3 million Venezuelans have fled. Who will rebuild?

Ariana Cubillos/AP
Mothers and relatives wait outside a clinic’s intensive care room for infants during a widespread power outage in Caracas, Venezuela, March 7.
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For 14 years, Carlos was a doctor and professor in his native Venezuela. As the country’s economic, humanitarian, and political crises spiraled, he felt a responsibility to stay. Even as shortages intensified, and his earnings dwindled, he hoped he could keep training new doctors, who might one day rebuild the country.

But when his youngest son was born, the crises touched him in new ways. “I knew – I saw it every day in my work – that I was putting my son at risk” by remaining in Venezuela, says Carlos, who now lives in Switzerland. He is one of an estimated 3 million Venezuelans who have left in recent years, accelerating a nearly two-decade trend. Professional fields – from doctors to teachers to lawyers – have been gutted, observers say.

In January, when National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó declared President Nicolás Maduro’s most recent election invalid and called for fresh elections, it sparked hope of change. But that possibility has also sparked tough discussions about how to rebuild a country that’s lost so much human capital. “This is more than brain drain,” says Francesca Ramos, a professor at Rosario University in neighboring Colombia.

Why We Wrote This

The past few months have given many Venezuelans – those who stay, and those who have left – hope that change is ahead. But political transitions are just the first step on a country’s road to more stability.

Diana Feliú was studying for a master’s in business administration when she decided her future in Venezuela was reaching a dead end.

There weren’t opportunities at home, where inflation has hit more than 1 million percent – making professional salaries, if she could find a job, nearly worthless.

So, in 2014, she left: conducting her thesis abroad, presenting her dissertation via Skype, and asking her mother to walk in her graduation ceremony, receiving Ms. Feliú’s diploma on her behalf. 

Why We Wrote This

The past few months have given many Venezuelans – those who stay, and those who have left – hope that change is ahead. But political transitions are just the first step on a country’s road to more stability.

“In a way, I feel like Venezuela kicked me out. That’s a feeling a lot of my peers share,” says Ms. Feliú, who moved to Mexico in 2015 and found a job within three months. She’s since married, had a child, and gained Mexican citizenship.

“It’s not that I dreamed all my life to leave Venezuela: I had to leave more out of necessity than out of desire.”

Ms. Feliú is one of the estimated 3 million Venezuelans who have fled the country in recent years amid multilayered economic, humanitarian, and political crises, rapidly accelerating a nearly two-decade trend. Professional fields – from doctors to teachers to lawyers – have been gutted, observers say, with some 22,000 medical professionals reportedly leaving Venezuela over the past five years alone.

January brought the first signal of a possible transition of power, when National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó declared President Nicolás Maduro’s most recent election invalid and called for fresh elections, making himself acting president. He received overwhelming international support and sparked a glimmer of hope in many Venezuelans.

But the possibility of change has prompted tough discussions over how to rebuild a country that’s lost so many professionals. Many question how Venezuela can move ahead with such depleted human capital.

“This is more than brain drain. Generations of people effectively trained and contributing or ready to contribute to the country have been forced to leave,” says Francesca Ramos, director of the Observatory on Venezuela at Rosario University in neighboring Colombia. “It’s a huge loss, and it’s very possible that a really, really high number won’t return” home. 

From immigration to emigration

For decades, Venezuela served as a beacon for higher education and high-skilled labor in the region.

“Venezuela was one of the first countries in Latin America to have an important number of doctors. It had the muscle of the oil state to encourage that kind of training,” says Dr. Ramos. She struggles to think of countries with similar experiences that could serve as a road map for Venezuela’s rebuilding, saying “it’s such a unique scenario.” 

Carlos, who asked not to use his full name because he still has family in Venezuela, left with his wife and small child in 2017 after a 14-year career in medicine: serving as a department head in one of Venezuela’s largest public hospitals, teaching aspiring doctors at a national university, and practicing in a private clinic. Shortages were serious before President Hugo Chávez died in 2013, he remembers, but the situation got exponentially worse.

