Imperialist strategists have taken advantage of Venezuela’s migratory phenomenon to further a market-penetrating regime-change agenda since the governments of Hugo Chávez.
The United Nations’ 2020 Global Report estimates that 5.4 million Venezuelans currently live abroad. While the vast majority have left since 2014, the report indicates a recent slowing of the exodus, and claims that 3.85 million of this total are “displaced” persons (1), controversially placing the Caribbean country towards the top of the global list.
An exodus of around 15-18% of the country’s population during administrations which declared themselves “socialist” can only be classed as a propaganda victory for imperialism’s “failed state” and “socialism doesn’t work” rhetoric, despite all the ignored nuances in such clumsy pigeonholing.
One would presume that this public relations defeat is cause for great concern in Caracas. But the exodus’ other consequences should also be keeping Maduro up at night. The recent and strongest waves of migration have largely consisted of workers and not the oligarchy. This has had a devastating impact on Venezuela’s economy, with schools, factories and fields all emptied of much-needed labour and know-how. The country’s social fabric based on close family and community ties has been ripped apart.
In this context, the importance of migrant repatriation in any potential economic recovery is obvious. Equally clear is the fact that, despite the role played by opposition parties with whom most migrants identify with, the government is the sole actor capable of formulating policy packages to generate the necessary material conditions for increased repatriation.
According to the UN report, only 130,000 Venezuelans (2.4% of its total diaspora community (2)) returned to the country during 2020. The report suggests that an unknown number of these may have left again since.
Returning migrants have been lauded by the Maduro government, with state media and government authorities keen to put the spotlight on genuinely heart-wrenching accounts of xenophobia, poverty, and violent discrimination abroad, as well as amply covering the moment that migrants return. This communications strategy also involves drawing comparisons between Venezuela’s grave socio-economic problems and those of (more) capitalist neighbouring countries.
Nonetheless, the strategy is comprehensively undermined by the tiny numbers involved. It also often ends up with Caracas mirroring its enemies’ chauvinistic demonisation in its misconstrued and desconextualised comparison with other countries.
To facilitate repatriation, Maduro launched the Return to the Homeland plan in 2018, establishing air and land bridges for some migrants to return without cost. Upon arriving, people are incorporated into social benefit programs and greeted with abundant photo opportunities, but little more (3).
Recent government figures indicate the plan has repatriated 25,000 Venezuelans (0.46% of the diaspora community) at an average of 8,300 per year and accounting for just 6% of all returns during 2020. In comparison, net “displacement” out of Venezuela increased by 300,000 last year, according to the UN report.
This data clearly demonstrates that Caracas’ current efforts are failing. Simply put, a free passage home to be reunited with one’s family does not supersede the fundamental social and economic concerns about living in Venezuela at this moment.
In a recent two-part piece, Tatuy TV’s Rosiris Berroteran argued that underlying motives for Venezuela’s exodus were “economic impoverishment, and the deterioration of social conditions.” Her claims challenge the UN report, which states that Venezuelans were “flee[ing] wars and persecution” like their counterparts from Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar.
Similarly, Venezuelan writer Danna Urdaneta brusquely summarises these elements by stating that migrants are “displaced by capitalism in Venezuela.”
In her articles, Berroteran suggests that a Venezuelan repatriation plan should include a state-led effort to “stimulate the professionalization and education of future human resources, as well as invest in, safeguard, and improve the population’s quality of life.” Importantly, she goes on to conclude that it must offer “decent salaries for workers.”
Given that the largest waves of Venezuela’s exodus (4) have mostly been caused by a plummeting quality of life, Berroteran is correct in stating that the government must address broader economic and social conditions in order to attract migrants back. Her analysis also dispels the idea that the ousting of Chavismo will suffice for migrants to return.
However, a simplistic ‘turn the economy around’ and ‘offer jobs and competitive wages’ ignores Venezuela’s complex reality. A devastating and illegal US blockade coupled with questionable decision making from the Maduro government, corruption, and policies that increasingly favour the minority bourgeoisie all place limits on initiatives which might seek to recuperate worker’s living standards.
That said, should the government correctly identify migrants’ socio-economic concerns, it could prioritize certain policies that might start to shift the balance, even in the current context.
1. Wages, pensions and purchasing power
Venezuela’s minimum wage is currently around US $2.50 a month (roughly worth one box of 30 eggs), with some private sector wages reaching $50-100. Neither is sufficient to live on, with the former estimated to cover a mere 0.65% of basic monthly material needs, which continue to be battered by inflation.
Consequently, purchasing power has progressively collapsed for low-income earners (including pensioners) and later mid-range and skilled workers. Even those with higher incomes do not enjoy the equivalent living standards experienced by counterparts in Colombia, Spain or the United States, reducing the attraction of vertical social mobility.
