To Leave or Not to Leave

President Hugo Chávez’s victory in the presidential election has some Venezuelans wondering whether it's time to leave.

Joe Raedle/Staff/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Staff/Getty Images

On the evening of Sunday, October 7, a small group of Venezuelan expats gathered together on Chicago’s South Side to hear the official results of the presidential election as they came in. We had an idea of what was coming, but, even so, the announcement of the official results came as a blow. Maria, a first-year medical resident, was first to break the silence. "I can never go home now," she said. "I had hoped that I might someday go home."

The Venezuelan diaspora is roughly estimated to consist of about one million people worldwide, with particularly large concentrations in the United States, Spain, and Colombia. In the presidential election, its members overwhelmingly supported the opposition candidate Henrique Capriles — who, they had hoped, might set about reversing some of President Hugo Chávez’s more hardline revolutionary policies, someday allowing for a return to normalcy for a country ravaged by 14 years of class divisions, economic mismanagement, and capricious foreign policy. But his defeat, which means six more years of Chávez, has dashed those hopes. In the photo above, Venezuelan expats protest at a 2009 demonstration in Miami. But what of the 29 million Venezuelans who remain behind? Will they be likely to join their compatriots abroad? If Maria feels she cannot return to Venezuela, might more of Venezuela be coming to her?

It might certainly seem so at first blush. Just hours after the first official results were announced, my wife Marianella, a doctor, had received nine separate Facebook messages within the space of two hours from former medical school colleagues who wanted to ask about her experience emigrating two years ago. Countless Venezuelan Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and away messages this week featured sentiments along the lines of: "This is the last straw," or "That’s it. I’m off to Miami."

Many in the international media have seized upon the idea that Chávez’s next term — including his promised "revolutionary deepening" and the country’s looming economic woes — is likely to precipitate a new mass exodus of Venezuelan refugees. I find this argument unconvincing. While the factors encouraging flight for the Venezuelan professional class (rampant crime, poor professional opportunities, disastrous government policies), are likely to grow worse, the available avenues for middle-class immigration may actually become more limited.

In Venezuela, emigration is primarily a middle-class and upper-middle-class phenomenon. Even in these difficult times more people are moving into the country than away from it as unskilled workers and independent merchants from places like Colombia, Ecuador, and Haiti pour in to take advantage of higher daily wages, generous social programs, and the higher prices their goods might command resultant from petro-liquidity. For these same reasons, the country’s majority poor are reluctant to relocate to safer countries nearby, such as Colombia or Ecuador. Meanwhile, the very rich — those hypothetically able to secure U.S. citizenship at will via a $500,000 investment for an EB-5 visa — are often reluctant to leave a country where they are well-connected or enjoy high social or family status in exchange for a safer option where they might be a nobody. As one local saying puts it: "Better to be the head on a mouse than the tail on a lion."

What is currently happening is not so much an exodus, in fact, as a brain drain. And the pressures informing the brain drain are in some ways specific to the subgroups most affected: small business owners and members of the trained professions.

For several years now, a combination of stagnant wages and high inflation has rendered professional salaries increasingly inadequate when compared to the fortunes that can be made through dynamic entrepreneurship or public sector graft. Since education tends to be portable, and opportunities for professionals are often better abroad, many professionals in high-demand fields have already left. Even before the events of this week, a majority of my wife’s medical school class from Venezuela’s Central University had already departed for greener pastures, many of them going to Spain, the United States, Australia, or other nations elsewhere in Latin America. In fact, the scarcity of nationally trained doctors has become so acute in Venezuela that the government was forced to set up a special exchange program that trades oil to Cuba in return for physicians.

Beyond those in high demand professions like doctors, technicians, or engineers, others have relied on multiple citizenship to facilitate a move abroad. In the period following the Second World War over one million foreigners, primarily from Europe, settled in Venezuela serving as a labor force during the country’s economic boom. As many countries award citizenship based on blood ties or ancestry, middle class Venezuelans often preserved these nationalities both as status symbol and as a possible hedge, multiple citizenship is not uncommon.

Likewise, among those employed at large multinational companies, it has been common to actively seek transfers to out-of-country locations, an increasingly frequent practice as companies disengage from Venezuela. For example, when Procter and Gamble opted to relocate their Latin American headquarters from Caracas to Panama City in 2007, well over 100 Venezuelan executives were relocated in the process.

