Academic stars abroad


If you’re like me, you probably felt a breath of fresh air to learn Americas Quarterly had chosen two Venezuelans in its list of the top five Latin American academics.

The inclusion of Ricardo Hausmann, the Harvard economist long known to readers of this blog, along with Mónica Ponce de León, dean of Princeton University’s School of Architecture, comes as a timely reminder that Venezuelans can shine when given the opportunities.

The problem with the list is that it highlights a worrying trend: three of the five academics on it have made their impact away from their countries. If Latin Americans – particularly Venezuelans – need to go to other countries to fulfill their potential, then this is a glass half-full, half-empty kind of story.

Think about it – the real good news would be if we learned that people such as Hausmann and Ponce de León were back home, helping to form the future generations of economists and architects Venezuela needs. As it stands, the article serves as a reminder that one of the few things we are exporting … is talent.

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  1. If Hausman and Ponce de Leon were in Venezuela they would still be talented but probably unable to do the work they are doing, because that type of work requires a propitious environment and the existence of supporting systems, both human and technical, to flourish. In the Venezuela of today the possibilities of fulfilling potential are slim. I have the view that talent leaving Venezuela is better for the talent, for the receiving country and, even, for Venezuela, as the talent can always make it back home (there is a risk it will never return) with a greater baggage of accomplishments and an up to date outlook on their work.

    • Sure. My comment is not a criticism of their choices (I’m on the same boat, albeit not in the same league). My lament is about the educational system that prevents them from doing good work from Venezuela. Notice the other two people on the list – the Brazilian mathematician and the Chilean astronomer – have developed their careers in their home countries. There should be no a priori reason why a Venezuelan academic working from Venezuela cannot excel – with the right support – in their field.

      • I think Gustavo’s point is based on the Venezuela of Today and I agree. There is no way you can succeed academically if you have to do a line to buy milk or toilet paper. There is no way you can “think” when you have to pay attention to the motorizado crossing the street.
        Even during better country conditions, Venezuela never gave value to academia. First world communities will give almost equal social recognition to a highly recognized professor than a rich guy. When I went to school in the US, the best parking spots were for professors with Nobel prizes. Been a professor is very respected career and well compensated as well.

        Also, I have always think that immigrants tend to be better outside of their countries because they have to outshine the locals and push harder than in their own countries.

    • Yes, Gustavo, I agree.
      It is simply not possible to do most academic work in Venezuela today unless one has some special situation like having already passed most of one’s career before chavismo came along. And those that return certainly can bring much back when conditions change.

  2. The brain drain the Venezuela has suffered in the last couple of decades is one of the many tragedies that has affected the country. It is hard to gauge the impact of all the talent that left, and I doubt we will ever recover from the lost opportunity of their direct contribution to the country’s progress. Too bad!

  3. Juan – v. good point
    I was at a meeting in Berlin recently, discussing the energy sectors in MENA countries – esp. across N. Africa. We were discussing the social forces involved in the epic, ongoing struggles there since the Arab Spring and I had mentioned the dissafected new/modern middle classes, in particular professional classes that played a principal role in the initial uprisings.

    A well-known regional expert responded with a detailed and insightful analysis of the relative strengths and interests of the now-contending forces within what he called a “regional civil war”… but he left out these middle/professional classes I had included. I asked why he left them out as a factor? His turse answer was “Gone!, Emigrated! In Europe!” added that this was a general rule.

    I was struck how similar this is to Venezuela, and we discussed it a bit. Indeed, this seems to be a stark characteristic of every major state-gone-bad or in-crisis across South & Central America, MENA states and Africa.

    Personally, I think it goes a long way to explaining why the people of Venezuela have not risen up to insist that chavismo stop its relentless payment of foreign-bond owners in preference to feeding the people.

    It also goes a long way to explaining, IMHO, why the opposition is so de-energized given the state of the coutnry …

    That is, because the young, educated, professional class is simply gone!! The usual rank-and-file cadre of the opposition parties last only a few years at most after starting political work and then emigrates. There are indeed other factors, but this is a big one.

    Any new government should make a concerted effort to attract them back home: on condition of staying x-many years and being engaged in work/business/academia and bringing family back and repatriating some majority of savings with a time lag of being able to send it out again ,.. would in turn be rewarded with tax breaks and other mediacl, housing, education benefits, etc.. and/or jobs at PDVSA and in the bureaucracy.

    Seriously … look at European history of how various states advanced by attracted skilled labor from other states going back some centuries … (here the issues is re-patriating skilled professonals) it works.

    Que opinas?

  4. I guess they had too many Venezuelans to include Ignacio.Rodriguez Iturbe from Princeton.

    There are many excelent Venezuelan academics who worked in Venezuela. The other day, one of the most famous ones abroad died at too young an age. His name was Reinaldo Dipolo, a biophycist Unfortunately, except for a short note in El Unversal and a couple of opinion articles like this

    His death went almost unnoticed.

    He too was a victim of Chavismo, forced to retire from the passion of his life: His laboratory.

  5. Venezuela used to be the land of opportunity for academics from abroad who were fleeing persecution and political unrest, or just looking for a friendly place that was investing in education. How things have changed.

