04-20-2019 | News
Photo credit: Vladm | Dreamstime.com
Venezuela: Surviving or Becoming an Immigrant?
As I write these words, I try to take advantage of the fact that there’s electricity at the moment. There is an ongoing “electrical problem” in Venezuela, and though it is not the main purpose of this article, it is an important factor in what I am going to attempt to explain: how do people work in Venezuela? How do they survive? The massive emigration of Venezuelans is impacting not just the neighboring countries, but throughout the world, Venezuelans are arriving in new countries to seek better life opportunities. Thus, I will attempt to explain the reason why. Most Venezuelans (still in the country) ask themselves every day: “should I stay, or should I leave the country?”
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I know that I ask this question to myself almost every day; however, there are still people who argue that there is no crisis in Venezuela> Government representatives claim that there is no “humanitarian crisis” in the country and that everything is functioning just fine. Well, of one thing I can be sure: things are not fine. Not long ago I was asked to write an article about the situation in Venezuela, and I ended up writing about a national blackout that struck the country; I regret to admit that at the moment I believed I was writing about a temporary problem. We had had power outages before, many of them actually; we would spend a couple of hours, maybe more with announced schedules (though rarely followed). Still, a whole day without electricity was not the regular day-to-day.
It was national, and was world news and the sad thing is, as I am asked to continue reporting about Venezuela, that 5-day-blackout is now our way of life. As I write this article, I am trying to make the best of the little periods we have of electricity; the blackout was not an isolated event, now we wake up or go to bed without the precious electric service, some days it’s the whole day without the service. There are days when one hour of electricity is all we have or less. I want to attempt to explain how I survive in Venezuela, and how that makes me wonder how others do. First, you have to understand this is a country that is now working at the slowest pace possible. As I attempt to describe the difficult situation, remember that it all goes on in a country where now the little moments with electric service are scarce. Imagine trying to live your life and the one I am about to describe with the added obstacle of having no electric power.
So why have so many Venezuelans left the country? Is it really that difficult to survive in Venezuela? Yes. Can you survive in Venezuela with one job? No; or at least not with one that pays with the national currency, meaning, not with an actual legal income. I, myself, am a university professor, a position that was once upon a time coveted. A university professor, at least in my hometown, used to have a good economic position; it was good enough to pay for basic services, good enough to acquire other goods like a vehicle or real estate, it was good enough to support a family and provide them with all the basic needs, and a little more. A university professor could travel or study abroad; they could have nice things, that though far from luxurious, were enough to provide a life without economic hardships, and even a little more. I know this because my father was a university professor, and he not only supported one family; after he divorced my mother and remarried, he supported two families so that you can get the picture, money was not scarce for a person in my position 15, or maybe even 10 years ago.
Today I have the opportunity of having followed in my father’s footsteps, and I am a professor; however, my job is now far from being my dream job, and the main reason is that I rarely know how much I earn. It sounds crazy, but it is true; this is a full-time job that requires good credentials, demands a lot of time and it can only be attained after passing a series of very difficult tests. It feels like community service. I don’t know how much it is I earn, but I know how fast I can spend it. In a few words, this is how it goes: on a regular day, I go to the grocery store and buy I few things; after this single purchase, I get home to check my bank account. As I check it, I realize that I have spent more than I have gotten paid. It is one purchase, maybe just a few things for the day’s lunch (not the whole meal, maybe a few vegetables and a candy bar), and my salary has been spent, and more. That is my reality, and that of everyone who earns minimum wage (which is insignificantly less than what I make); so, how, and why do we do it?
The last time I saw a deposit in my account, it was close to $3 USD. What can I buy with that? To give you an idea, 15 eggs and a piece of bread. No rent, no transportation, no basic services, even less a leisurely activity: everything is out of reach. The university crisis is a story on its own; however, economically hardships are the same for professors as for this with a minimum wage. This year the Minister of Education announced that professors will earn the same amount that other workers do. This doesn’t mean that all salaries will increase resulting in equal but good pay; on the contrary, this means that everyone will earn an equally small, and some would even say a symbolic amount. Academic merits are worthless; so whether it is cleaning the university halls, or applying for a teaching position that requires specialized studies, there is one thing that the Venezuelan workers know for sure: a full-time legal job does not pay enough to make a living.
So, what are our options? We need a second, a third, a fourth job to make ends meet. In my case, the professor job is the real, but at the same time the “façade job.” This doesn’t mean I do illegal activities; however, the income I receive from my two other jobs is not in the national currency, but in US dollars. In other words, if you want to survive in Venezuela, you need to earn foreign currencies due to the hyperinflation problem; however, you cannot easily find a job that pays in that way, at least not as a public-legal arrangement, but if you want to keep eating, there is no other way. Teaching, however, is what keeps me in contact with people, leaving my house and attempting to live a close to normal life working with what I prepared to do. The options I have resorted to are freelance jobs that though provide with real incomes, keep me isolated from the real world. Now, you might think that this could happen to any freelancer; the thing is—and I would have to write another article about this—basic services have come to an almost-complete collapse and just finding transportation is an incredible feat. Therefore, we seek these jobs, so that we don’t have to leave our houses and spend on transportation, clothing and other expenses that are implied with a commute to a regular job.
