Latin America's Intelligentsia Is Fleeing Chavez

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 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 in 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 1 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 think tanks, 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. Refugees from totalitarianism and religious intolerance in Spain, Italy, 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 nine states in the Andes, Central America, and the Caribbean that have followed Chávez in lockstep in the march toward what he calls 21st-century socialism. In the name of power, justice, and plenty for the downtrodden, the leaders of the "Bolivarian alternative" in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua are rewriting their constitutions, intimidating the media, and stoking class and ethnic conflicts that occasionally explode in hate and violence. The overthrow on June 28 of Honduran President Manuel 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 American Economic System, an intergovernmental economic-research institute, reports that the outflow of highly skilled workers, ages 25 and older, from Venezuela to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries rose 216 percent between 1990 and 2007. A recent study by Vanderbilt University in Nashville showed that 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, Chávez 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-Chávistas in Venezuela had withered. 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 referendum 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," says Bernal. 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, Bernal opened a bottle of whisky 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 6-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 10 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, Petróleos 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 Washington, D.C., as an oil consultant. 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 had 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 científicas (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 has fallen from 958 to 831, a nearly 15 percent drop, in just the past three years. At 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 with 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 says, 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 are patchy, Latin American analysts say that out-migration from Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador has created sizable 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 Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, that locals call it Westonzuela. "There is hardly a middle-class family in Venezuela without a son or daughter abroad," says Fernando Rodriguez, 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, and 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 4 million Colombians from their homes. Targeted by kidnappers and political thugs, tens of thousands of middle-class professionals left the country. In 2002 President Álvaro Uribe declared war on drugs and crime, and now onetime bandit cities like Cali, Medellín, and Bogotá 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 think tank 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 Bolivia's, Ecuador's, and Venezuela's debt to junk status, while the World Bank placed all three in the bottom quarter in its ease-of-doing-business survey, 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 10 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 a 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, and 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 considering the growing numbers and brainpower of Latin America's new dissidents, uniting their voices just might make a difference.

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