A Tale of Two Venezuelan Diasporas

After a Forced Exodus, We’re All Rebuilding Our Lives. Geography, Time, and Class Only Seem to Deepen Our Divides

Zócalo contributing editor José Gonzalez Vargas reflects on the growing chasm in the Venezuelan diaspora. Courtesy of AP Newsroom.

American media covers only two types of the 7 million-plus immigrants who have left Venezuela in the past decade.

The first consists of the refugees and asylum seekers who walked across the border after perilous journeys through South and Central America, pressing their luck in a country with ever-increasing immigration restrictions. Last fall, Governors Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott turned the plight of nearly 50 of these Venezuelan immigrants into a cruel political theater when they loaded them in buses and planes to move them outside of their states. Neither worried about the political cost of using Venezuelan migrants as political props—and that’s in part because of the second group of immigrants from my country.

These Venezuelans got to America because they had the money and resources to hire a lawyer to cut through the red tape, validate their college degrees, and find a good enough job after some hardships and effort. In the U.S., many of them have quickly become part of a bloc of older, wealthier, more established, voting Venezuelans. This group seems to find the desperation of the first group to be alien and hard to empathize with.

Why has such a chasm opened up in the Venezuelan diaspora? And what does it mean for the country they left behind, and the country where they are building new lives? On one hand, it’s tempting to argue that class, privilege, and assimilation play bigger factors in defining migration than we have traditionally been led to believe. On the other hand, there’s the risk of jumping from one false dichotomy to another, falling into generalizations, and robbing different diasporas all over the world of their own individual stories and realities.

I can only speak from my own experience as a Venezuelan.

How, rather than empathizing with the masses fleeing from the same social, financial, and political crises that forced them to also leave their native home, many of the generally wealthier, more established Venezuelans are applauding and supporting punitive actions against their fellow countrymen.

How more than a few obsess over what private university you went to, or which gated community you lived in back in Caracas. In many cases, they would rather see similarities with those in power—perhaps as they once were or aspired to be back home—than with other immigrants trying to rebuild their lives in a new, foreign land. Indeed, the experience of being forced to move to a new country reinforced the mindset of mourning a lost country instead of encouraging reflection on past mistakes.

Why has such a chasm opened up in the Venezuelan diaspora? And what does it mean for the country they left behind, and the country where they are building new lives?

I’ve heard U.S.-based colleagues describe how there’s a subset of Venezuelans abroad that find support and justification for their views in right-wing populism and almost seem to take glee when bad things happen to average Venezuelans back home. They talk as if living under Chavismo—with rampant inflation, crumbling infrastructure, and authoritarian government—was divine punishment. They share, too, a generalized hopelessness about Venezuela’s future, blaming the bipartisan liberal democracy that ruled the country from 1958 to 1999 for populism, clientelism, and the rise of the Bolivarian Revolution. Taken together, it all begs the question: What do they miss about Venezuela, exactly? The country that was, or who they were back home?

Many of these Venezuelans push a sort of personal mythology that seems to be common in many assimilated minority groups: I’m here because I earned it, because I worked hard, I studied, and nobody helped me. Those coming behind me? They want a shortcut, or even to walk the same path I walked? They don’t deserve it.

Never mind that in many situations there was help, privilege, and luck involved. Burning bridges seems the preferred choice over building them.

Venezuela’s mass exodus has been going on for almost a decade now with virtually no sign that things will improve. Nations across Central and North America are enacting new policies that attempt to slow down the influx of migrants from my country, which means those with fewer resources are facing even more closed doors than ever before. It’s only exacerbating the gap between the refugees on foot, and those with money and resources.

I wish I could offer solutions or alternatives to this current situation, but I don’t have any. Like many of my fellow citizens, I’m tired and trying to make a semblance of a life in a foreign country (in my case, Spain), hopelessly feeling like I’m lagging behind locals of my age while trying to do my best to take care of my loved ones back home.

A few months ago, I went to a screening of a recent documentary on Rómulo Betancourt, the two-time Venezuelan president who some regard as “the father of Venezuelan democracy.” He spearheaded Venezuela’s first free elections in the 1940s, fought a military dictatorship in the 1950s, attempted an agrarian reform in the 1960s, and was part of the party that nationalized oil in the 1970s. However, he was also a sectarian with a spotty human rights record. The collapse of the inflexible two-party system he established brought about the rise of Hugo Chávez.

My maternal grandparents credit Betancourt for helping them leave behind the impoverished countryside for a life of middle-class comfort and opportunity in Maracay, Venezuela’s fifth largest city, and my hometown. To me, the question of whether Betancourt was a deeply principled reformer forced to make concessions or a pragmatic opportunist consolidating his power is key to understanding today’s Venezuela. So I had high hopes for the documentary.

But to my dismay, its scant analysis felt superficial. Instead, the documentary spent what felt like a disproportionate amount of time focused on the filmmaker’s childhood. I saw the movie here in Madrid, which has become a hub of Venezuelans abroad, along with Miami and Lima. What resonated most for my fellow audience members seemed to be references to some preppy private Catholic school I’d never heard of. To add insult to injury, one of the speakers after the screening praised the documentary for reflecting a childhood anyone in Venezuela could relate to. I felt so lonely in the middle of a crowd that day.

As the Venezuelan diaspora grows around the globe, the gaps among us—of geography, time, class—will deepen. I can’t help but wonder if the meanings of what our country is, was, or could be will continue to move further away from one another as well, until one day we’ll no longer recognize ourselves as coming from the same land.


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