A Venezuelan Exodus: UIC Prof on What Helped Fuel The Migrant Crisis, Pt. 2

By Nicole Jeanine Johnson

In the second installment of our “What’s going on in Venezuela?” series, we return to Soledad Álvarez Velasco, an Ecuadorian socio-anthropologist, human geographer and Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. 

[Read Pt. 1]

She shares how Venezuela’s historic economic crisis contributed to the mass exodus of Venezuelans from neighboring countries in South America to Chicago. 

Soledad Álvarez Velasco

Nicole Jeanine Johnson: On Nov. 9, 2023, Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson suggested that this crisis is a result of “bad foreign policy,” what specific policy is he referring to, and how does that implicate the United States? 

Soledad Álvarez Velasco: The U.S. has been the main market [for Venezuelan oil], and up until Chavez, Venezuela has had [a] history [of] right [wing] leadership that aligned themselves to the U. S. policies in terms of what they have to implement — the model of neoliberalism and structural adjustment. 

Specifically privatization of public assets. When Chavez [assumed leadership], he tried to shift this policy. He tries to close the brutal gap of inequality inside Venezuela. Some would tell you that he was able to do that. Some will tell you that he wasn’t able to do that.

We have the structural measures that [the] Venezuelan government has applied, but not because they want to, but because that’s the longstanding history of the Caribbean and Latin American countries. We don’t have [the] leverage of negotiation when the U.S. is our main market—even Venezuela with its sanctions. Venezuela has to operate in the way the United States suggests it shape its policy.

As of October 2023, President Biden has eased some, but not all, sanctions that would allow foreign interests to invest in the Venezuelan oil market. But this concession does not come without compromise. In return, the Biden administration set a Nov. 30 deadline that required Venezuelan President Maduro to implement democratic structural changes, thus lifting the bans on opposition presidential candidates and start releasing political prisoners and “wrongfully detained Americans.” However, as this date has passed, Madura has not fulfilled his end of the bargain. 

Nicole Jeanine Johnson: What message is the United States sending with these sanctions?

Soledad Álvarez Velasco: The massive Venezuelan exodus has been extremely useful to reinforce a pathologization of Venezuela as if the country was suffering a natural illness due to the arrival of a left-wing government. This exodus has allowed the far-right candidates to portray the unwanted [consequences] when it comes to elections. Having these images of the Venezuelans wandering around borderlands, having no place to be, has been used as an incredibly efficient weapon to fight against any progressive model, any leftist [propositions]. They are telling you, “You want to be leftist. Well, you’re going to be the next exodus.”

The United States has historically supported right-wing governments throughout South America. Such orientation will allow increased international involvement in Venezuelan policies and open their resources to foreign investments, thus increasing bond trade value

Nicole Jeanine Johnson: Since the 1970s, when Venezuela was known as the “Golden Magnet,” Venezuelans have frequented the United States, mainly Miami. They owned property and started businesses in America. When Venezuela began to decline in the early 2000s, this particular group of people was the first to leave the country. What is the difference between those migrants compared to what we see today in Chicago? 

Soledad Álvarez Velasco: The first wave or the first peak of migration was an upper high migration, meaning that those people with money were able to leave the country. It was the beginning of the Chavez regime. They were able to move to either the U.S., Colombia, Chile, the region in general. And then states opened their borders.

“Venezuelan migrants that I have been interviewing here in Chicago, in migrant shelters, have told me that they got to Chicago without a plan.” – Soledad Álvarez Velasco

The second peak was mostly comprised [of] middle class and professionals. And these middle class and professionals were migrating between 2010 or earlier, a bit, 2008, up until 2017, more or less. And then comes this massive mobility of impoverished Venezuelans who have been wandering and traversing borders across South America. And this is the massive exodus that most South American, and in general, Latin American and Caribbean states reject. That’s why in [2017], visas were imposed on Venezuelans. 

Prior to 2017, there were very few restrictions mitigating movement across the South Americas. However, as impoverished Venezuelans began their exodus and entered neighboring nations, those same countries instituted visas to reduce the flow. In 2017, Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, and Peru with Chile following suit in 2018, implementing visa requirements for Venezuelan migrants. Mexico instituted a visa requirement that would limit Venezuelans’ migration to the United States. 

Nicole Jeanine Johnson: These countries didn’t have these strict laws when Venezuelan migrants were from a different class. What is driving this? 

Soledad Álvarez Velasco: Aporophobia, which is the phobia to poor people because it’s not all. It’s racism, of course, but it’s aporophobia. It is a term that was coined by philosopher Adela Cortina. She coined this term to explain what was happening in the Spanish context with the 2015 arrival of migrants from the Middle East. She was saying, ‘Here, it is not only an issue of race, but it is an issue of poverty.’ States and societies hate and have a phobia of poor people, and this is what we’re dealing with.

In the context of immigration, Cortina suggests that “We [as a society] reject migrants not because of their origin, race, or ethnicity but because they seem to bring problems while offering nothing of value. And this is unforgivable in societies that enshrine economic exchange as the supreme value.” 

Nicole Jeanine Johnson: How did migrants decide to come to Chicago? 

Soledad Álvarez Velasco: This is a [result of what] Gov. Abbott decided to put in place as a way to weaponize the migration. Without any plan or organization, he only filled buses to send to the two main sanctuary cities in this country, New York and Chicago, without [planning]. 

No city in the world will be ready to absorb 20,000 people from one day to the other. It’s a lot. Venezuelan migrants that I have been interviewing here in Chicago, in migrant shelters, have told me that they got to Chicago without a plan. It’s not that they knew before that Chicago was their destination. They got to know about Chicago when they were in detention or en route because migrants are sharing their experiences, and most will tell you because Chicago is a sanctuary city.

Nicole Jeanine Johnson: Now that the migrants are here, what could improve economic conditions in Venezuela and possibly stem the flow of more arriving?

Soledad Álvarez Velasco: Lift the sanctions. 

While the U.S. lifted some sanctions in October 2023, in 2019, the Maduro administration eased private sector-wide regulations. This has allowed foreign currency to flow through the country’s economy. In response, the nation has seen a 15% increase in economic productivity. However, growth will be slow as Venezuela’s current oil infrastructure cannot produce energy exports at a rate that would return a significant profit. As such, with the addition of the sanctions, more foreign investment is critical. 

[Read Pt. 1]

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