(A guest post by Daniela Alexandra Porat, a Toronto-based Venezuelan ex-pat and CC reader)
Venezuela’s current crisis finds a mirror in the stories of the country’s padres huérfanos. These so-called “orphaned parents” are the older Venezuelans who send their offspring abroad to save them from the the brutal crime in Venezuela’s streets, helping them start lives unencumbered by economic plight and political repression.
Padres huérfanos may be pleased with their prescience in light of recent unrest, but with declining access to US dollars and international flights, these parents face involuntary confinement – making their condition all the more suffocating.
“Parents should be prepared for their kids to leave, to live their own lives…The problem for Venezuelan parents is that our foundation is moving too much,” says Maria Eugenia, an “orphaned mother” of two, with one son in Canada and a daughter in France, “We’re becoming not just orphaned parents, but orphans of country.”
Elizabeth Fuentes, a Venezuelan journalist and a mamá huérfana herself, is attributed with coining the term. “In our family get-togethers there are no longer young people, only parents who speak of absent children, of the empty nest, of how expensive tickets are,” she writes in this piece ( in Spanish).
Like the narrative of Venezuela, the story of the padres huéfanos is always framed with a before and an after. In FiveThirtyEight, Dorothy Kronick characterized the differences in Venezuelans’ befores and afters, writing “[c]havistas compare the present to Venezuela’s pre-Chávez past, while the opposition contrasts the current economic situation with more recent developments in the rest of Latin America.” The padres huérfano phenomenon is distinct to the after era.
Before, “everyone used to leave Venezuela at some point, to study, to work, but we always kept a foot here. You would leave, but you always came back. You always prepared yourself to return to something,” says Maria Eugenia, an architect. “Now, Venezuelans are immigrants.”
Every single orphaned parent I interviewed cited crime as their primary reason for sending their kids abroad. Venezuela has one of the highest murder rates in the world. However agonizing it is to sustain any traces of parenthood via Skype, text, Facebook, and e-mail, padres huérfanos will always say “better there than here.”
“Everyday I get a story more horrific than the one before. If for the middle class their children leave, the children of the less well off get assassinated, a pain incomparable to our airport rituals,” Fuentes writes. Since 1999, over 1 million Venezuelans – mostly middle to upper class – have left their country.
In addition to the horrific physical insecurity that characterizes life in Venezuela, economic insecurity is another goad pushing young people out of the country. The inflation rate currently sits at 60% and, with a scarcity index that climbed to 28% this past January, more than one in four staples is not available.
Venezuela’s orphaned parents and its immigrant children signify the break up of a defining institution in Venezuelan life: the family. “In Venezuela, the extended family is an important institution. Young people abroad are grieving their parents,” saysHarry Czechowicz, a prominent psychiatrist in Venezuela who specializes in issues related to migratory traumas. “Even if you have Skype you lose the connectedness. It’s nothing like the physical thing of embracing somebody… People cannot substitute one reality with another.”
Julio, a two-time, soon to be three-time, papa huérfano, is struggling with this loss. “Sending our children abroad has cost us a lot. We always thought of the united family, the nieces, grandkids all together,” he says, “My daughters are suffering a lot. We used to have big lunches every Sunday with the family, 20, 30 people, and they’re missing that.” Now, in the Venezuela of “after,”the nucleus of social life and life values is eroding.
So why do parents stay in Venezuela with its physical and economic insecurity? Dr. Czechowicz points to the importance of purpose and identity. People need to have a sense of belonging and need to feel useful. Those parts of life are difficult to reconstruct in a new country. There is also the issue of trapped assets inside the country, and of expensive health care for older people.
The phenomenon of padres huérfanos not only presaged the present but portends poorlyfor Venezuela’s future wellbeing. The choice is now starker: fight for your country or fight for your children. “Some kids want to stay and try to make a difference, but I don’t know a single parent who says ‘Yeah, I want my child to stay and fight for the nation,’” says Maria Eugenia.
A common apprehension raised by padres huéfanos is that Venezuela is losing the population of relevos – those meant to replace their parents in civil society, science, public service, and the like.“[Before], Venezuela was booming economically and was considered the envy of other Latin American nations. We were part of the well-educated relay generation that would contribute to the development of the country. Nowadays this is over. The next generation is pretty well gone, and has been lost because it has emigrated and slowly found their place in other parts of the world,” says one padre huérfano who wishes to remain anonymous.
Roles reversed, it is now the children who worry about their parents amidst increasing unrest. A papa huérfano I spoke to who has one daughter in Colombia and another in Spain told me that his daughters are now the ones telling him not to leave the house, sending him videos and articles about the situation in Venezuela to which he does not have access.
While speaking to these padres huérfanos I began to grasp the significance of my parents’ decision to leave Venezuela and move to Canada when my brother and I were young. People thought they were crazy. But I got to grow up with them and with my abuela.
“I always compare a president of a country to the father in a family. You can bring out the worst in your children or the best. Every child has his own distinct character traits, of course, but the parent can create the conditions for the child to come out better or worse,” says Maria Eugenia, “Venezuela wasn’t perfect and there were things that needed to be fixed, but a bad father took it over.”
A good parent wants her children to lead happy, fulfilling lives. It’s the sad state of Venezuelan parents that in the process of pursuing that end they lose out on the experience of parenthood.