Along with long-ebbing oil profits, Venezuela is beginning to lose an even more valuable resource - its best-educated minds. Biophysicist Jaime Requena is a product of the oil-bonanza years when this country's technical and cultural sophistication leaped from third-world to world-class levels. Like thousands of Venezuelans, Dr. Requena went abroad in the 1970s on a government scholarship. He returned from Cambridge University to a good salary teaching an eager generation of new students in modern labs.
Today, after a severe devaluation of the Venezuelan bol'ivar and a drop in government revenues from depressed world-oil prices, Requena's monthly salary is the equivalent of $400. He has only one graduate student to teach, and he is in debt to foreign colleagues who provide him with the costly chemicals he needs for his research. Several of his colleagues have abandoned science to work in business as speech writers or managers.
When a promising student left last year for Italy and a salary 10 times that of the professor's, Requena decided he could wait no more than one more year for the situation to change before he takes his expertise overseas.
``Brain drain'' is a phenomenon common to Latin American nations where the best and brightest are the most able to escape economic and political instability. They leave social, political, economic, and scientific problems to an overworked and underpaid qualified few, or to a second tier of a nation's brain trust, says Ramon Pinango, a professor at the Institute of Higher Studies of Administration (IESA), a postgraduate business school here.
The export of local talent and the under-employment of educated people endangers everything from public administration to national security, as well as business competitiveness on the world market.
``The brain drain reflects people's feelings that this is no longer paradise. Oil is no longer special, and Venezuela is just like any other Latin American country,'' observes Janet Kelly, the institute's research director.
``You'll never see the brain drain in statistics because it's a problem of individuals, not of large groups,'' Requena explains.
He says he knows many who have gone abroad, or left research altogether to go into business where there is more money. This, he says, leaves the nation's brain trust bankrupt, with no one left to teach or conduct research.
The largest government-funded think-tank, the Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Research, has lost roughly half of its professors since the beginning of the 1980s. Simon Bol'ivar University produced 60 chemists in 1978; only six will graduate this year. Without the kind of funding they need for good salaries and good research facilities, says Dr. Pinango, professors leave for better pay in industry or abroad. Meanwhile, there is no one left to teach a new crop of Venezuelan scientists.
This could hurt Venezuela in the long run. In the midst of the oil price boom of 1978, the nation spent $2 billion for foreign technology. Now, with scientists who were educated during that period, and who are currently working in industrial research and development, the nation has saved $1.8 billion by producing its own technology for industry, Pinanago says.
The brain drain affects more than just the scientific community.
Requena notes that Argentina, for example, lacked its own domestically developed sophisticated arms to fight the British in the Falklands war. Argentina didn't have the sophisticated equipment it needed because of a commercial boycott by nations producing the weapons. And it couldn't produce its own equipment because it lacked the scientists, technology, and industry to produce it, Requena explains.
Oil-industry projections show that within six years the demand for technical and management personnel will surpass the amount graduating from local universities.
A local steel company executive complains that his company of 8,000 employees has already lost 30 percent of its newly trained management this year to headhunters for other companies. Even so, he says, with the bol'ivar at roughly one-tenth the value it had against the dollar five years ago, no one can offer salaries comparable to those available overseas. For example, good pay for a mid-management position, he says, is only equivalent to about $16,000.
Pinango says the public sector suffers the most from mediocrity. The jobs are the most plentiful in this sector, salaries are the lowest, and patronage and corruption undermine efficiency.
``When a new minister comes in, in a new government, even if he's a genius, he still can't perform miracles because he has to work with teams of second-class professionals doing a minimum of work to keep their salaries, because they've become psychologically alienated [in what are considered dead-end, nonproductive jobs],'' Pinango says.
An IESA conference last month suggested that solutions to the problem basically revolve around the need for more money. But, Pinango says, the most important factor is creating a national conviction that human resources are as valuable as natural resources, like the oil that enriched this nation. After all, he adds, ``brain drain means you have something to export.''