Earlier this week, the Portuguese Secretary of State for Portuguese Communities, José Luis Carneiro, (pictured) visited Venezuela to personally witness the situation of Portuguese people in the country.

Carneiro is the minister in charge of overseeing Portuguese consular services around the world. He has his work cut out for him in Venezuela: more than 400,000 Portuguese nationals lived in Venezuela in 2013, and there are as many as 1.3 million Venezuelans of Portuguese descent.

What Carneiro saw scared him.

The Minister noted that this kind of evacuation plan had worked well in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea and Libya.

In an interview with Portuguese-language radio station Renascença, he described the situation as harsh, showing special concern for how difficult it has turned for Venezuela-based Portuguese citizens to gain access to food and medicine. He spoke about how immigrants have been forced to shut their stores as a result of the looting that have taken place during the last weeks all over the country.

The Portuguese government has been concerned for some time. As early as April 20th, Augusto Santos Silva, the Portuguese Minister for Foreign Affairs, assured that Portugal was ready to evacuate its citizens from Venezuela if the current political crisis escalated to a civil war. Then, he said that Portugal constantly develops contingency plans like these to help Portuguese communities living in crisis-hit countries, and that they were ready to move in Venezuela. The Minister noted that this kind of evacuation plan had worked well in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea and Libya.

Venezuela is second only to Brazil as a destination for Portuguese immigrants in Latin America. In the mid-20th century, Portuguese people came in droves, looking for things like refrigerators, washing machines and TVs, goods they could never dream to afford back home.

My mom’s dad was one of them, reaching La Guaira in the early ‘50s on a passenger ship from Madeira. He was 17 years old, didn’t speak Spanish and had nothing beyond a couple of pieces of luggage. Still, he managed to marry, buy a house, run a supermarket and raise three daughters with all the modern comforts the Venezuela Saudita could offer.

Venezuela was different back then. This sheer number of immigrants made Portuguese-Venezuelan relations really close. Portugal was for years one of Venezuela’s closest European allies: Hugo Chávez once described former Portuguese Prime Minister José Socrates (currently awaiting trial on corruption charges) as a personal friend.

Now, the country that not so long ago got the multimillion dollar contracts to produce Canaimitas openly talks about a civil war. Things change fast when you have a bunch of corrupt a-holes running el coroto.

Carneiro said that Portugal is planning to work through 47 citizen associations and the ten consulates currently in Venezuela to help coordinate said efforts. These institutions will be tasked with identifying families most urgently in need of food and medicine around the country and making sure they receive what they need.

Some private NGOs like the Portuguese branch of Caritas are also involved. Even though an evacuation plan is not yet set to start anytime soon, Carneiro said that all Portuguese citizens who wish to leave Venezuela will be supported by the Portuguese government, prioritizing the neediest cases and those more urgently required to leave the country for safety reasons.

I talked to Nelly, a Maracay-raised daughter of Portu immigrants who, in keeping with the stereotype, spent years helping run the family bakery shop. She tells me her grandparents and her mom also came from Madeira more than 60 years ago.

My grandparents were amazed by Venezuela, they always told me how amazing it was for them to see how easy it was to plant crops in the country, a dramatic contrast with Madeira’s volcanic soil. They told me Venezuela gave them a chance to echar palante. My grandfather managed to launch a couple restaurants before finally focusing on the family bakery that let him sustain our family for years. Things changed as the country started its downfall, my grandparents suffered a lot, even though they didn’t get to see a quarter of the crisis we’re living now. I’ll always remember my grandma sobbing as she repeated with her strong accent “What did these people do to my Venezuela?”

“They were in love with this country” she adds.

Nelly is in the United States now, she left just a few days ago after spending more than two years getting her paperwork ready.

I’ve no intention of coming back to Venezuela. The current situation is simply unsustainable, last year was really hard for us. My granny, who suffered from diabetes and arthritis, died because we couldn’t find the drugs she needed. Violence also played a role, I went to bed and I could hear the gunshots nearby, my fiancé was robbed several times and even got run over during a protest a few months ago. Family members got extorted by muggers asking for unpayable vacunas (protection payments) too.

It’s horrible to see my dad, now over 60 years old, a man who worked his entire life, forced to work harder than ever to sustain my family. Realizing that even after having several jobs I couldn’t help them sustain themselves was even worse… That breaks my heart, I hope I can help them more from here.

I couldn’t keep on living like that. I came to the US looking for peace of mind, just that. I’m not planning to stay here for long though, I’d like to go to Europe eventually, maybe Spain or why not, Portugal.

