2016: Fleeing Venezuela

It's estimated that by 2016, two million Venezuelans had left the country. Some left in search of a better life, some for fear of dying, most left everything behind. None have done so by choice.

Original art by @modográfico

“Are you going to leave behind everything your family has built for several generations?”

I lost count of how many times I’ve heard this question. The answers present a complexity that dissolves when you feel like your life is nothing but an object, easily stripped away by any stranger with a hood and a gun.

Let me explain that: my grandfather Eladio, born in a small town in Spain, illegally boarded a ship and crossed the ocean with one dollar in his pocket. It was 1946, the end of WWII, the first period of the franquista dictatorship. It was a time of extreme poverty and fierce repression. Poverty was so extreme that my grandfather couldn’t afford his ticket. Venezuela was the port after the Canary Islands. He just had to remain hidden while the ship traversed between Valencia and Las Palmas in Gran Canarias, then he would be scot-free. If he was caught and wasn’t thrown overboard, he’d be forcefully disembarked in Venezuela. According to the story I remember, he went to the port with a friend one morning, an port officer saw them and made them get off. The plan was to climb the anchor and hide in a lifeboat. 

That’s how he came to the country of opportunities and paved the road for his brothers, a plan that sounds familiar to many Venezuelans today.

He eventually set up a business. A 13 hectares farm in the Altos Mirandinos, mainly growing roses. At peak production, he was growing 3 to 5 million stems a year. It was a reference for farmers and producers of cut flowers around the country, one of the first greenhouse farms in Venezuela, with cutting-edge technology and products that were an innovation in Venezuela.

I wasn’t that involved when he passed away in 2005, but the time would come for me to take charge.

The phone call in the middle of the night, the terror of not knowing if the gang was still lurking in the dark, waiting to break into my home…

I became a young 20-something man in charge of my family’s company that, with my best efforts, I’ve kept going, defying a model that finds inconvenient— or simply doesn’t want—the existence of private business. A typical day on the farm means lot’s of maintenance, coordinating watering, fertilization, plague and disease control, finding problems (water leaks, pumping failure) and the harvest (that depends on the day and variety of that moment).

Stability in this kind of business is hard to measure, since most of the capital is vegetal matter, and to pinpoint the exact “the beginning of the end” is complicated, since the company was doing well and the numbers were getting better. In Venezuela, one normalizes gradual collapse.

Despite the regular hurdles: scarcity of raw materials, currency depreciation, lack of safety, corruption, etc., in the last few years I managed to increase output, diversify our products, leaving the traditional flower business and taking chances on other agricultural varieties. To sum it up, I was doing OK.  

It all ended quickly.

We’re used to phrases like “I’m not doing that bad in Venezuela, considering everything,” and in a certain way, that’s true. The problem arises when you analyze your personal situation in a global framework and you find out that, in reality, you earn below the poverty line. When I saw the accounting books and made the conversion to moneda dura (the kind of exchange rate you get on the street), the result was a joke. An 18-year-old student that works part time as a waiter in any civilized country has better investment possibilities than me with my thriving business.

I kept working, kept believing in the country, already knowing something wasn’t right.
One morning by the end of November 2016, I woke up early and started scheduling my day in the farm. My cousin, Daniel, stayed behind getting some work done and I left with hopes of finding several things (electrodes, screws and other stuff from the nearby hardware store). Forty minutes later I get a call from Daniel, he’s nervous and he says he needs my help. At that moment, I was still out of the office and, while he spoke to me, seven men were pointing guns at his head.

Turns out these men came into the farm, tied my cousin and other employees down for a few of hours and strolled casually down the place I had called home my whole life.

Reality caught up with us. Even though the men left with little and no one was hurt, it shattered how safe I had felt in that farm my whole life. It was the first time I thought “I need to leave Venezuela.”

But I didn’t.

Four months later I’m woken by a noise in the middle of the night. It was my grandmother and one of my uncles banging on the door, the same gang that tied Daniel up a few months before, broke into my grandmother’s house and took everything they could lay their hands on. But the worst part wasn’t the robbery. They kept asking “Where does the kid live?” They kept looking for the boss. They kept looking for me.

The same gang that tied Daniel up a few months before, broke into my grandmother’s house. They kept asking “Where does the kid live?” They kept looking for me.

It’s safe to say that I didn’t get any sleep that night. We were burglarized again and a routine developed, the phone call in the middle of the night, the terror of not knowing if the gang was still lurking in the dark, waiting to break into my home, the anguish of not being able to talk to my loved ones and knowing if they were well or if they’d been kidnapped. Knowing that they were looking for me and getting the wrong face, knowing that their options were running out and mine was the only face left. 

The first question was then answered: Yes. Yes, I am willing to leave everything behind in exchange for my life and the lives of the people I love.

Life goes on and you still need to go to work the following day. I’m not an enchufado, I don’t have a 7-figure account abroad, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy to move my grandmother, my mother, my uncle, my sister (and myself) to another country, but I´d find a way. We moved to an acquaintance’s house (we had to leave the farm) and I’d work on the land knowing that it was just a matter of time before the weeds ate it up. My energy went into wisely managing the little money we had.

The bags were ready a few days before. The flight left at 9:00 p.m., so I talked to my cousin, he’d be keeping my car, to take us to Maiquetía at noon. We found the usual line in the Air Europa counter and the classic military mamagüevo that makes you open every bag. The hours before boarding and watching how the lights shining on everything you’ve ever known grow dimmer. When you get off that plane, everything will be different.

I currently write this on a train from the small town my grandfather left many years ago to Barcelona, Spain, where I might find the opportunity to start over. Even though we have relatives in Elche, my grandmother has had it really tough since we moved. I can see how sad she is. She won’t set foot in Venezuela ever again and she knows it. My sister and my uncle have adjusted pretty well, my sister has her youth going for her and my uncle has an ease about him that works to his favor.

We are worried, nevertheless. The business my grandfather started three generations ago, that castle he built on a nation of dreams and possibility, is now eaten by moss and abandonment. The life we knew is no more. Every Venezuelan émigré you talk to will give you their personal tragedy, the narrative of how they left in body but remain in heart. This is mine, but I understand if it gets muddled along with the millions of stories with different words, but the same tune.

The truth is I have no idea what I’m doing, but for the first time in ages I feel like I’m not in danger, like my safety is certain, that I can walk freely again without looking over my shoulder to see who’s following me.

And that, to me, is worth more than anything.