Between 2000 and 2020, a large part of Venezuela’s young working population migrated to different locations across the globe in search of better opportunities. This migration has been largely caused by political differences, economic impoverishment, and the deterioration of social conditions in the Latin American country.
Venezuela is a country with a young working population awaiting employment. The country has the installed capacity to process extra-heavy crude oil and metals, as well as to produce technology, food, clothing, footwear and medicine, among others goods.
During President Hugo Chávez’s four presidential terms from 1998 to 2013, a revolutionary agenda was developed which saw part of the national income ̶ which comes predominantly from oil ̶ invested in education and labor training in various sectors. This policy aimed to stimulate Venezuela’s youth to enter the labor market in oil, metalworking, manufacturing, education, scientific areas, agriculture, technology, tourism, communications or research, among others, thus strengthening the economic development of the country.
But the Venezuelan paradox is that this young population does not live in the country now. They have gone to other latitudes in search of new opportunities and a dignified life.
But why? What’s going on in Venezuela?
The main focus of this article is to rummage through the reasons which led Venezuelans to migrate. It is not to debate the numbers concerning this phenomenon, which is at the heart of the national and international discussion and which have been manipulated by pollsters, international organizations and NGOs. It is worth clarifying that even pollsters’ efforts to study and accurately determine the volume of Venezuelan migration have been open to inaccuracy because they do not have the right methodology nor enough specialists to do it.
Starting in 2000, two decades must be examined, and they are divided into three key moments:
2000- 2003. Hugo Chávez in the exercise of his first presidential term. Very convulsive years for the country. There are four important political events in this period.
- 49 laws were enacted by presidential decree. Two of these laws were very controversial. One of them was the Land and Agricultural Development Act which looked to eliminate large landownership, establish the foundations for integral and sustainable rural development for satisfying human needs, and guarantee food sovereignty and the growth of the agricultural sector. The second was the Organic Hydrocarbons Law [which reinforced state control over the oil industry]. These two legal-economic measures infuriated the owners of the means of production because they impacted upon their economic interests.
- The CTV [right wing trade union confederation] and FEDECAMARAS [Chamber of Business and Commerce] called on employers to instigate a worker lockout in rejection of the implementation of the 49 laws.
- Implementation of foreign exchange controls to protect the national income and prevent capital flight.
- The start of sabotage to the oil industry and [state-run oil company] PDVSA supported by media entrepreneurs and senior military commanders, and the lunge to the oil-based coup d’état. President Chávez was overthrown on 11 April 2002 for oil-related reasons. That same tactic was applied by the right against Presidents Cipriano Castro (1908), Medina Angarita (1945), Rómulo Gallegos (1948) and Carlos Delgado Chalbaud (1950).
The oil lockout resulted in, among other things, the expulsion of approximately 18,000 oil workers from their jobs. Many of those participated in the sabotage. One group was prosecuted by the relevant institutions and another group fled the country.
It is estimated that the first migratory wave occurred in this period. Since 2000, highly qualified professionals (of whom 49% were between 25 and 55) left the country, according to Venezuela’s IESA Business Administration School. Destinations included the United States, Spain and oil countries such as Iraq, Iran, Qatar, Ecuador, Colombia and the UAE.
Ángel Coronado, a metal engineer and professor of oil engineering at the Central University of Venezuela explained that:
There was talk of between 700,000 and one million people leaving the country. In 2002, a number of skilled workers were fired from the oil industry, both basic laborers and technical personnel that the company had paid to train. Not all of them were engineers, technicians or graduates when they joined the firm. But there were also qualified technicians. That workforce is ours: the well operator, the fuel plant operator, the gas plant operator, the refinery plant operator.
In 2002, professionals from the oil industry left the country. Where did they go? They went to countries like Iran, to Colombia — [Colombian oil firm] Ecopetrol took on a lot of workers –, Ecuador also employed a large number of skilled workers, but in Qatar and the UAE there are also oil workers who left straight after the first days of the oil lockout.
Third presidential term
2006–2008. Hugo Chávez served his third presidential term. There were three important moments with their respective convulsive episodes caused by presidential decisions:
- At the beginning of this period, the president announced a Nationalization Plan of Strategic Economic Areas, which included the Orinoco Oil Field as a starting point. With it came a series of expropriations of agricultural, food, goods, services, and tourism companies among others. Cementera Argos, Cementera Cemex, Cementera Lafarge, Sidetur, Hacienda Bolívar, CANTV, Electricidad de Caracas, Teleféricos de Venezuela are just some examples. The main reason for these sweeping nationalizations was the need to overcome the mono-producing economic model and diversify the nation’s productive economic apparatus, with particular emphasis on ensuring food production to guarantee food sovereignty. Many Venezuelan food entrepreneurs were on the side of the 2002 oil lockout and denied food to the people, especially in the dairy sector, whose actions were dire.
- The expiration of the broadcasting concession to Radio Caracas Television (RCTV) due to its support of the oil coup that overthrew President Chávez for 47 hours in 2002.
- Lastly, the constitutional reform referendum rejected by the population.
