Memories are strange: I can’t remember what I had for breakfast yesterday, but I remember those recesses in the second-grade like they happened just a minute ago. It was 1998 and my friends and I would play at outdoing one another with stories about how our families were going to flee the country if that ‘crazy guy with a wart’ won the elections.
My cousin, Marianita, had an imagination that couldn’t be beat. She assured us that, if worse came to worst, she and her whole family were going to emigrate to Disney World and go live with Mickey.
Weeks later, another image I’d never forget: my mom disconsolately sobbing in front of the TV after wart guy miserably swore his oath over the “moribunda constitución”.
I was also crying because jealous of Marianita, my best friend, who was now going to be neighbours with Cinderella and Snow White.
I didn’t fully understand why my mom was crying that day, but I also cried, but out of fear of going school the next day only to find an empty classroom. Thinking back, I realize I wasn’t wrong, exactly — just off on the timing. My fears would come true…it’s just that it would take two decades, not one night.
Come to think of it, though, I was also crying out of jealousy: Marianita, my best friend, was going to be neighbours with Cinderella and Snow White.
The Venezuelan Millennial is someone who was born late in ‘la cuarta’ and shares some vague memories from the pre-Chavez era, but wasn’t able to do something about those 1998 elections as they were still kids. Those memories feel especially fuzzy to the middle-class Millennial: Most of them are now living somewhere between Cúcuta and Shanghai.
Only a few girls from my class did leave the country that year, but as time passed it started to add up. The ‘Yo me quedo en Venezuela porque yo soy optimista’ theme hit the radio, but no one seemed to be listening: after ‘El Paro’ failed in 2003, we had another big exodus and everyone seemed to be putting together a Plan B. It seemed crazy not to have one.
It wasn’t really a grant, but it felt like one so: if you played your cards right, you could get a college education abroad and still make a small profit from the currency arbitrage.
I graduated from high school in 2008. Chávez had been in power for 11 years, and still had another four to go. Maybe one in three of my classmates left the country that summer looking for a brighter future in Europe or North America, where the university experience didn’t include tear gas inside the campus every once in a while. They all took advantage of a semi-legal and almost free benefit of those high-oil price years days: The preferential rate dollars CADIVI would “grant” students abroad.
It wasn’t really a grant, but it felt like one so: if you played your cards right, you could get a college education abroad and still make a small profit from the currency arbitrage. More often, people would shave off $200 from the ~$900 they got out of the system, and send them back to Venezuela to be sold at black market rates to pay for dollars for the following month.
Sadly, Marianita didn’t quite manage to sell her parents on her plan to go live with Mickey. Instead, she ended up making the same eccentric choice I made: to stay in Caracas and go to a public university. It was Engineering at USB for me, Medicine at UCV for her. We were all set to live the pre-revolution Venezuelan dream: graduate from one of the best universities in Latin America without paying a cent, work a little, travel a lot, and settle down near each other ready to raise our families going to el Parque del Este and Playa Azul.
As soon as I started college, I realized I needed to make some new friends in my city, so I joined every possible students group: the Students Council, the Harvard MUN delegation, the Soccer team, the Summer Camp councils team, and more. I felt secure among tons of people who lived 5 to 30 minutes away from my house, and would rush in every time I had a party. I should have seen it coming, but I didn’t: as soon as they graduated, they would start leaving one by one, decimating the network I’d had such fun building.
They wanted to live in a country where they could go out at night without being kidnapped, where they could eat whatever they wanted without queuing, and where they could eventually have babies without the stress of not finding a hospital where to give birth, and how.
Now I would have to hire neighbors if I wanted to fill my birthday parties.
Middle class millennials left. They all left, or so it felt like. They wanted to live in a place where they could go out at night without being kidnapped, where they could eat whatever they wanted without queuing, and where they could eventually have babies without the stress of not finding a hospital where to give birth, and how. More importantly, they wanted to thrive on their careers and attain all those goals and milestones that our parents and professors invited us to dream about. Whoever blames them is delusional, to say the least. Each one of them, with their own particular set of dreams and expectations, had no other choice.
Every time I run into one of the few that are still here, the ice-breaking comment goes something like: Hey! What are you still doing here? I didn’t know!… Why?
The same script, time and time again.
Plenty are desperate to get out. 69% of the ones who are left, actually. But the ones that truly matter are those who aren’t: a lot of millennials that, like Pancho did, are betting against their lives by working every day to get our country back. These are my heroes. They’re being empowered by many organisations that recognise in them true leadership: They work in ‘Alcaldias’, National Assembly committees, NGO’s, business incubators, startups with high social impact, and blogs like this one. They all believe that soon they will put their feet in Maiquetía’s Cruz-Diez, not to leave, but to welcome back all those friends they so deeply miss.
As soon as Marianita graduated she left her house in tears, boarded a northbound plane, and landed in Chicago with her med-school boyfriend. He wants to be an orthopedic surgeon, and she wants to be a psychiatrist, but they know it’s almost impossible to try to achieve their dreams at the University Hospital here. They have to settle for part-time jobs while waiting for STEPs applications and results.
That’s her Disney now. No looking back.