My family’s story is not that different. My grandfather felt this country his own. He got Venezuelan citizenship a few years after arriving for the first time, he voted in every election and he wished to see a Venezuela free of chavismo’s grip until the day he died.

Everyone constantly reminds me how lucky I am of having the Portuguese EU passport. They see it as a safety net.

His brother, who came a few years after him, regularly takes a break from the madness by spending a few months in Madeira, but he always comes back. He still believes in the country that gave him the chance to get a decent life 60 years ago. Portugal of course, never left them either. You knew it from the first minute you heard them speak in that peculiar accent I’ve come to call Portuñol, or from the easter lunch with the typical bachalau a brás we had year after year, until inflation made it impossible.

It has been part of my life too: I wear Portugal’s National Soccer Team shirt when they play and I celebrate Cristiano Ronaldo’s goals just like I did with Samuel Sosa’s last thursday. But as close as I am to Portugal, it’s not my home.

I wish I could stay in Venezuela and see it turn a corner. I want a glimpse of the country my grandpa first saw. But I know my Portuguese passport gives me an out if all else fails. Saudade, they call it.

Portugal is now home to over 29,000 Venezuelans, which make up about 3% of the total diaspora, and even though the number might not look so big it’s important for a country with a population three times smaller than Venezuela. Many of these Venezuelans chose Madeira as their new home. Official numbers suggest that about 1,000 Venezuelans currently live in the small island of 260,000 people.

But the real number is way bigger and it’s simply not registered because most of them are not legally counted as immigrants: they have Portuguese passports, too. Recently several NGOs have been created to provide legal and social aide to some of these immigrants, who have also taken their own measures to remind the Portuguese government how, for years, they’ve been making billionaire contracts with the dictatorship that forced them to leave their home.

Portugal isn’t the first country trying to help its people in our Tierra de Gracia; several European countries like The Czech Republic or Spain have been contacting its citizens privately by email or telephone to offer them help if they need to leave. It probably won’t be the last either, now that the place that most of these people from around the world saw as a paradise is now forcing them to run away as fast as they can.

 

9 COMMENTS

  1. I keep on reading that many Venezuelans are speaking (I don’t care where they are from) it is case “Paradise Lost” . I worked there for six year for engineering contractor for PDSVA (until Chavez took over). No way in Hell (if you believe in that kind of stuff). OK there some pretty spots. But the ranchos, Maracaibo, Barcelona, Punto Fijo, El Tigre and too many trash filled, crime ridden and unsafe places in that country. I know that Portugal is not large and employment is going to a problem. But get out of there when you can. I only gone get worse.

  2. “I came to the US looking for peace of mind, just that. I’m not planning to stay here for long though, I’d like to go to Europe eventually, maybe Spain or why not, Portugal.”

    “But as close as I am to Portugal, it’s not my home.”

    And it’s easy to understand why a granddaughter of Portuguese people would not choose Portugal as its first destination, but rather the US, second choice being Spain. The same can be said about the author of the text not feeling at home in Portugal.

    The answer is quite simple.

    Your grandparents have never introduced Portugal to you. And they didn’t because most Portuguese immigrants left Portugal while being really desperate, not looking for refrigerators, TV sets and washing machines, as it’s wrongly said in the text, but rather for food. The food crisis in Portugal lasted decades and affected deeply even the growth (stature) of the Portuguese people, something that we will also witness in Venezuela for many years to come, very unfortunately.

    Thus, Portuguese immigrants would shiver just of remembering Portugal, which was the Venezuela of the time, never making any effort to make their descendants feel Portuguese or love Portugal. That’s why Nelly probably has never gone to Portugal, and will die not knowing what she’s missing. The same can be said about Gabaldon.

    And we see how this trend is already being repeated in the Venezuelan diaspora. The descendants will never hear much about Venezuela from their parents, they won’t feel Venezuelan at all, they won’t feel at home there, Spanish will be forgotten.

    And that’s bad because both sides lose. The descendant, who won’t learn another very rich culture, and also their country, who will have less ‘soldiers’ fighting for its future.

    The only ones who will win will be the tyrants and good old mediocrity.

    Reflect on that for a second: what if a considerable share of the 7 million Portuguese abroad (counting the descendants) visited Portugal often, made business there, and also brought know-how and technology from their countries to the homeland of their grandparents? Would Portugal still have the lowest GDP per capita of Western Europe in that scenario?

    Another point: what if all that Portuguese economic power abroad funded political parties that represent better Portuguese values and the great entrepreneurial spirit the Portuguese people is able to show in other countries? Would Portugal still have so many strong socialist political parties and such terrible anti-market laws that work against themselves?

    I think the answer for the questions above are ‘no’. The same applies to the Venezuelan diaspora.