After seven years of recession, the government is in no position to immediately bump wages up to internationally competitive levels. However, a planned and progressive genuine consumer power recovery strategy – especially for the engorged and strategically important education, oil and other public sectors – which is transparently elaborated, effectively communicated, and efficiently applied, would send a clear message to migrants that authorities both understand why they left and want them to return.
2. Targeted job creation and industry development
Many of those who left are educated and experienced workers who saw sparse goal-fulfilling career opportunities at home and wished to avoid pauperisation.
As such, the targeted development of specialised and professionalised industries as part of a long-term plan plays an important role in generating the conditions to entice them back.
Through internationally recognised career and training opportunities, state investment and fiscal incentives, and of course appropriate wage scales, industries such as telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, aerospace and oil and gas have the potential to be rescued, with some even returning to leading market positions established under the Chávez governments. Opening up new industries (many of which are highly developed in other countries) including green energy and advanced IT could also play a role further down the road. While sanctions and sparce state resources mean industry development is an uphill battle, the government can still prioritize certain areas.
The rapid and generalised deterioration of services, as well as the day-to-day frustrations and helplessness which go with it, has crossed social and income barriers (to differing degrees) and provided the tipping point for many to leave.
Problems in public and private services including electricity, water, transport, litter collection, health, education and even fuel supply have seriously impacted on living conditions. Likewise, collapsed phone and internet connections were too much for many of the younger generations, while others felt it necessary to seek better educational opportunities for their children or medical treatment for their loved ones.
As such, a planned medium-term investment and development plan to recuperate public services under government regulation is vital. First steps must include shoring up public health and education, alongside burnt-out national infrastructure for electricity and fuel generation as well as for the vital telecommunications systems. As with the wage recovery plan, such a strategy must necessarily be transparent, efficient and effectively communicated in order to achieve the required impact on diaspora communities.
4. Rule of law and the fight against crime
The absence of the rule of law, high levels of crime and impunity also drove many abroad. The apparent anarchy on Venezuela’s streets, reflected in the country’s legal, policing and prison institutions, has an exhausting effect on anyone who has dealt with the corruption, inefficiency and bureaucracy first hand.
With many migrants now accustomed to generally more efficient systems and seemingly safer streets abroad, effective and universal legal guarantees and reforms are necessary to revalue citizen’s rights and general judicial processes. Though a complex issue, reinstating confidence in the rule of law must include depoliticising legal proceedings controlled by localised civilian or military power groups and offering efficient responses to all types of crime, as well as furthering the current sweeping anti-corruption drive.
The thrust of a more effective repatriation policy package undoubtedly centres around improving purchasing power and public services, both of which require state investment and regulation.
Given the fiscal pressures generated by seven years of recession, the US blockade, and a range of other factors including inflation, currency devaluation and a burdensome debt service, one would be in their rights to argue that this is near impossible in the current situation.
However, whilst recognising these serious obstacles, there are possible steps to redirect the government’s failing efforts and point them in a better direction.
More effectively communicated socio-economic planning and an end to frequent policy reversals would allow migrants to consider making the big decision to return with greater confidence, betting on potential career opportunities or increased wages in the near future.
Equally, efforts towards rescuing public services or living standards, accompanied by plausible declarations from authorities showing their plans to fully recuperate both would send strong signals.
Finally, increased state spending to finance these initiatives may be possible by alleviating fiscal squeezes through a series of progressive measures.
Some of the proposals already presented to the government include raising tax burdens on the richest, cancelling tax exemption treaties for multinationals, scaling back luxurious government wages, travel, benefits and events, activating potentially profitable idle land and industries, nationalising the highly lucrative banking and importing sectors, expropriating the assets of oligarchic criminals, and rooting out fiscal leaks caused by inefficiency or corruption.
These proposals demonstrate that it is not obligatory for the government to hide behind Washington’s criminal blockade and asset freeze when justifying decreased state spending. Rather, this current arm-crossing strategy only prepares the ground for overtures to exploitative private capital and increasingly neoliberal policy packages instead of backing worker-led development.
Regardless of its capacity for state investment, the government will continue to err in its repatriation efforts unless it shifts away from its anti-worker agenda and stops sidestepping the diaspora’s fundamental concerns concerning material necessities. Only then, with clarity and intent, may efforts begin to solve the problems and cause many to consider returning.
(1) The UN defines displaced people as those “who are likely to be in need of international protection under the criteria contained in the Cartagena Declaration, but who have not applied for asylum.”
(2) The Global Report doesn’t specify if these 130,000 people are general migrants, “displaced persons” or “refugees” (both subcategories of the former). As such and for the purposes of this article we have assumed them to be general emigrants.
(3) The exact details of the plan after touchdown are unknown, but there is a resounding lack of state media coverage of any migrant reinsertion into the economy or follow up from the government, in contrast with the zealous coverage of their return to the country.
(4) The initial wave of Venezuelan migration in 2000-2 was under much better material conditions and largely consisted of politically motivated professionals, business- or land-owners. This wave is very similar to migratory phenomenons observed in Cuba or China after their leftward shift.