Venezuelans who fled the country are starting to return home. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, last year more than 15,000 citizens returned to Venezuela. The government has created the “Homecoming Plan” (Vuelta a la Patria Plan), which offers free flights to Caracas from several Latin American countries, however the authorities don’t have time to consider the applications of everyone who wants to use the programme, and the waiting list is growing.
Pack your bags, sell everything quickly, and believe that life will be better anywhere else. There will be more opportunities. Migration as an objective, as an imminent need to avoid a vital catastrophe, is the mantra in which a large part of Venezuelans who have left their country in recent years believed.
It doesn’t matter where. It doesn’t matter how. The only thing that matters is to go abroad where in many cases the new (and not so new) generation has no opportunity for personal and family development. The country is in crisis. Venezuela. And the message that floats around is: you have to leave.
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), 4.5 million Venezuelans have left the country since the end of 2015. The agency rates these numbers as “alarming.” There are no official government data proving these figures but the truth is that the mass exodus is widely discussed in the country.
Everyone knows someone who is gone. Typically, it’s a cousin, dad, son, nephew or childhood friend who’s left, who is doing well, or we don’t know how they is doing; but occasionally they send a remittance to the family they had to leave.
What the mainstream media hardly talk about is the Venezuelans who are returning. The reasons for the return are diverse: the classic “it is not all gold that glitters”, the prevailing xenophobia against migrants in the destination countries, which are eminently Latin American. A widespread feeling among many of them is that “instead of having a bad time outside, I’d rather have a bad time in my country, with my family.” Overwhelming logic.
Venezuelans who Emigrate and Return Home
The Government of Nicolás Maduro has launched the so-called Homecoming Plan. The programme has been running for about a year and it is an assistance programme for Venezuelans who want to return and have no opportunity to do it. Once back they are included in the social protection system. There are no necessary requirements to get on one of these flights except being Venezuelan and wanting to return.
According the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a total of 15,856 nationals have so far returned with one of the Plan flights. Brazil is the country from where more Venezuelans have returned, with a total of 7,285 returnees; it’s followed by Peru (3,491) and Ecuador (3,242). Since its launch, the programme has operated a total of 86 completely free flights.
Almost a month ago, 29-year-old Danial returned from Colombia, specifically from the city of Cali, with his wife and 4-year-old son, after a year spent there. They didn’t return with one of these government flights; they did it the same way they had left: by bus, at their own expense. They were saving. First to leave, then to return.
Daniel tells his story sitting in the house that he shares with his whole family (8 people, including brothers, nephews, and other relatives) in the working class neighbourhood of Manicomio in Caracas. “It’s my dad’s house, that’s why I didn’t sell it,” Daniel says jokingly, but seriously. And then he laughs.
He sold everything to leave; the only thing he had was a mattress just in case things wouldn’t go well in Cali. There they had promised him a job. Danial is a cameraman, he worked in television in Venezuela; he managed the recording sets, the camera cranes and the breaking news stress. When his job stopped providing him with money he needed to get the end of the month, he and his wife started considering the idea of emigration. This is the usual history of the common Venezuelan. The crisis and hyperinflation eat wages and devalue the national currency.
In Cali they promised him a job at audiovisual technologies in the mayor’s office. “They even had a drone,” Daniel says. “But then I realised that nothing was what they had promised me. There was no job; that was the reality.”
Daniel and his family chose Colombia because it is a neighbouring country and because they believed that culturally it would be similar to Venezuela. The bus trip was already an odyssey. They failed to get tickets with any travel agency and had to pay a “vaccine”, a commission, to a guy they met by chance who promised to put them on a bus to their destination.
They trusted him and arrived in Cucuta, which is on the Colombian-Venezuelan border; and then to Cali after hours of travel by a “deplorable” bus, as Daniel himself describes it. “Along the way, we had three or four accidents.” And Daniel told a story that makes you want to smile and sweat at the same time. The bus ran over a cow that was crossing the road and killed it. The passengers, about twenty Venezuelans, got off the bus and started to compulsively cut off the meat and put it in pots or improvised plastic containers. This image of need and anxiety is creepy.
They paid about $30 each for that trip. “The hardest thing is to realise that many times, the dream that you sold yourself or that social networks sold to you, doesn’t exist,” Daniel explains. “But when you realise it, you are already there and you have to face the situation.”
Without the promised job, he started looking for anything. He managed to solve the accommodation problem by working as a bricklayer in the Church of a town near the capital of Valle del Cauca. In exchange for that, the priest lent them an apartment that belonged to the parish. During the week he did some freelance work that occasionally came along; sometimes he worked as an assistant to a photographer, and on weekends he sold goodies in a grocery store.