These three events resulted in the dissatisfaction of entrepreneurs in communication, tourism and goods and services among other sectors over the political actions and economic agenda that was being implemented. These led to the departure of a second group of Venezuelans.
This second migratory wave consisted of entrepreneurs and professionals with higher-level education motivated by these political circumstances.
President Nicolás Maduro’s first and second term
2014 – 2020. This period is the first and second term of President Nicolás Maduro. The first began in convulsive, violent and cruel conditions. Notably, the important features of his government’s agenda have been as follows:
- Guarimbas [violent opposition street protests] convened by opposition leader Leopoldo López and his party in what they called Operation Exit. According to data offered by the Venezuelan vice presidency, the result of the guarimbas was 43 dead, 600 injured and López’s arrest.
- An unsuccessful attempt to apply a recall referendum against Maduro. It was rejected by the National Electoral Council for not fulfilling the requirements.
- Operation Fenix: an attack on President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas in the midst of a military parade. The attack was carried out with drones equipped with C-4 explosives. It was an evident failure.
- Juan Guaidó proclaims himself interim president with the support of the United States, the European Union, the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Lima Group. Today, he is de-legitimized both in Venezuela and globally.
- Guaidó and López attempted a coup against President Maduro called Operation Freedom. It was a total failure.
- The pair then attempted Operation Gedeon, another attempt to overthrow the government. Another failure.
- Finally, the most mediatic and relevant event to the subject we are dealing with: The battle of the bridges. With the support of USAID, the OAS, [Chilean President] Sebastián Piñera and [Colombian President] Iván Duque, opposition leaders Guaidó, Gabriela Arellano and Omar Lares among others sponsored an alleged delivery of humanitarian aid to Venezuela from Colombia. It was eventually revealed that the real objective was to overthrow Nicolás Maduro. Once again, the failure was resounding.
It is also worth highlighting some important economic policies of the Maduro administration:
- Structural crisis of rentier capitalism, which was the result of a single-product economy, was particularly felt in the oil industry. Effects that followed include corruption, impoverishing wage policy for the working class, abrupt fall in oil revenues due to drastic reduction of crude extraction, dismantling of facilities, unjustified worker layoffs, desertion of labor, divestment in strategic areas.
Faced with the labor reality in the most important industry in the country, Rafael Colina, an industrial mechanic of ENATUB, a PDVSA subsidiary, told us:
I work at industrial PDVSA as a mechanic. But the company is paralyzed because the people have taken to stealing parts and machinery. One gets paid crumbs but it is not enough. I’m still on the payroll, most of us are, but we’re not working because it’s paralyzed. The company is abandoned. You pop in from time to time to see how it’s doing, but no one is doing anything! I am a maintenance mechanic for all the machinery. If it was damaged I fixed it. My job was to keep all the machines running.
- The imposition of economic sanctions by the United States’ State Department on PDVSA.
On June 3, 2020, human rights organization SURES submitted a report to International Criminal Court Prosecutor Fataou Bensouda denouncing the actions of the US government against Venezuela. One paragraph of this petition reads as follows:
Unilateral coercive measures increased since 2014 to establish an economic, financial and trade blockade in practice, as they also include a maritime and air blockade against our country. As of April 2020 alone, sanctions had been applied against 52 ships (most are owned by the state company PDVSA and used for the transport of hydrocarbons), 56 aircraft (mostly owned by the state-owned Venezuelan Consortium of Aeronautical Industries and Air Services CONVIASA); as well as 118 private and public, domestic and foreign companies, many of which supplied medicines, health supplies, food and goods required for industries and services.
- A new fiscal policy (including the approval of a new exchange rate) which easing currency controls in favor of a direct transfer of oil income to the country’s consolidated monopolies that do not necessarily invest in our country.
- Progressive hyperinflation since November 2017, according to Central Bank data. In 2018 hyperinflation reached 130,060%, as stated by economist Pascualina Curcio in her article Consequences of hyperinflation.
Third wave of migration
This political historical account is necessary to explain how the political conflict and succession of economic measures are part of the structural reasons for a third migratory wave. This wave has a special trait: it is very popular with the press and it has been highly criminalized, unlike the two described above.
On the one hand, the Venezuelan government has not clearly explained the migration phenomenon with figures or any responsibility, at least to address it diligently.
On the other hand, pollsters, human rights organizations and international institutions that deal with this issue have taken advantage of Venezuela’s reality to position the need to carry out military intervention and to make the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela visible for profits. These agencies have raised money which has not reached the intended recipients.
That is why we say that migrants are a commodity and migration is a very lucrative business for global capitalism, which found an important destination to execute its trade in Venezuela.
Of the three analyzed periods, the third wave is the largest. In it, Venezuelans of different ages migrated, including schooled and unschooled youths with or without higher-level education.
The third wave departed the country in increasingly precarious conditions, looking for new opportunities in recipient countries. Their main motivation was the reality that Venezuela does not offer minimum living conditions for all. This reality is impossible to hide. Some economic and political reasons for this situation have been analyzed in this article.
Translation by Paul Dobson for Venezuelanalysis.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.