I am lucky enough to have found a way to find projects that suit my needs, and though it is a lot of work, I can still live a close-to-regular lifestyle. By that I mean that I have shelter and food on my table, and my biggest luxury, is that I attend a gym; it is the one thing that keeps me mentally healthy. Everything is in order until the day I get sick and need to buy medicine, until the day I need to buy anything extra. I don’t lack anything; however, I could never pay for my own place with the money I earn now. I am in my thirties, and I still live in my parents’ house; I couldn’t pay rent, I couldn’t afford to buy medicines if anything should happen to me, and clothing, traveling, they are all unthinkable luxuries. I could not support a child; I can barely support myself.
But there is one crucial factor that helps with my survival, and it is one of the main reasons why so many of us are so fortunate to still be OK in Venezuela: “the magical god-mothers/god-fathers abroad.” The real reason my household is still characterized with a reasonable quality of life is the fact that a relative sends us money from another country. To illustrate a little better, here is an example of how important she is for our household’s survival: this January I got sick, I needed antibiotics to treat a throat infection. After spending the whole day looking for medicine (medicines are scarce and very difficult to find), I found the precious medicine: it cost 17,5 times my actual salary. This means that in order to treat an infection, I would have had to save 17 1/2 months’ worth of salary (without spending absolutely any of it) in order to gather the money; the twist: when I found the medicine at the drugstore, I was immediately warned that the following day it would cost close to double its price, so I would have to buy it immediately. This is what I mean with the problem of hyperinflation; if you save money in bolívares (the national currency), it loses its value as minutes go by.
The story of the infection, however, ends well, my angel from abroad helped me pay for the medicine, and I am alive. There were four other medicines in the list, but who has the luxury to afford them all? So, to answer the question “how do people survive in Venezuela?” Here is what I would say: 1) they have businesses related to commerce which have somehow endured the crisis (though struggling); 2) they have found a way to earn money in a foreign currency that is not as affected by hyperinflation as the national currency (this may include shady activities); 3) they have a “magic god-mothers/god-father abroad” sending them a little monetary help every month; 4) they don’t: they are depressed, they have lost everything/cannot find a way to survive, they are struggling to make ends meet, they cannot find medicines, and they are getting sick from this whole situation. 5) They are getting the passports ready to leave for good.
To top it all off, now we have to “adapt” to a new lifestyle. At the same time that official statements of the government declare that there have been attacks made to our electric system, they also announce a rationing schedule for it. I cannot help but wonder if the blackout is a result of foreign sabotage as the government has called it, how come the situation continues, but they can now provide a schedule on when the situation will repeat?
Now the situation worries us all. This is a technological era; we need electricity for the lifestyle we all lead. I have three jobs, and it is not easy to juggle them all at once, but three jobs with one hour of electric service (or less) a day: that is definitely impossible, incredibly stressful and frustrating. Since the first days of March, and then after the 5-day blackout that began on the 7th, Venezuela has not been able to regain the normal pace; I am incredibly behind with all my job responsibilities, and I can only imagine what it has been like for other people and businesses in Venezuela. If there are companies that suffer incredible losses after stopping their services for minutes, just imagine what a 5-day blackout meant for the country. But the outages didn’t stop, and now it is not a matter of trying to recover from that. Now it is a matter of learning to be the most productive in the small periods of time when we are lucky enough to have electricity to work.
I don’t know how I will adapt to this new lifestyle. As of today, I am quitting a job and thinking of other options to fill that space. Teaching is something that I consider quitting often as well; the thing is, though it is the job that pays the least, it is the one I like. As a university professor, I don’t isolate myself, I continue to grow professionally, and it is what I prepared to do. As a member of such institution, it is almost a duty to continue fighting to keep the autonomy of the university; many fear—myself included—that a general strike might lead to a government intervention that would inevitably result in the loss of the spaces, the quality, and achievements of the university. For these, and other reasons, we continue on that struggle; however, the number of professors and students diminishes every semester, and very understandably so.
So, the question is, should we stay or should go? At least in my case, it seems like life has stooped, but at the same time, it is passing without us knowing. On the one hand, we are spending nights in the dark and unproductive days where those who directly depend on electricity to work simply have to stop and wait; there is no option but waiting; you cannot make plans, you cannot commit to specific times, for anything. On the other hand, as times get rough and hyperinflation seems to suffocate us, every day we cannot help but be thankful that finally another day has gone and wait for the other as if we are on a rush to finish the ride before something terrible happens. But the ride is life, and it is truly passing by as we attempt to survive.
Two years ago I attempted to start graduate studies and get a masters degree; I was forced to drop out at the end of the first semester, it became too overwhelmingly difficult for me to finish it. Today, I do not have my degree, I do know, however, how to make a fire quickly and cook without cooking gas or electric devices. I also know how to make homemade candles out of water, oil, aluminum foil, and a short thread: so, in a few words, instead of being instructed with skills to succeed in the 21st century, I can now survive in the past. I hope sarcasm and frustration come across in these words: the only way Venezuela is going to is backwards. The most popular dystopian stories seem like a scary prediction of our future.
I cannot help but think that if I stay, my life will pass me by. But if I go, what will become of my family? Can I have peace of mind knowing they are still here? Will I ever get used to never feeling at home in a different country? I am not alone in my thoughts, and sadly many simply cannot find a choice. Some are forced to leave; some are unhappy abroad, but they are the only reason their families are still eating. Regardless, those of us still here are still resilient and even still a little optimistic. We have to, there is no other choice but keep going: but the goal is clear, we don’t want to keep on surviving, we want to live.
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