Words and images: Lluís Llaquet, Maggie Pfeffer, Andrea Ripoll
“There is a saying in Venezuela; where do you want to say goodbye to your son, in the airport or in the cemetery?” says Tomas Páez at the presentation and discussion of his book, The Voice of the Venezuelan Diaspora, at Blanquerna University in Barcelona on April 13th.
A Venezuelan sociologist and author, Páez echoes this maxim in the wake of the mass emigration of Venezuelan people since Hugo Chavez’s rise to power and the country’s consequential and indisputable instability.
As one of the wealthiest countries in South America, Venezuela is in a very perplexing position in its history, to say the least.
With its plentiful natural resources, resulting capital, and prospective tourism industry, its potential completely contradicts the realities experienced by its people and, in particular, its young people.
The experiences of Sofia Alvarez, Jose Alejandro Rincon, and Jesus Perez Clarizio – all Caracas natives now residing in Barcelona – reveal the contradictions of the country’s infrastructures and the paradox that permeate its inhabitants’ lives.
While all three (and many other Venezuelan expats) share an enduring and patriotic affection for their country, the inescapable challenges and innumerable risks of their home prevent them from returning to it.
A singular, defining trait of the Venezuelan diaspora, in comparison with other mass emigrations, is the high concentration of young people moving abroad on their own, spanning mostly from the ages of 18 to 21 years-old.
“There is a saying in Venezuela; where do you want to say goodbye to your son, in the airport or in the cemetery?”
Alvarez notes, “The sad thing is that they are mainly students. People say, and it’s really true, that the students are the future of the country”.
Knowing that the presence of young adults in the country could amount to radical change, Alvarez and her contemporaries face difficult decisions.
There are the implications of emigrating; separation from their families, premature independence, and drastic life changes and responsibilities.
However, the risks of staying are even greater; according to Páez, “There were 27,875 violent homicides in 2015 in Venezuela”, landing Venezuela in second place in terms of worldwide murder rates, just behind Honduras. In considering the correspondence between the political regime and the unprecedented rise in violence, between 1998, the year Chavez came to power, and 2013, the homicide rate has quadrupled.
The Venezuelan Violence Observatory (OVV) located in Caracas, estimates that 90 in 100,000 deaths are due to homicide.
The government is increasing its repressive, militarised security while the police force shows undeniable corruption and indifference to the common people’s security.
Clarizio says: “I got kidnapped by cops and they made my parents pay $10,000 for my life. After that I decided to quit the country”.
As a result of the inadequate federal security system, security is rapidly transitioning towards privatisation and is not accessible to the poor.
Upwards of 40 per cent of the population works for minimum wage or less – an amount insufficient for basic monthly groceries – and cannot begin to afford security measures.
The economic issues unfortunately don’t stop there. Venezuela’s inflation rate is at an unprecedented 159 per cent, easily the highest in the world.
Ferran Toutin, a writer and professor at Blanquerna University and Universitat Pompeu Fabra who coordinated Páez’s presentation, points out the significant food and medicine shortages and the consequential protests across the country.
Not only are the majority of Venezuelans struggling to make money but once they have it, they are struggling to find the scarce commodities they need.
Nevertheless, Páez always returns to emphasising “legal uncertainty and insecurity” as the main momentum for Venezuelan emigrations.
Alvarez moved to Barcelona with her family two years ago after their house was broken into in Caracas. “We weren’t there, thank God, but my father decided we should just move before something happened to us,” she says.
Now, she has been living on her own for the past year while her family is back to Caracas. Alvarez states that in Venezuela there’s a lot of theft and abductions “because the poor, poor people are trying to take money from the rich people because there is a really big difference between economic statuses”.
Venezuelans have the thing of getting all together; if we get together, we can be happy in other places
The government instituted new security measures which have caused further violence, and wealth inequalities perpetuate the tensions and distinction among classes.
Caracas, in particular, is a focal point of volatility as it’s the capital and largest city. Toutain says, “The city of Caracas has become the most violent and insecure city in South America and in the world”.
Rincon, also a Caracas native, describes its present state like “a lottery, something could happen to you anytime, any place”.
While these harsh realities prompt a restless urgency to move, the process of obtaining the proper documentation to do so is strenuous and nearly impossible for some.
Rincon emphasises that “If you have a European (or any external) passport, that’s a blessing right now. The people that don’t have one are struggling a lot. People are doing magic to get out”.
Alvarez fortunately had Spanish family on her father’s side, shortening and easing the process immensely. Without familial visas, it comes down to financial resources and time. Emigration is not an option for many.
Those that have the prized capability to emigrate must re-establish their lives entirely. Venezuelans have moved to locations spanning all over the world, however, the predominant cities moved to include: Miami, Panama City, Santiago, Madrid, and Barcelona.
Alvarez explains that “out of the ten friends she had, seven had moved”. Of course, the feeling of homesickness is nearly unanimous for all emigrated Venezuelans and, thus, many find solace in reaching out to fellow Venezuelans in their new homes.
This has been the case for both Alvarez, Clarizio, and Rincon. “Venezuelans have the thing of getting all together; if we get together, we can be happy in other places,” says Alvarez.
Amid the drastic lifestyle and environment changes, the constancy of the shared culture and mentality is something that unifies and strengthens Venezuelans abroad.
Despite the odds against them, young Venezuelan expats have faith in the future of the country and an eventual return.
Even after living in Barcelona for longer than four years, Clarizio says that “nothing is better for me than Venezuelan culture.” Fortunately, the widespread use of social media platforms has allowed the necessity of connection to be an effortless possibility.
The fight in Venezuela is not for improving civil rights but for obtaining them; and moreover, a fight for reclaiming lives. While many young Venezuelan expats sincerely wish to return to their native country eventually, they face many obstacles.
Questions of Venezuela’s future are lingering, while there are no concrete answers or projections to be found.
Rincon worries, like many, that in order for real change “it’s going to be messy”. Despite the odds against them, young Venezuelan expats have faith in the future of the country and an eventual return.
Alvarez reminisces: “Even though the country is going down, the happiness of the people and the hope in themselves and the light in their eyes is different than other places in the world”.
Perhaps this happiness will hold as an emblem of strength and a springboard for change.