Venezuela's orphaned parents

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Wiping away the tears
Wiping away the tears
Wiping away the tears

(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.

27 COMMENTS

  1. There are many iterations of this phenomenon. Another generation, a little older than the folks who are now sending their kids overseas for a future, sent their kids away to urban centers within Venezuela so that they could get a decent high school education and become part of the rising Venezuelan middle class. I know many of these people who were raised by relatives or strangers. The most famous of course is Hugo Chavez, whose followers are dismantling the route to their own success.

  2. Wonderful Wonderful Piece Juan Nagel !!, touching on the deep human consequences of our current Venezuelan experience. !!

    OT: Just saw a priceless lecture by Ricardo Hausman on U Tube ( Gem 13 The Puzzle of Development ) a primer on how economies develop , very much in line with the economic questions you have brought to the blog in the past . Enjoy !!.

  3. It’s ironic that we contemplate the loss of a “replacement generation, while the the current generation, itself, is fighting for its survival. To the regime, either generation is the enemy and the very purpose of the revolution. Such a quagmire! It’s interesting that in Plato’s republic. the root cause of injustice was from parents of varying means that allowed or limited them in giving their children a head start in their lives!

    • I for one, worked very hard and suffered to give my children the advantages that I didn’t have. I thought that was a normal purpose! As a result, my children are more successful than I, as I am more than my parents! I always thought that this was and should be the ideal source of social mobility in an ideal society! Apparently, Chavismo contemplates a better approach, perhaps that a government should be the sole source for performing this parental roll? I suppose that approach in theory would be more equal, but in practice, it seems to undermine and rob the society of the very fruits of being successful!

    • I imagine that to the poor, success is reserved to those of privilege, and that is certainly true to a degree. However, privilege also produces the lazy who do not produce much at all!

  4. This phenomenon is common in the U.S. and Europe, but for a different reason. People’s careers move them around the country, or even the world, more than ever. The populations of the modern world are extremely mobile. This has been a blessing for the economy. It has allowed talent to flow to where it is most needed, and allowed previously stagnant areas of the country to begin to flourish once again. It has increased productivity at the same time, by taking advantage of underemployed local populations.

    The negative is that families do not stay and live close to each other. It is common for parents to have their children scattered all across the continent and only see them on visits for the holidays, if then. So, in a way, Venezuela is simply getting a taste of what will come eventually, regardless.

    • When democratic means fail then people place their ulimate vote of no confidence, simply leaving. When all the best and brightest have left Venezuela Chavismo will be left ruling over a dysfunctional country incapable of inflicting major harm on the rest of the world. Maduro will be ruling over their little feifdom that will become less and less relevant to anyone else by the day.

      At the same time all the people that left will be vastly more productive and bring a greater benefit to mankind, incrimentally putting Venezuela even further behind. This doesn’t mean that Chavismo will actually fall out of power, but at least they won’t have the economic, financial or military means to inflict their idiotic ideology on anyone else. There was a small window when Chavez was able to afford it, but that has passed now. After a few more decades of this Venezuela will be relevant in the same way Cuba is: just a place Europeans go for cheap prostitutes… and a few starry eyed idealists travel to as an examle of the glories of communism.

      That is unless Venezuela goes the whole North Korea route and begins threatening their neighbors with genocide.

  5. “If for the middle class their children leave, the children of the less well off get assassinated, a pain incomparable to our airport rituals,”

    “I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.” Jeremiah 17:10

    It doesn’t matter if you are Christian or not, it’s hard not to recognize the fine irony behind Chavistas suffering more with Chavismo than the other segments of society.

    • It is ironical, indeed. More so, when the government promotes a new cult associating Chavez, Jesus and Che Guevara in one new ‘religion’. Maduro, the actual President, asked on National TV, that citizens should meditate during easter how to renew their faith in the “Socialist Transformation”. People that believe in this new Bolivarian Nightmare, are prepared to accept any means of destroying organized religions, promote xenophobia and have suffered a great deal in this ‘justified calvary’ to erradicate any options for the unwilling emigrants that are trying to leave. From the poorest to the middle class, emigrants to be are on the incrase. It is rather unfair to include all south american countries in the same bag. Each one is different, in its own right. Having Chavez as a new cult figure is a heresy to common sense. Accepting death as a way of erradication of the ’empire’ is talibanic or similar ‘final solutions’ seem to emerge as options. Very sad, indeed.

      • “From the poorest to the middle class, emigrants to be are on the increase.”

        Yeah, definitely.

        if most of the better off have already been living outside Venezuela for more than a decade, now the tables have turned and it’s the poor’s and the chavista middle class’ turn to jump ship. Soon, millions of them will be living in places such as the US or Colombia, countries which have completely different political-economic models from Venezuela.

        The truth is that the poor have never hidden the fact that they would only be rojo-rojito until they can keep suckling at the government tit, and that when better options become available they would just shrug and embrace the new circumstances with a clear conscience just like they embraced Chavismo. No, those people have never even pretended to be socialists. Empirical exercise: ask them if they would like to move to New York City to work at McDonald’s if such possibility existed. “Sure”, is what these “socialists” will reply.

        But are they worried about being incoherent and hypocrites? They are not. Are they stupid or evil? Most of the time, just stupid. Did they learn anything? No. Would they vote for Chávez or Maduro again if they could? Yes. Are these people different from parasites or the HIV virus? They aren’t.

