The Bolivarian Brain Drain


The Bolivarian Brain Drain

Hugo Chavez and his allies are tightening their grips, forcing the
intelligentsia to leave in droves.

Mac Margolis

Newsweek Web Exclusive

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.”

It’s much the same all over the axis of Hugo, the constellation of 10 states
in the Andes, Central America and the Caribbean that have followed Chávez in
lockstep in the march towards so called 21st century socialism. In the name
of power, justice and plenty for the downtrodden the leaders of the
“Bolivarian alternative” in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua are rewriting their
constitutions, intimidating the media and stoking class and ethnic conflicts
that occasionally explode in hate and violence. (The military coup on June
28 that ousted Honduran president Manuela Zelaya, a key Chávez ally, is the
latest example of the blowback from the Bolivarian revolution.) The middle
classes and the young are taking the brunt. A study just released by the
Latin America Economic System, an intergovernmental economic research
institute, reports that the outflow of highly skilled labor, aged 25 or
older, from Venezuela to OECD countries rose 216 percent between 1990 and
2007. A recent study by Vanderbilt University in Nashville showed more than
one in three Bolivians under 30 had plans to emigrate, up from 12 percent a
decade ago, while 47 percent of 18-year-olds said they planned to leave.
Many established professionals have already made up their minds. “I ask
myself if I’m not patriotic enough,” says Giovanna Rivero, an acclaimed
Bolivian novelist who is leaving for a teaching job at the University of
Florida and has no plans to come back. “But Bolivia is coming apart. There
are people who´ve known each other all their lives who don’t talk to one
another anymore.”

In Venezuela, Chavez has pushed hard against anyone who refuses to accept
his party line. Daniel Benaim was one of Venezuela’s top independent
television producers, turning out prime time entertainment and game shows
for national channels with Canal Uno, a leading production house. “We had
160 employees and a 24/7 operation,” he says. But after the failed coup
against Chávez in 2002, the government cracked down on independent media and
programming budgets dried up. In a month, Canal Uno was down to four
employees and heading for bankruptcy. Benaim redirected his business to
serve the international advertising market and raked in prestigious
international awards, including multiple Latin Emmys. But opportunities for
non-chavistas in Venezuela had dried up. One by one, he watched the people
he trained over the years leave the country. “I used to give angry speeches
about the brain drain. Now I have to bite my tongue,” says Benaim, who is
also moving to the U.S. “We had the best minds in the business, and now
there’s nothing for them here.”

One of Benaim´s associates was Gonzalo Bernal Ibarra. He, too, had soared up
the career ladder in broadcast television and until recently ran a campus
network that reached 100,000 students. Everything changed in late 2007 when
Chávez lost a refrendum to rewrite the constitution and began to crack down
on his media critics, including Bernal. Strangers in jackets with weighted
pockets–dress code for Chávez´s military intelligence police–began to
follow him day and night. Then congress was set to pass a bill obliging
schools to teach 21st century socialism. “I didn’t want my kid learning that
crap,” he says. Even shopping became a trial as spiking inflation and
government price controls emptied the supermarkets of basic goods like milk,
eggs and meat. One day in late 2008, he opened a bottle of whiskey and held
a yard sale. “I got drunk and watched my life get carted away,” he says. He
now lives in the Washington, D.C. area, with his wife and six year old
daughter, and is trying to adapt. “I was living in the most beautiful,
wonderful, funny country in the world. Now a third of my friends are gone.
In another ten years, Venezuela is going to be a crippled country.”

No industry has been harder hit by the flight of talent than Venezuela’s oil
sector. A decade ago, Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) ranked as one of the
top five energy companies in the world. Everything changed under Chávez, who
named a Marxist university professor with no experience in the industry to
head the company. PDVSA’s top staff immediately went on strike and paralyzed
the country. Chávez responded by firing 22,000 people practically overnight,
including the country’s leading oil experts. As many as 4,000 of PDVSA’s
elite staff are now working overseas. “The company is a shambles,” says
Gustavo Coronel, a former member of the PDVSA board, who now works in the
Washington D.C. as an oil consultant. Up until 2003, researchers at the
company’s Center for Technological research and Development generated 20 to
30 patents a year. Last year it produced none, even though its staff has
doubled. PDVSA produced 3.2 million barrels of crude oil a day when Chávez
took control. Now it pumps 2.4 million, according to independent estimates.

The decline has spread across Venezuelan society, heightened by cronyism,
corruption and censorship. In May, on the pretext that scientists were
pursuing “obscure” research projects such as “whether there is life on
Venus,” Chávez began to slash budgets at the university science centers,
where the country’s cutting edge public health research was carried out.
Instead he poured petrodollars into official “misiones cientificas”
(scientific missions), where the purse strings are controlled by Chávez
allies. Now the country’s most respected research institutes are falling
behind. Earlier this year, Jaime Requena. a Cambridge University trained
biologist at the Institute of Advanced Studies, was forced into retirement
and stripped of his pension after publishing a paper charging that
scientific research in Venezuela was “at a 30-year low.” The number of
papers published by Venezuelans in international scientific journals fell
from 958 to 831, a 15 percent drop in just the last three years. At aged 62,
with an aging mother, Requena has few options. “It’s not easy to get another
job at my age. I would leave Venezuela if I could. My friends and colleagues
all have.”