  6. La bella carta del Dr. López Padrino sobre el investigador fallecido, cuyo link cita Miguel, incluye esta frase de Chávez sobre los investigadores venezolanos:
    “Los investigadores deben dejar de trabajar en proyectos oscuros, y en su lugar deben ir a los barrios para hacerse útiles” (Chávez dixit)
    Muera la inteligencia, es el lema favorito de estos bárbaros.

  7. Dr Coronel’s idea that academic talent needs certain enviromental , cultural, social conditions to flourish to its maximum potential , one which nurtures its growth and fosters its capacity for superior achievement is equally true for any other human kind of talent or hability . General access to education or to good health services are the first step , but beyond that human capacities for fecund effort and accomplishment are a function not just of natural individual talent but of organizations which allows those who work within it a chance of growing and learning and applying their talents in the prosecution of tasks which elevate them to levels of excellence and accomplishment. Nowadays great achievements are never the result of individual effort but of the coordinated merged effort of teams composed of many people acting within an organization which culture and living rules and methods promote such achievements.

    When the time comes to thing of building a better Venezuela the phocus must be not on nurturing of individual talents but of building organizations which help talented individuals grow in their habilities and teaches them work together efficiently achieve those tasks on which the sutained developement of Venezuela depends………..we have to highlight the importance of having organizations that expand the habilities and talents of individuals and teaches them to work together in an effective manner……

    We must thing of how great universities not only attract talent but develop talent so they accomplish great tasks ……..and think not only of universities but of companies and government agencies …..!!

    Do we want to have 50 Santa Marias or 10 Iesas or Simon Bolivar universities , Do we want 50 Corpoelec or 10 Polars…….building elite teams and organizations that work and promote habilities requires special attention………

    I say elite because one thing to recognize that talents and excellence do not abound , and with scarce resource you have to be selective and concentrate on spending your resources in getting the biggest bang for your buck …..meaning that you have to create elite organizations that can then act as engines to get other mediochre organizations moving towards an improved operation…..!!

  8. Venezuela’s massive Brain-Drain is not just brilliant Scientists. It’s more than 1 Million educated professionals. Almost everyone who could left the country, you, me, most readers of these blogs, and our entire families. Just in Miami (Doral, etc) there are tens of thousands of Venezuelans. And these are usually the better educated professionals, those who could find visas or residence papers, many are now US citizens, as my entire family, or yours.

    The effect of this massive brain-drain is catastrophic for the country. It’s part of the Castrista plan: Get rid of dangerous, educated opponents. Now there are few educated, highly skilled professionals left in Venezuela. And even less Honest ones. So the economy suffers, no one produces anything.

    And since Venezuela’s disaster is no going to get much better in decades (low oil prices, no local production of anything,, world-record murders and crime, inseguridad) people will continue to get the hell out out there, first chance they get. College educated young kids will continue to leave the country ASAP.
    Those who think that under a MUD government thousands of qualified professionals will return to Venezuela, and that the economy will suddenly improve, and crime will disappear are dreaming. Plus massive corruption will not get much better either, and the corrupt military or BCV or TSJ employees will not disappear. So things will continue to get even worse, before they slowly start to get just a little better, decade after decade from now. As a few of my friends that still live in Vzla say “este pais se jodio”.

  9. “Our list includes two honorees from the region’s most troubled country – plus an astronomer, a mathematician, and a pioneering biotech engineer. ”

    It’s strange choice, like the Borges’ Emperor list:

    Our two eminent Venezuelans (who are both admirable), work both in social sciences (if we include architecture in “social sciences”). It seems to me cherry picked to complete a nice “most-troubled-country” quota.

    Next time American Quarterly needs Venezuelans, please remember that it’s easy to find some people in hard sciences too, for instance Freddy Cachazo, a very prominent physicist (

    • Agree, and do include also non-academics. One of the problems of Latinamericans is ‘titulitis aguda’ (a bit like the French) so there is a penchant for fawning over PhDs and endless titles and a total disregard for actual achievements (work related). Just thought it worth mentioning.

  10. Offhand, my bias towards academic stars tends towards researchers, not administrators. This is an impressive list.

  11. Not only the Academic stars, but also there are a lot of talented Venezolano in many areas, followed by many highly educated cable Venezolanos.

    In recent years, China has been successful in calling back those “top of the world” academics to their own county from abroad. Not only China has the infrastructures to call them back, but also the human capital to satisfy their needs in their research. Without needs to mention, those people must be paid for what they are worth, which is easy to say but difficult to implement when there aren’t appropriate educational systems to guide students to make much of the science.

    And even if those talented Academics would have come back to Venezuela, it still would take at least a couple of decades of commitment, of the nation and individuals, until having their own “domestic” Academic stars.

    By the way, IMO, what Venezuela needs now is not those “Academic stars” nor “highly educated capable Venezolanos”, but rather, the problem lies on the average person in Venezuela who are heavily dependent on the oil.

    I always wonder why Caracas Chronicles is offered only in English. Aren’t the people who really need to read this kind of articles those who are not fluent in English?


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