“My son never adapted. He was always crying because he missed his grandparents.” Apart from that, the worst thing, according to Daniel, was feeling the rejection of people.
“Be careful, they are Venezuelans, they can steal from you. These were things we heard every day,” he explains. “There are prejudices, even among Venezuelans themselves. We were these ‘brothers’ that always competed with each other.”
Once, Daniel’s son asked him to visit a fire truck at the town station. He knew the head of the station and decided to approach. But his friend wasn’t there at that time; there was another person in charge who asked him if he was Venezuelan. When Daniel answered yes, the answer was: “I hate you.”
“Imagine having to deal with that situation in front of your four-year-old son.”
Better not imagine that.
How do Venezuelan Migrants Live?
Another shocking round-trip story is that of 53-year-old Efrén Avellaneda. Singer and salsa composer, he returned a little over a month ago from Lima, Peru with one of the Homecoming flights.
In his house in Naiguatá, a small coastal town about forty minutes from Caracas, he proudly demonstrates all his albums and scores with the lyrics of his songs.
He traveled with all that in a suitcase because what he wanted was to “internationalise” his music and seek success abroad singing salsa. That suitcase was the only thing that came back with him after everything had been stolen in the street.
In Venezuela, Efrén has always earned his living as a composer, but the crisis doesn’t forgive culture either, so he set out abroad. He first came to Bogotá where he endured three months: “There I sold ice cream with a cart, I sold coffee and sang in the street. I decided to go to Peru because they told me there were more opportunities; but the reality is completely different,” he says.
From the balcony of Efrén's house you can see the pools and rather big yachts of the Puerto Azul Club, one of the oldest and most exclusive private clubs in Venezuela. Not everyone can enter there. The membership fee alone is around $30,000, and the monthly payments are astronomical. Watching that other reality while Efrén is speaking about his hardships of economic exile makes you vomit.
In Naiguatá, Efrén lives with his wife and 15-year-old daughter. He says that they don’t understand why he has returned, especially his daughter, a teenager, who more worried about having resources and the must-haves of youth: goods, leisure, parties, clothes, Instagram… than in the miseries of her own father.
But Efrén is happy to be back. “I have gained weight and I have another face. Look at me.” In Lima, I worked as a truck driver from 7am to 11pm and started earning $200 a month. “The salaries are very low because we are Venezuelans; they exploit us and we have to be grateful because they give us the opportunity, because now there is no work for us,” he explains.
When he argued with his boss for claiming better working conditions, he was thrown out; and without that salary he was unable to pay for the small room he rented for sleeping, so he ended up in the street.
Efrén began sleeping in parks, in arcades or where he could to protect himself from the cold. One night they stole everything from him; and his world collapsed. “I was so depressed that I blocked myself and started jumping under cars. I wanted to kill myself. I cut my whole body with a bottle. I just wanted to die.” Efren shows the deep cuts that still remain in his arms and throughout his body. He covers them with a jacket despite the suffocating heat of the Caribbean coast but they are permanent scars.
One Sunday morning he came to the Venezuelan Embassy in Peru and the security guard told him to return the next day because there was no one in the offices. He went to a park and bought some bananas with the few coins he had in his pocket. “I lay down on a bench to rest but something told me that I should return to the Embassy and that is what I did,” he says. When he returned, by chance, he saw a group of about 40 Venezuelans who were returning from the airport. They were the passengers of the next Homecoming flight that hadn’t been able to leave because there had been some problem with the fuel.
Efrén managed to talk to the ambassador and tell him about his case. They immediately put him on the passenger list. He was given accommodation for three days and the flight finally left on Wednesday. This was a few weeks ago but he now has glint in his eyes and his mood is completely different. He is singing salsa, puts El Cigala on YouTube and plays ball with his dog while answering the questions.
Neither Efren nor Daniel would leave again. Now they believe in Venezuela despite the economic situation, which doesn’t improve or improves very slowly. When they hear friends or family say they leave, they stop them. “Give it a second thought,” they say.
They share their experience and try to give advice; sometimes it works, and sometimes not so much. But they are first person life stories.
The stories of Venezuelans who left and returned are wild tales of frustration. They look like an American dream that at one point turned into a nightmare that seemed hopeless. Packing is not easy even if the international press and mainstream headlines sweeten it as a journey of adventure and opportunities. The tendency to idealise emigration remains until a person is at the very bottom, where only shame and abuse await him. Homecoming is turning into more than a simple necessity.
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