The Portuguese Community gives up on the Venezuelan Dream

In honor of Día de Portugal, we look at the sad state of a once proud immigrant community whose home country is now making contingency plans to evacuate hundreds of thousands of nationals out of Venezuela.

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.