PANAMA CITY, Panama – Jean Paul Van Den Brande never forgets the day he nearly died.
“I can still remember, like it was yesterday, the time I almost lost my life,” he said. “It was in a Caracas parking lot, where criminals stabbed me several times to steal my car.”
Van Den Brande, 31, said his near-death experience prompted him to close his event-planning business, sell his home and property and move with his wife and 5-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter to Panama City, Panama.
Van Den Brande has started the same type of business in Panama, where he is among 3,500 Venezuelans legally residing in the Central American nation, according to Panama’s National Migration Service. But there also are 86,815 Venezuelans who arrived in the country in the past six years and haven’t left, according to the newspaper Panamá América.
Van Den Brande said he didn’t have a choice. Caracas, with a murder rate of 140 per 100,000 residents, has the second-highest murder rate in the Western Hemisphere, surpassed only by Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence (OVV). He also said President Hugo Chávez, who has expropriated businesses, rationed electricity and water and devaluated the national currency, has created an atmosphere of instability and uncertainty nationwide.
But Venezuelans have thrived in Panama, where immigrants have opened businesses, bars and restaurants, where arepas – a Venezuelan staple of cornbread – are common on menus. There are about 140 companies owned by Venezuelans nationwide, according to the online directory venedirectorio.com. The Venezuelan community also has its own publication, El Venezolano, which is published biweekly.
Mónica Gyugny, 37, owner of Venezuelapana.com, Panamanian and Venezuelan news website, said Venezuela’s economic crisis 2003 was a major reason why she left the Andean nation.
“Right in the middle of the oil strike there was nothing to do and I started chatting over the Internet,” she said. “That’s how I met a Panamanian who was living in Spain.”
After living for a while in the Iberian nation, Gyugny married and moved to Panama with her Panamanian husband seven years ago.
There were about 3,000 marriages between Venezuelans and Panamanians between 2004 and 2009, according to the National Migration Service of Panama.
The rapid migration to Panama has hurt the country’s tourism industry, said Manuel Ferreira, director of economic affairs and assistance of the Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture of Panama.
“The number of Venezuelan tourists has gone down at least 20% [in the past year],” he told website Reportero24.com. “This is due to Venezuelans being slightly more limited [financially], given the economic situation” in Venezuela.
Traveling outside Venezuela is difficult because it’s hard to get the necessary paperwork, Van Den Brande said.
“We couldn’t get an identity card, or a passport, because they told us there wasn’t any paper,” he said. “I had to bribe the officials [to be able to travel].”