        The hard thing to do now is trying not to feel hate towards this kind of people I’ve described above. But history tells us that the well-deserved hate can worsen the situation and generate a civil war, so…

  6. I’m gonna nitpick, here, by saying that I’m no journalist, or political blog owner, but whenever I’ve submitted the odd opinion to mainstream newspaper or journal, I’ve been given the courtesy of a byline, comme il faut.

    Why then doesn’t Daniela Porat deserve the same recognition?

  7. This is so True. As someone who luckily belongs to the better off part of society, I can attest to this fact. Of our group of 10 close childhood friends, 7 of us are abroad, and our parents are all still in venezuela. Now it’s for us to convince them to leave as well, for this- shortages, insecurity, no more business- is no way to live. Some choose to leave, but most cannot contemplate the thought of having to set up somewhere else at the age of 65-80 without knowing the language, etc.and many simply cannot afford to. You may be “well off” in venezuela, but not in the US or Europe, and most don’t qualify for social security, Medicaid, etc. as they never contributed into these social systems during they working years. We have been saying it for years, Chavismo’s one indisputably astounding success has been the breaking up of the Venezuelan family/ society.

    As for those that think this is just the normal evolution of a modern society a la USA or Europe, look elsewhere in other parts of LaAm and you will see that Many of these countries are evolving quite well, and are still able to partake in long Sunday lunches surrounded with lots of Tios, Tias, Primos and Abuelos!

    • I’ve got none, zero, nil childhood or uni friends living in Venezuela (a group of 25 at least…) All having kids now with their grandparent in the former republic of venezuela.

      Is that normal? of course it is not… it is another product of the government of the worse, “Hecho en socialismo” some proudly would say.

  8. So what percentage of the Venezuelan population are we speaking about here ?
    Might help me understand if we are now taking on the mantle of victim status, particularly after so many years of carefree inactivity.

    • Maybe, not necessarily. There are such and such. There might be a lot highly skilled and productive, others who might just have got the right paper but are less productive than Johnny Pacheco, 10 years of schooling.

      I wonder whether Colombians have so much obsession with their English-speaking expat community or they also pay equal attention to the millions who live in the Colombian Llanos, for instance, or on the Pacific Coast.
      I just wonder.

      • The thing is that the Colombian expat community is much more varied. If you look at election results in consulates Capriles got something like 90% of the votes, meanwhile, Colombians abroad vote in line with Colombians inside the country and for different candidates/parties. While expat Venezuelans tend to be recentish migrants, mostly professionals and oppo leaning you can find Colombians of all political colours and origins, from demobilized guerrilleros, to asylum seekers, to students, to entrepeneurs who left when security was touchy. We also have many more second generation immigrants abroad. That basically means that the expat community has no marked position or voice that can be used by any side so our mayameros are not too relevant in political life.

        For example, I recently saw a huge SOS Venezuela march here in Montreal and I wondered whether the Colombians here could get something as big. Even though we’re more in number it’s unlikely that there is a single cause that will unite as many people, except perhaps a fantastically good result in the World Cup.

  9. Chavismo doesnt just take away our freedoms and liberties , or rob us of what gives quality to our lives ( in terms of denying us access to the things that bring comfort and security to our lives ) , it also destroys lives in terms of the havoc it brings to people lives for example by having united families lose their cherished childrem to foreign emmigration , or worse which lose the lives of their children to violent crime or by taking away their opportunities for a better future. .

    Its not so much that the regime murders people ( which it does ) but that it destroys or impoverishes their lives so that they can hold on to absolute power forever.!!.

    It even victimizes those whose loyalty they purport to reward by giving them fake or subsidized benefits that dont allow them to build a future for themselves . !!

    .

  10. The thing is that we love this country so much. To leave Vzla used to be the last resource, now it’s the first thing we think about doing when we read the news about how expensive and scarce food is and the long lines to get it, how many hundreds of young people were killed in a weekend, how patients are dying in hospitals and clinics because they don´t have enough money to buy medicines, and other medical material or how kids can’t go to school because the classroom building is falling apart due to the lack of money that the government should approve to this end and a long etc. If we have to move around the world for working reasons, but eventually having the opportunity to return, there would be no problem at all. In our case, we have to leave Venezuela because there’s no future here, and that’s what makes our departure so hurtful, knowing that we might not be able to come home, leave our family, friends who we grew up with, to leave our whole life behind. We´ve tried to endure the hard conditions the government has us living by, but it’s extremely difficult to “live your life” while you’re trying to survive every single day. Back in the day, the people who left the country, did it because they wanted to, now it’s the only way out of this mess, the only way to really live our lifes, to stop being paranoid about someone robbing you while on your way to work, not finding milk or diapers for our kids, medicines for the ill, even something as basic as a plane ticket to another country. I wanna fight for my country, i really do! I just don´t wanna waste my life fighting against a government that uses violence and every resource available to stay in power, while people become poorer in a country that deteriorates more and more. I hope from the bottom of my heart, that this amazing place with wonderful people achieves freedom, that everyone who left can return and to make Venezuela the paradise that once was.

  11. This post romanticizes the idea of the Venezuelan family: its ‘extendedness’, the fact that people can live with their parents until they are above 30, etc. etc. and does not really focus on what is happening to those who leave. It seems as though they did the ‘right’ thing and left violence behind to a new world of opportunities. Yet, I do share sympathy for the orphan parents!

    • Maybe the right thing…. but a harsh decision to take. Not easy either for us (me and wife) or our parents. They wont see our kids grow up. And we certainly wont come back

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