The Venezuelan Migration and the Maduro Regime
By Dr. Esteban Devis-Amaya, senior lecturer in Spanish and Latin American Studies at Oxford Brookes University November 02, 2020
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an agency with the mandate to protect refugees, more than 4.5 million Venezuelans have left their country, escaping difficult economic, social, and political conditions over a period of seven years.
The exodus can be divided into two waves. The first wave started with Hugo Chávez’s rise to power, and ended some months after his death. This wave included many business people, political opposition leaders, and former state employees. Its demographics were fairly narrow. According to Venezuelan sociologist Tomás Páez, over 90 percent of these refugees had some sort of professional qualifications.
The second wave started in 2014, under the regime of Nicolás Maduro. The number has been much larger and its demographics a lot more diverse.
Venezuelan academic Rina Mazuera-Arias, a civil law professor and researcher, and her team have shown that only around half of recent refugees (in 2019) have professional qualifications — still a high percentage, when compared to other global migrations, but lower than in the first wave.
The active role of Chávez and Maduro has been seen in both waves. During the early 2000s, a large number of former state employees, mainly from the PDVSA state oil company, left Venezuela after participating in anti-government strikes. The Chávez government fired around 18,000 PDVSA workers, blacklisting them from government jobs, blocking them from accessing public service assistance, and persecuting and imprisoning trade union leaders. Many of these engineers, scientists, and administrators left Venezuela and were hired by other countries’ oil industries.
This modus operandi has intensified during the Maduro regime, especially the persecution of political opposition leaders and activists, whose options are to flee the country, seek refuge at an embassy, or become political prisoners — often in the infamous Helicoide jail. The swelling number of activists from different political parties living abroad and their stories of persecution, enduring threats and intimidation, and being smuggled out of the country, are examples that attest to the active participation of the regime.
Maduro’s persecution has not only focused on political activists, but has extended to their families. Often, when the regime cannot subdue an opposition leader, either due to their prominence or because they have already fled, it turns to their relatives — as was recently seen with the persecution of the uncle of Venezuelan Interim President Juan Guaidó.
This persecution has not only targeted Venezuelan nationals. In 2015, the Maduro regime expelled over 2,000 Colombians living in Venezuela during a campaign of intimidation through an operative of the People’s Liberation Operation (OLP, in Spanish) — an anti-crime initiative of the government — that included members of the police checking individual houses in search of Colombians, and marking them with the letters R or D in paint, for “registered” or “demolish.” It then led to the emigration of an additional 22,000 Colombians due to the fear of repression from the regime’s forces.
Persecuted Venezuelans have also included former court magistrates, journalists, nongovernmental organizations’ activists, and many who have raised their voice against the regime and have subsequently fled, after suffering threats, harassment by the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN, in Spanish), and being accused of “treason against the homeland” — which would mean being tried in military courts.
The Venezuelan regime does not keep public emigration statistics — a suggestion that it wants to hide the issue, does not place much importance on it, or wants to ignore it. Therefore, the data must come from other sources.
A lesser threat to the regime
At the same time, the regime has had a more passive role in the exodus, one that has been partly beneficial for its own survival. The first benefit it has enjoyed started with the first wave, and has continued since. Venezuelan sociologists Iván De la Vega and Claudia Vargas have shown that, unsurprisingly, those who migrate are more likely to support the opposition — a trend that has increased over the years. The massive departure, therefore, has decreased the number of critical voices within the country, reduced the turnouts during anti-governmental protests, and even made it more difficult for detractors to participate in elections — lessening the internal threat to the regime.
The second benefit is connected to its expenses. The crisis that has led to migration has been mainly a product of the regime’s own failed social and economic policies. As has been widely reported, the economic crisis has had a very real strain on public services. Schools, hospitals, universities, water and electricity services, etc. have faced severe budget cuts.
The exodus has helped the regime by reducing the number of children and young people who need to be educated, and the number of patients who need to be treated. It has meant that there are fewer mouths to feed, less need for medicines, fewer public sector employees to pay, and in general, a reduced pressure on public expenses. In the education sector alone, according to the government’s own data, from 2013 to 2017, more than 683,000 students stopped attending schools. The Venezuelan National Institute of Statistics indicates that between 2015 and 2018, more than 1,270 schools closed.
The regime has also benefited from the remittances refugees sent back to Venezuela — helping to boost the struggling economy. The remittances have created jobs, allowed some families to maintain a decent standard of living, and given the economy much-needed foreign currency, which avoids much of the hyperinflation being experienced in the country. It is difficult to know the actual figure for the remittances, but they are believed to have reached over $3 billion a year at its peak.
The country, however, has also suffered from critical brain drain. Insecurity, high inflation rates, and low salaries for public servants have led to the emigration of thousands of doctors, nurses, scientists, and educators. Venezuelan academics Jaime Requena and Carlo Caputo, fellows of Venezuela’s Academy of Physics, Mathematics, and Natural Sciences, underscored the stark situation and showed that between 1960 and 2000, only 235 stem researchers left the country, however, between 2000 and 2015, more than 1,450 left — numbers have since continued to rise.
In addition, the large numbers of opposition politicians and activists abroad have formed influential pressure groups that continuously expose the repressive nature of the Maduro regime.
The COVID-19 situation in 2020 has brought a new dimension to the phenomenon. Many Venezuelans living abroad rely on informal work for their income, which has been hit particularly hard by the different countries’ lockdowns. Most of them also lack access to social security. As such, a number of Venezuelans have gone back home: It is estimated that around 15,000 Venezuelans have returned, a small percentage, but still an important number. The Maduro regime has used their return for its own political advantage — using it for propaganda purposes. There have also been reports of discrimination and of bad sanitary conditions in quarantine camps.
Moreover, migrants are returning to a country with a shattered health system, ranked 176 out of 195 in the world, according to the John Hopkins University Centre for Health Security Index, which also tracks the spread of the virus. The World Food Programme estimates that more than 40 percent of Venezuelan households suffer from daily water cuts and that the country is at risk of suffering a major famine. By end of April 2020, the Venezuelan regime had only reported 329 cases of coronavirus and 10 deaths, though the numbers are likely much larger. With a lack of access to medicines, and where even handwashing is a challenge, the threat from the virus is ever present. The economy has been further hit with the lowest price of crude oil in history, plus a reduction in the amount of remittances. The regime will struggle even more in the coming months, and migrants will be forced to leave their country again, whether by force or by circumstances.
The Venezuelan regime has been both an active and a passive force in the migration of Venezuelans, and has both benefited and been affected by the phenomenon. However, the situation brought by COVID-19 is not only unprecedented, but will also weaken even more Venezuela’s unstable public institutions.
Paradoxically, any future transitional government will also have to rely on remittances and on the reduced pressure on public services. Many of those who have fled will undoubtedly return, especially those who have been persecuted. The transitional government will also need key workers to migrate back to Venezuela. However, it will also benefit from a staggered return from most others, to get the much-needed capital, and not overwhelm the weakened health system it will inherit. The consequences of the migration generated by the policies of the Chávez and Maduro regimes will continue to be felt for decades to come.