Argument

Bring Them Home

Want to build democracy in Venezuela? Start by luring expatriates back.

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During the decades of Hugo Chávez’s rule in Venezuela, his policies crept to the boundaries of dictatorship, yet he still enjoyed popular support because of his rapport with the poor and the high price of oil. Today, two years after Chávez’s death, his successor, President Maduro, has crossed the boundary from authoritarianism to dictatorship. With oil prices falling, the economy is eroding, and with it, popular support for the government. The increasing size and intensity of anti-government street protests illustrate the increasing fragmentation of Venezuelan society, which is being torn apart by exploding street crime, shortages of basic goods, and a bleak outlook for young, educated Venezuelans.

With support for the current government dwindling to around 20 percent, it now appears possible for the opposition to take power in this year’s parliamentary elections. But those fighting for democracy in Venezuela should think at least two steps ahead. Even if they succeed in winning the elections — and even if Maduro is willing to go peacefully — their problems will have just begun. There’s a long way to go from today’s Venezuela to a Venezuela with a strong, stable democracy, and winning a majority in parliament is just one small step in that journey. For Venezuelan democracy to flourish, its proponents must create an environment that will encourage the millions of young, educated Venezuelans who have fled the country to return and contribute to the building of a new, democratic state.

The problem of Venezuela’s emigration levels — which have reached epidemic proportions – is far too often overlooked. Tomás Paéz, a sociologist from Universidad Central de Venezuela, reports that 1.6 million Venezuelans now live abroad, a mind-boggling 6 percent of the population. More than 90 percent of these people emigrated after Chávez came to power in 1999. Other reports indicate that the majority left in just the last six years. Unlike those emigrating from other Latin American countries, those leaving Venezuela are by and large middle-class and well educated. More than 90 percent of Venezuelan emigrants have college educations, and up to 58 percent have advanced degrees.

Building a new Venezuela will require more than a change of power. It will also need a government that is broadly representative of all of Venezuela’s people. When the change comes — whether this year or later — the country’s new leaders should not attempt to impose a narrow agenda upon a bitterly divided population. What politicians and civil society need to work toward is building unity — and preparing a climate for young, educated Venezuelans to return is a great start.

Most emigrants are not committed chavistas, but also do not believe in a system set up to privilege the wealthy, as many on Venezuela’s right would have it. As a result, the return of these young people will help fill the existing political void between the far-left chavista government and the far-right elements in the opposition. And filling this void is crucial, as neither the left or the right alone would be able to steer the new Venezuela in the right direction. The opposition will still need chavista leaders to stay in touch with the needs of the poor. But chavista leaders could learn a thing or two from the opposition about reversing the tide of corruption, diversifying the economy to avert disastrous dependence on oil, and providing safety and security on the streets.

The Venezuelan government will have to think creatively to devise strategies that will appeal to those who have left the country and convince them to return. Once this process begins, it is sure to accelerate because of the effect that returnees will have not only on the political landscape, but also on the economy. If the government can patch some of the bigger holes in Venezuela’s sinking ship, the skills and energy of the returnees can help to patch the rest and help the country to chart a new course to democracy. This problem, then, calls for a two-pronged approach.

First and foremost, the Venezuelan government must correct the problems that led to migrants desiring to emigrate in the first place. The top three reasons cited by those moving abroad are shortages of basic goods, a fear of crime, and barriers to the creation of new businesses. To fix these problems will require a commitment to fundamentally reforming the economy, making it possible for all citizens to take part, and opening up to further international cooperation. These fundamental reforms will not only create incentives for migrants to return, but are desperately needed by Venezuelans in the country as well.

As the government addresses these problems, it can also launch specific programs to encourage the return of talented expatriates. These can include incentive programs for various professions who are badly needed in Venezuela, such as doctors and managers. At a very basic level, the government should ensure that the process of returning and setting up a new life is simplified for returnees. On a practical level, this could be as simple as ensuring that their degrees and certifications are valid in Venezuela.

Serbia experienced a similar pattern of emigration occurred during the conflicts of the 1990s. Slobodan Milosevic’s regime was particularly successful at chasing away the young and the educated during the decade of his bloody reign. Considering this portion of the population “potential troublemakers,” Milosevic did everything possible to persuade thousands of the best young men and women to leave the country and try their luck elsewhere. These policies led to the biggest brain drain in modern Serbian history, as tens of thousands of young and educated people left the country.

No other policy pursued by the Milosevic regime was more effective at driving young and educated people away than the military draft. Throughout the 1990s, the Belgrade government ordered a series of mobilizations to provide manpower for the bloody nationalist wars in Croatia and Bosnia. It turned out, however, that the young people of Serbia were not so eager to go and kill for Milosevic, as less than 20 percent of them responded to calls to enter the army. Those who refused faced a terrible choice: to be jailed for desertion by military courts or emigrate.

The democratic government that followed Milosevic’s downfall in a non-violent revolution in 2000 could have acted quickly to reverse this trend. Unfortunately for Serbia, the country’s new leaders did nothing to persuade talented young minds to return home. New legislation ensuring amnesty for those sentenced by military courts took years to pass. As time went by, the students and young professionals who had emigrated continued to build their careers and families abroad.

With any luck, the democratic forces in Venezuela will not repeat this mistake. Simply offering amnesty to those who were prosecuted for their political activities will not be enough there, either. The recovery of this great Latin American nation can receive an enormous boost from the tens of thousands of young Venezuelans whose skills, knowledge, and energy currently remain untapped. The potential for democracy does not rest in the hands of leaders or political parties alone. It rests in the hands of the people. Making a Venezuela that people want to return to, live in, and contribute to should be the conscious goal of all those who wish to return democracy to their great country.

Photo Credit: LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images

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