An estimated 9,000 Venezuelan scientists are currently living in the U.S. –
compared to 6,000 employed in Venezuela. One of the victims is an
internationally acclaimed life sciences expert, who quit his job as chief of
a major research laboratory in Caracas to try his luck in the U.S. in 2002,
but always nursed hopes of returning. “I sent the government a number of
proposals and they never got back to me,” he says asking not to be named for
fear of reprisals against his relatives in Venezuela. “Now it’s all about
politics. If you are not with Chávez you will never get grants. You will be
persecuted. This is a war on merit.” Venezuelan medical science, he said, is
groping in the dark. “The last epidemiological report Venezuela published
was in 2005,” he says. “We don’t even know what diseases we have and whether
they are increasing or decreasing. This is the Cuban model, of keeping
people in the dark.”

The Bolivarian diaspora seems to be getting worse. Though census data is
patchy, Latin American analysts say that outmigration from Venezuela,
Bolivia and Ecuador has created sizeable enclaves in the U.S., Spain,
Colombia and Central America. Panama City glistens with new buildings built
by moneyed Venezuelan expatriates, who number some 15,000, up from a few
thousand at the beginning of the decade. So many Venezuelans have flocked to
Weston, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale, locals call it Westonzuela. There is
hardly a middle class family in Venezuela without a son or daughter abroad,”
says Fernando Rodríguez, a columnist for the anti Chávez newspaper Tal Cual.
In fact, far more people from the Bolivarian countries might be emigrating
if it weren’t for the global recession and rising hostility to outsiders,
Venezuelan emigrants do not qualify as political refugees and enjoy no
special advantage in the fierce competition for the 400,000 H1B work visas
issued yearly by the U.S. for highly skilled migrants, three quarters of
which go to Indians, who have an edge because they can speak English. “One
reason we are not seeing more dislocation from these countries is that many
people have no place to go,” says Alejandro Portes, a sociologist who
studies global migration at Princeton University.

Latin America has seen this before. Virtually the entire Cuban middle class
fled to the U.S. after Fidel Castro’s revolution, turning Miami into a
business hub for Latin America while Havana moldered. The Cold War,
stagflation, serial debt crises and massive unemployment drove the brain
drain through the 1980s, Latin America’s lost decade, especially in Chile,
Colombia, Argentina, Peru and throughout Central America. By the early
2000s, some of the countries convulsed by dictatorship or guerrilla
insurgency, such as Chile and Peru, had managed to reverse course, making
their societies prosperous and safe. But other countries have struggled to
bring their expatriates home. In the 1980s and 1990s, Colombia had become
synonymous with cocaine, violent crime and guerrilla warfare, all of which
drove some four million Colombians from their homes. Targeted by kidnappers
and political thugs, tens of thousands of middle class professionals left
the country. In 2002 Pres. Álvaro Uribe declared war on drugs and crime, and
now onetime bandit cities like Cali, Medellin and Bogota are safer than ever
and have even become models for the rest of crime-ridden Latin America. Yet
the brain drain has not reversed. “Either the [emigrants] have found the
American dream or they are not yet convinced that it’s safe to return,” says
Jorge Rojas, of Codhes, a Colombian thinktank that tracks refugees. “It
shows how difficult it can be to recover lost talent.”

For the nations of the Bolivarian Revolution, this means some dark days are
likely to be ahead. Even the wealthiest nations could ill afford to lose
their best and brightest, and Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua have
all fallen in the World Economic Forum’s competitiveness index. Fitch
ratings recently demoted all three countries’ debt to junk status, while the
World Bank placed the Bolivarian trio of Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela in
the bottom quarter of its ease of doing business, along with most of the
African continent.

Though much has been made of how developing world migrants can mitigate
underdevelopment by sending precious savings back home, remittances will not
close the widening talent gap that is sapping societies of their ablest
hands. “If a 20-something engineer or computer specialist leaves the
country, who cares? But in ten years we’ll be feeling the loss,” says Rául
Maestres, a human resources expert in Caracas, whose son and daughter
recently left Venezuela -he to work at U.S. architecture firm, she to study
advertising in Buenos Aires. “When you think about the opportunities we have
lost, you could sit down and cry.”

Still there may be a glimmer of revival. Ostracized at home and unwelcome
abroad, expatriate communities are trying to turn distance into strength.
Using the web, universities and the expatriate grapevine, foreign nationals
from the populist countries are talking to each other and building ties with
dissidents around the world. Back home opposition movements are making a
stand, launching protest marches and candidates in a major city in each
country–Guayaquil in Ecuador, Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia, Maracaibo
in Venezuela. “We are putting together a web of exiles as a counterbalance
to authoritarianism,” says Coronel, who is tapping the diaspora for a
gathering in Ecuador or Argentina in the next few months. “You could call it
a kind of axis of freedom.” That may sound optimistic given the stranglehold
Chávez and his followers have on their countries. But given the growing
numbers and brain power of Latin America’s new dissidents, uniting their
voices might just make a difference.


© 2009


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