“I would see patients and just feel impotent,” he says by telephone from Switzerland, where he’s lived for the past 1 1/2 years. “I couldn’t even make a decision because the hospital had no money, patients had no money, there were no antibiotics, and I became this observer of death instead of a doctor. That’s not what I studied for.”

When his youngest son was born in 2014, the weight of what was happening in Venezuela touched him in new ways. “I couldn’t forgive myself for a future where my son had any kind of medical need and I couldn’t do anything. I knew – I saw it every day in my work – that I was putting my son at risk” by remaining in Venezuela.

That’s not to say leaving was an easy decision – or transition.

“I remember conversations with friends where I said I wouldn’t leave the country because we needed to keep training new doctors at the university so that once things improved we could reconstruct the country,” he recalls. “For many, many years, I felt an immense responsibility to stay.” But by the time he left, his 12- to 14-hour workdays were barely earning him $100 per month.

Among professionals who have stayed in Venezuela, lifestyles have changed so drastically over the past decade – and particularly in the past five years – that the middle class has been gutted, says Armando Gagliardi, an economist at the Caracas-based consulting firm Ecoanalítica.

“Their income has been devalued so much that almost 80 percent of what they earn is spent on food. That is traditionally the [spending pattern] of the lower class,” Mr. Gagliardi says.

Uncertain road to return

But as professionals flee, their emigration has consequences for Venezuela today – and likely tomorrow. 

Anytime someone wants to visit a dentist or a doctor, the first question is “‘Are they still here?’ ” says David Smilde, a sociology professor at Tulane University, who splits his time between New Orleans and Caracas. “Usually you find that they aren’t. You can’t count on your normal network.” 

“The fact that Venezuela is left without these professionals compromises the functioning of the country. Without them there is no health or education,” says Mr. Gagliardi. There are also fewer consumers, creating a damaging trickle-down effect for commerce or street vendors. And finding and retaining employees is increasingly difficult, as people continue to leave.

Their return is key for development, Dr. Smilde says. “There need to be programs to motivate people to come back.”

President Maduro’s “Return Home” initiative has sponsored repatriation for families unable to afford tickets home. The opposition is discussing the need for incentives for citizens to return as well.

Even if Venezuela turns a new political or economic corner, though, many Venezuelan expatriates say the work that goes into setting up new careers and lives abroad means they wouldn’t run home.

Carlos, the doctor, says his family is privileged – his wife is Swiss, which allowed them to move abroad and work. But he can’t practice medicine again until he learns Swiss German and sits for required exams, which he expects to take at least another year. 

“We’re asked all the time if we’ll go back. The idea obviously never leaves my mind or my heart,” he says, but doesn’t foresee it anytime soon. Aside from a new political direction, Venezuela will have to rebuild its institutions, he says. “The social deterioration won’t be resolved with a change in government.”

Alejandro Armas, a lawyer who specialized in public administrative law and left Venezuela in 2015, says maybe in the future he and his wife, now living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, could return home.

“If someone calls me to say, ‘Look, we need you in Venezuela to reestablish our administrative or tribunal law,’ I would go running. But my wife wouldn’t follow,” at least not anytime soon. Vacation seems like the most likely reason to return in the short to medium term, say several Venezuelans who fled.

But Dr. Smilde says that if Venezuela sees some kind of transition soon, he’d expect more than 50 percent of the exodus to return – especially older professionals, families, and people who can’t find work abroad “in what they were trained for,” he says, mentioning an architect friend in Miami who now does odd jobs in home repair. “Those are the people that would come back as soon as they could.”

The longer the crises drag on, the less likely rapid returns will be. But it may not be the end for Venezuela if citizens don’t immediately return home, Dr. Ramos says.

“In this global world, there are human flows that could provide a way to help Venezuela forward,” she says. “If it returns to democracy, Venezuela could become a country of opportunity” for other countries’ migrants and refugees. 

Mariana Zuñiga contributed reporting from Caracas, Venezuela.

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