The Bolivarian Brain Drain:
Hugo Chavez and his allies are tightening their grips, forcing the intelligentsia to leave in droves
For just a moment, in the early days of his presidency, Venezuela's Hugo Chávez looked almost like a healer. "Let's ask for God's help to accept our differences and come together in dialogue," he famously implored his conflicted compatriots in 2002. Instead what Venezuelans got was an avenger. The government is seizing privately owned companies and farms. Labor unions have been crushed. Political opponents are routinely harassed or else prosecuted by chavista controlled courts. And now after a decade of the so-called Bolivarian revolution, tens of thousands of disillusioned Venezuelan professionals have had enough. Artists, lawyers, physicians, managers and engineers are leaving the country by droves, while those already abroad are scrapping plans to return. The wealthiest among them are buying condos in Miami and Panama City. Cashiered oil engineers are working rigs in the North Sea and sifting the tar sands of western Canada. Those of European descent have applied for passports from their native lands. Academic scholarships are lifeboats. An estimated million Venezuelans have moved abroad in the decade since Chávez took power.
This exodus is splitting families and interrupting careers, but also sabotaging the country's future. Just as nations across the developing world are managing to lure their scattered expatriates back home to fuel recovering economies and join vibrant democracies, the outrush of Venezuelan brainpower is gutting universities and thinktanks, crippling industries and hastening the economic disarray that threatens to destroy one of the richest countries in the hemisphere. Forget minerals, oil and natural gas; the biggest export of the Bolivarian revolution is talent.
The Bolivarian diaspora is a reversal of fortune on a massive scale. Through most of the last century, Venezuela was a haven for immigrants fleeing Old World repression and intolerance. Refugees from totalitarianism and religious intolerance in Spain, Italy and Germany and Eastern Europe flocked to this country nestled between the Caribbean and the Andean cordillera and helped forge one of the most vibrant societies in the New World. Like most developing nations, the country was split between the burgeoning poor and an encastled elite. But in the 1970s and 1980s, Venezuelans were the envy of Latin America. Oil rich, educated, with a solid democratic tradition, they lived a tier above the chronically unstable societies in the region. "We had a relatively rich country that offered opportunities, with no insecurity. No one thought about leaving," says Diego Arria, a former Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations, who lives in New York. "Now we have rampant crime, a repressive political system that borders on apartheid, and reverse migration. Venezuela is now a country of emigrants."