Maria Luisa Olavarria BA/MAIPS ’12 wrote an essay for the Middlebury Institute Fall Communiqué about her native Venezuela and the difficult choice many young professionals make whether to risk their lives to fight for the future of their beloved nation, or to leave and seek security and a better life elsewhere.
In 2010 I left Venezuela to come to MIIS. I packed two bags, kissed my mom and dogs goodbye and embarked on what I thought would be a three-year adventure in California to get my BA/MA in international policy studies. The plan was to return triumphant, a “master,” fully prepared to take on the troubles that had plagued my country and to rejoin my friends and family in our fight for democracy, free speech, and security.
I’ll cut to the chase and admit that it didn’t work out that way. In the three years that I was in Monterey, the situation in Venezuela deteriorated considerably. Violent crime rates kept rising, political leaders were imprisoned, television stations were closed, inflation was up the roof, and many of my friends and family members also started leaving. And meanwhile life in California was…it was bliss. I wasn’t afraid of getting mugged or kidnapped on the way to class in Monterey. Everything was easier: odd jobs allowed you to save a little bit of money and with the friends I had made I was able to travel and experience the student life in the U.S.
And then the day came. I was graduating and had to decide whether to follow my plan and return to Caracas or accept a job offer from an international organization. The thought of going back home to face the insecurity, the shortages, the corruption, the constant everyday struggle to simply survive brought with it a sinking feeling. Let me make this clear though, there is nowhere I’d rather be at any given time than home. But the idea I had of “home” in reality just existed in my head.
I’m not alone. In fact, about 1.5 million Venezuelans have emigrated in the past 15 years. This accounts for about 5% of the population who have left, willingly or not, in search of better opportunities. Early on (in the early 2000s) those who left were mostly medical professionals, IT experts, oil and gas engineers and students. More recently we’re seeing young entrepreneurs, journalists, artists, and families hoping for a better future for their families leave. Surveys indicate that 90% of expatriates are university graduates, 40% hold master’s degree and 12% hold a PhD. Their reasons for leaving are very similar to mine.
Studies have found that a full half of those who have left, have done so as a direct result of a robbery or assault, or due to the violent death of a family member. These are not unfounded reasons: Venezuela’s murder rate is among the highest in the world. The country’s inflation rate by the end of 2016 was 800% and expected to double that in 2017. In May this year it was lacking 80% of medical supplies. 28% of the population is unemployed and spends most of their time waiting in line at supermarkets in the hopes to access goods at affordable prices. The sarcastically named “Maduro Diet” has to many people battling malnutrition. Media outlets have been censored or shut down, and hundreds people have been murdered during protests or arbitrarily arrested.
The flight of some of the best and the brightest seems so matter-of-fact now that most of the conversations I have with family and friends are about who is leaving and when. Those of us who have been away for some years, like me, come back as tourists, outsiders, alarmed by the conditions of our people and the deterioration of the social fabric. Those living in Venezuela struggle to survive each day, and those living outside are burdened with a heavy sense of guilt for not doing more. It’s selfish to pick your own happiness and well-being over that of the entire country.
How are Venezuelans supposed to rebuild a country when a large portion of its society has left? Will we unite and conquer, or will we divide and fall? I hope my fellow countrymen back home trust that those who have left are gathering strength and knowledge and waiting for the right time to return, to invest, to rebuild. I miss Venezuela. I think about it every day. I wish I could wake up to have a cafecito with my mamá, have an arepa for breakfast and share my dreams and goals with my childhood friends. I know Venezuela will not be the same whenever I return, but then again, neither will I be. I dream of raising my children in Venezuela; that they can enjoy the same wonders the country gave me during my childhood. I hope they can be as proud of Venezuela as I am. One day I hope my idea of home will exist in reality rather than just my head.