    The Venezuelan diaspora shouldn’t repeat the mistakes of the Portuguese diaspora. So, don’t forget Venezuela!

    • As right as you are with some things, you’re wrong with some others. The Portuguese situation when my grandfather came was as bad as in most post-war Europe and Portugal spent the first half of the 20th century trapped in the anacrhonic authoritarianism of the Estado Novo, which while being an evident dictatorship, managed to create a stable economic environment for the country, with the Portuguese economy growing above most European averages by the late 60s. This economic growth temporarily fell after democracy arrived with the Carnation Revolution in 1974, following an irresponsible nationalisation policy by the new left-wing government; but it eventually stabilized adter the EU adhesion in 1986 and today, even with the undeniable problems you remark, Portugal is a modern, first world country.

      As bad as things were when my grandfather came here to Venezuela, neither he, nor any family member, ever “shivered” when remembering Portugal, they regularly visited our family over there, we all feel very Portuguese in my house and are proud of it; I can’t say Portugal is my home though, simply because I’ve lived my whole life in Venezuela, I was raised here and still believe in this place potential. It’s hard to let go the place where you’ve lived for almost 24 years, even though that place is currently a living hell.

      You have a point though, Venezuela can’t be forgotten. It won’t.

      • Memories of “the old country” fade, unless there is a very vigorous and organized effort to pass them on. There are millions of American Ashkenazic Jews whose only knowledge of the shtetls in Eastern Europe comes from having seen Fiddler on the Roof.

        For them, as for many other “ethnic” Americans, the “old country” is the urban neighborhood where their great-grandparents lived.

        Cultural affiliation is diluted by intermarriage. “Closed” communities, like the Roma, or many Hasidic Jewish groups, can preserve their identity and their memories. But Mr. O’Toole, whose paternal-line great-grandfather came from Connemara, has seven other great-grandparents, from Germany, Italy, the West Virginia mountains, England, the Louisiana bayous, Cuba, and the Navajo Reservation. It’s been generations since anyone in the family spoke Gaelic or cared about the Troubles.

        The same will happen with the Venezuelan diaspora. That’s life.

        • Very, very well said.

          The dilution of one’s “native” culture (whatever that means) because of immigration is a fact, not necessarily a negative or positive fact.

          Yes, it makes for romantic prose, supposedly thoughtful commentary, but in the end, does it really matter? Do you yearn for the days of no arepa on your breakfast plate, or a McMuffin there instead? Does your stomach care about your “culture?”

          Keep waxing poetic about where you came from, and join the millions of Muslims trying to change/destroy the cultures of the countries they emigrate to.

          No one’s saying you shouldn’t continue to love your homeland and its people, but once your plane takes off, you had better put most of that in second place…put your new country first…or you’re going to be miserable for the rest of your life.

  3. Just wanted to say that, in my experience, chavismo, and Chavez in particular, had a special prejudice against the Portuguese. It was sort of like how chavismo and Chavez were always against Jews, as middle class, small business owners. They were considered the ‘class enemy’, and even 10 and more years ago they had put thousands out of business.

    How many middle-aged Portuguese cab drivers could tell the exact same story of having their prosperous restaurant or panadaria forced from them by chavismo in punishment for having oppositional politics or being blacklisted.

    Its interesting that the current, socialist-led Portuguese gov, as far as I can see from here in Europe, has nothing of the Chavista prejudices of that sort, and is actually overseeing a managed exit from the austerity imposed on Portugal (for good reason, but too harshly) and growing, attracting foreign investment, etc. while incrementally improving working class and middle class wages and benefits.

    It’s very good to hear that the present Portuguese gov puts human rights in such high regard and cares for its 400,000-plus citizen diaspora in Venezuela!! Not many states, even in the EU, would offer such a massive assistance!! An example for all, and it further shames chavismo.

  4. O correto é “Bacalhau à Brás”.

    By the way, acho que a grande maioria dos filhos de Portugueses prefere a Espanha ou os EUA simplesmente porque não falam o idioma dos pais. Estes não se preocuparam em passar aos filhos aquilo que é essencial para ficar ligado a uma cultura: a língua.

    My wife and her sisters bear a Portuguese last name, and can’t say a sentence in Portuguese to save their lives. How can you stay attached to a culture without speaking its language?

    • You comment, although short, is the best here, Ricardo. It was spot on.

      One people can stand anything, even the total removal of their territory, but they won’t stand the destruction of their language and, consequently, their culture. That’s why Galbadon and Nelly would rather live in Miami and Spain than there. They will be forever gringos in Portugal, never at home, in spite of their familiar roots.

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