In the past, certain Chávez-era government policies have done much to facilitate professional flight from the country. But these may now be on the way out. Since 2003 Venezuela has maintained a strictly controlled currency regimen, ostensibly to mitigate capital flight and stimulate the import economy. The government has done this by keeping the value of the bolívar fuerte, Venezuela’s currency, artificially high to stimulate imports (a mirror image of Chinese policy on the renminbi, if you will), with official values pegged at roughly three times those offered on the black market. By arbitraging the official rate to cover education costs abroad, it is less expensive for a potential entrepreneur to study at Harvard Business School than at IESA, Venezuela’s top management school. Whereas previously popular education abroad initiatives were highly competitive and required an agreement to repatriate upon graduation in exchange for scholarship funding, the current informal arbitrage regimen is accessible to nearly everyone (provided they have the bolívars to cover one-third of the cost) and comes with no strings attached.

The availability of cheap government dollars has also made it easier to purchase citizenship abroad in some cases — if not in very expensive markets like the United States, then in more realistically affordable ones like Panama. Yet given the seeming inevitability of a substantial devaluation in January, as well as recent initiatives to restrict the availability of subsidized dollars towards basic imports it is uncertain how much longer these policies will be around to smooth the way for future emigrant waves.

Of course, as in any culture, the decision to stay or to leave one’s country is a deeply complex and personal one. A great many individualized factors are almost certain to come into play. In a country where family ties run very deep, some Venezuelans may wish to leave yet feel unable to do so due to family responsibilities – an elderly parent who cannot be moved, for example, or a dependent child from a former relationship. For others it may well be a matter of personal conviction that they owe it to their country to stay and help turn it back around. Still others may be reliant on a business that cannot be easily moved or sold (such as a store), or else a profession tailored specifically to Venezuela, such as in the case of a lawyer or bureaucrat. The list goes on.

Where the exact tipping point might lie for folks such as these is anyone’s guess, but if they have not left already, it seems likely that they may stick around until things get substantially worse. Other factors such as perceived weaknesses in the regime and Chávez’s uncertain health status, may likewise entice some Venezuelans to hold off a little longer.

The Venezuelan opposition needs them to do just that. On December 16, Venezuelan voters will again return to the polls to vote for new governors in the country’s 23 states, eight of which, including most of the capital, are currently held by the opposition. Losing ground might well kill off what remains of the opposition’s pre-election hopefulness and unity. A couple of years later a new parliament will also have to be elected. While non-resident citizens are allowed to participate in presidential elections, they are constitutionally disenfranchised at the regional and parliamentary levels and each vote thus lost to emigration would take the opposition further from its goal.  

If it hopes to remain relevant, the challenge for the opposition will be to keep hope alive, so that the 6.5 million anti-revolutionary Venezuelans who supported him Sunday will stick around to vote with their hands instead of with their feet.

In weathering the storm unity will be key. Historic divisions within the opposition have previously rendered it weak and disorganized and from Simon Bolivar to Chávez himself, Venezuelans have always responded to strong leadership. Now that the opposition has found a leader worth rallying around in Capriles, it must make every attempt to maintain internal harmony (at least publically) and not succumb to the internal gripes and fractures that for many years rendered them politically irrelevant.

They must also communicate to their supporters that, while the presidency may have been lost, hope should not be. Chávez owes much of his success to having stayed in permanent campaign mode throughout his tenure, and if the opposition ever hopes to beat him they must learn to do likewise and they will not be able to count on even a fraction of the government’s considerable resources to do so. Yet by focusing on positive messages rather than divisive ones, and holding Chávez accountable to the unrealistic promises he made during the recent campaign, they may succeed in capitalizing on regime missteps as Venezuela itself continues to break down.

One of the best-selling pop singles to ever come out of Venezuela was 1997’s "I’m staying in Venezuela" by Caracas singer-songwriter Carlos Baute. The refrain goes: "There’s no evil that lasts a thousand years, no body would be able to resist it./I’ll be staying in Venezuela, because I’m optimistic." This is essentially the message that must be successfully communicated by the opposition to their supporters if they are to retain momentum and inspire weary middle-class Venezuelans to continue giving their country the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, they will not be able to rely on Baute himself. He moved to Spain in 2000.

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez teaches on Latin America at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and is a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Nacional. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.