized education and then emigrate are “robbing” the state.  (Twitter)

EspañolIs free or subsidized education a tool for progress, or a burden on young people? In Venezuela, the government has begun a scheme of bureaucratic persecution against those who use public education, and it appears that soon they’ll dictate where the next generation of Venezuelan professionals can use their training.

Al vicepresidente Jorge Arreaza le molesta que, después de vivir en el exterior, muchos venezolanos no quieran regresar a su país. (Wikimedia)
Vice President Jorge Arreaza is annoyed that many Venezuelans don’t want to return to their home country after living abroad. (Wikimedia)

According to recent statements made by Vice President Jorge Arreaza during the 24th Ibero-American Summit, education is a favor granted by the state to the citizen, which the latter is obliged to return.

“We want to raise the alarm on mobility, because we’re suffering from it,” he said, in reference to the massive migration of Venezuelans abroad in recent months. “In Venezuela, we’re not only suffering a brain drain … we’re suffering the theft of brains.”

Arreaza notes that talented people nurtured with “public resources,” including those trained abroad using “money from the Venezuelan people,” often decline to return to live in the country.

One could argue with the vice president that the talent belongs to the people themselves, and that public resources belong to all Venezuelans. But let me focus on the following: what is the purpose of public investment in education? Is it to generate lackeys who work only for state objectives, or should it be a tool for each person to develop according to his vision of the good life?

The Sinking Ship

The crisis currently facing the country has caused millions of people to emigrate in search of work, security, and greater professional and economic opportunities. When it comes to studying abroad, the majority of Venezuelans can only afford to do so via access to the preferential exchange rates on dollars made available to regime supporters.

The widening gulf that the government has created between the official exchange rate and the accurate, black-market rate, makes it impossible for young Venezuelans to even consider paying out of pocket to study abroad. The government doesn’t give money directly to students, anyway; they have to pay to matriculate and for their living costs, at rates controlled by the state.

Arreaza’s complaints about people wanting out after graduation are a typical example of a how a socialist is incapable of understanding the free movement of people. Migration is largely due to the labor market. The workforce, qualified or not, will move to where there are greater opportunities, and those offered in Venezuela today are far below those expected by many professionals.

We don’t even have to go far. In almost every country in Latin America, Venezuelan professionals can secure better compensation and purchasing power — not to mention personal safety.

Blocking the Exits

Arreaza is obstinate to such criticism. During the summit, he said the region needs a “very well regulated strategy” on the movement of students, researchers, and professors, so that professionals go “where there’s a genuine need,” rather than where they actually want to go.

The administrative body in charge of currency reserves, the Center for External Commerce (Cencoex), gave the first indications of the repression to come when in 2012 it limited the fields in which Venezuelans could ask for funds to study abroad (page 29 of the Gaceta Oficial 39.904). Peculiar disciplines like journalism and human rights were prohibited, alongside important cultural studies such as gastronomy.

After an already difficult year for those who had asked for resources, at the beginning of December the knives were truly sharpened. Cencoex published a list of 11,400 people who had studied abroad between January 2012 and March 2014, and demanded that they present their degree titles to demonstrate they had used the funds. Those who hadn’t completed their programs successfully were ordered to return the money and explain why they had failed to graduate.

11.400 personas que estudiaron en el exterior entre 2012 y marzo de 2014 deberán justificar ante el Centro de Comercio Exterior el uso de las divisas aprobadas (Twitter/ @Lauraartal)
11,400 people that studied abroad between 2012 and 2014 now have to justify their receipt of state funding at the Center of External Commerce. (Twitter/ @Lauraartal)

I was one of those who searched through this immense list for my identity number. I studied postgraduate courses abroad during the period under scrutiny, something I was only able to do through this procedure, which represents the only legal way to take money out of Venezuela. My number didn’t come up — this time — but I shared the outrage that must have been felt by those who did appear.

The Venezuelan government is signalling ever more clearly its objective to be omnipresent, to make citizens kneel before a corrupt bureaucratic apparatus, through which US$25 billion has gone missing without a single arrest resulting.

This new method of control coupled with Arreaza’s vision of the future does not bode well. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Maduro government were to create new mechanisms to criminalize emigration and compel all professionals to return whatever money they received to the state — or rather to the ruling party, which is increasingly the same thing.

I once fell into the trap of thinking as the vice president does. As a graduate of the Central University of Venezuela — a public and free institution of exceptional quality — I tortured myself thinking that, if I didn’t work and generate wealth in my home country, I would be in some way betraying my alma mater.

Today, I see things more clearly. Above all, the Central University educated me to have freedom of thought. Under this principle, the objective of a place of learning isn’t to trample the independent ideas of its citizens, only to turn them into the pawns of a totalitarian state run by criminals. Universities should chase away the shadows, let their students shine, and use their creativity and own ideas to generate innovation, wealth, and employment for many others.

Venezuelans do a greater service to our universities, and to our country, when we fight for liberty in every sphere of public and private life. They won’t tell us where and how we should pursue happiness.

Translated by Laurie Blair. Edited by Fergus Hodgson.