Photo: Colombia Reports retrieved

A teenager looks around at a village blighted by backwardness and decides his future lies elsewhere. He’s only 17, the son of a carpenter, he has never seen a fridge or a television set. Nonetheless, he cobbles together some money and sets off for a new life in a faraway country he’s only read about in newspapers.

My grandfather’s story is classic—or so it seems. He didn’t set off from the impoverished South to try out his luck in Europe or North America, he did the opposite, setting out from the backwater Cámara de Lobos, in Portugal, for the dazzling opportunities in a booming promised land across the sea: Venezuela.

He was hardly alone. Over 800,000 immigrants did the same between 1948 and 1961, mainly from Portugal, Italy, Spain, Poland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Lebanon, Syria, Japan, China, the rest of Latin America and even the United States. Venezuela held its borders open for all sorts of professionals and, together, they fueled an explosive development in the middle of the 20th century—turning what had been a disease-ridden nightmare into Latin America’s model of democracy and development.

In Venezuela, the young boy from Cámara de Lobos married, had three daughters, a house with luxuries he didn’t know existed, and a new place to call home until the day he died, 62 years later. Venezuela gave him a chance, and he made the most of it.

My grandfather integrated, and so did most immigrants who came to the country back when the Venezuelan economy was booming. Immigration undoubtedly strengthened tolerance in our society. In 1981, immigrants represented 8% of the total population, and two years later, Venezuelans elected the son of an Italian immigrant president. Migrants were so normalized that, beyond some bad taste jokes, xenophobia was not a problem.

Venezuela held its borders open for all sorts of professionals and, together, they fueled an explosive development in the middle of the 20th century.

The process wasn’t as clean as we’d like to imagine, though: Starting in the 19th century, immigration laws were heavily influenced by Spencerian social positivism, openly favoring white Europeans while banning ethnic groups deemed inferior. Half a century later, after Marcos Pérez Jiménez’s dictatorship, some European communities became democracy’s first victims, falsely accused of collaborating with the deposed regime. Immigration didn’t escape the social problems that the country fell into in the last two decades of the 20th century, either. Some argue that immigrants somehow share responsibility for many of the problems, ignoring their catalyst effect on development while exploiting centuries-old grudges.

This narrative has been used by the chavista regime and its followers to fuel their rhetoric for years. Back in 2007, when free press still existed, signs reading “Get out of Venezuela, sons of shit immigrants,” at a pro-Chávez demonstration made their way to the front pages of most newspapers. Recently, in 2015, Nicolás Maduro expelled thousands of Colombian families out of Venezuela after labelling them as criminals and ordering the Armed Forces to mark their houses for demolition. This behavior mirrors the views recently expressed by ideologically distant, but equally populist figures around the world.

In Europe, this situation is particularly evident: Popularity of far-right, anti-immigration parties rises and falls with the economy’s performance. The fact that these groups benefit from high crime and unemployment rates and that welfare reduces support, suggests that people’s tolerance of immigration is conditioned by economics. It goes beyond that: Whatever role the economy plays as background, people react to the tone set by their leaders.

Venezuela is a clear example. The 20th century saw the economy grow exponentially and governments of all stripes favored the practice, seeing it as a tool for development.This, and the support it received from the press and most intellectuals, earned it acceptance among Venezuelans.

Immigration strengthens tolerance when receiving societies are strong and confident enough to welcome them. But when the receiving country feels weak, outsiders with different beliefs and cultures seem threatening, an ideal tool for extremists determined to polarize society and justify their policies.

The process is simple: Growing economies spawn societies able to attract and welcome outsiders. When economies stop growing and living standards begin to flag, those same outsiders come to look threatening, and become perfect fodder for demagogues who in turn radicalize their followers. But only when these “radicals” and their supporters achieve a critical mass, does the relation between outsiders and insiders turns antagonistic and intolerance ensues.

Whatever role the economy plays as background, people react to the tone set by their leaders.

Populists of the left and right intuit that when people feel threatened, they want an outsider to rally against. Linking immigration to existing problems, like economic crisis, violence, terrorism or unemployment, weakens tolerance, but this kind of scapegoating is not a reaction to newcomers at all. It’s simply the political strategy that yields the best political results when economies can no longer provide rising living standards for everyone.

In the end, oil revenue-funded free health and education policies were the main driver of Venezuela’s modernization. Immigration was more consequence than cause. Yet, along the way, the massive influx of immigrants taught Venezuelans they could share their country peacefully with outsiders from all around the world, and that they would help rather than hinder their development. These people integrated into the Venezuelan social fabric in an extremely tight way, creating something unique that not even 20 years of authoritarianism and intolerance have managed to undo: a South American country where baseball is as popular as football, where Chinese food can be as traditional as an arepa, and where a fairy-tale German town can be found in the middle of a tropical rainforest. But more importantly, a country where even though the government and its official media behemoth regularly blame other countries for our own chaos, xenophobia still isn’t one of the countless problems we have to deal with.

Integration is the key for an open borders policy to work in the medium and long term.

In the now gone decades of prosperity, Venezuelans built an image of our country as a magnet for immigrants. We forgot that a few years earlier, in the 1920s and 30s, Venezuela had bled dissidents—free-thinkers forced out for opposing the bloody regime of Juan Vicente Gómez. And we never dreamed that, a few decades into the future, the country would be sending exiles overseas again—this time by the millions, driven out by an even bloodier dictatorship.

The Venezuelan diaspora has reached such a dazzling size that it’s now a problem for the whole region. 40,000 people cross the Colombian border daily. Many others escape to Brazil, or take the few remaining commercial flights still landing on Caracas. This process has sent  almost two million people, from all social strata, around the world.

I remember my grandfather telling me a story about the first time he visited Venezuela’s Paraguana Peninsula—the dazzling blob of windswept, arid land land jutting out into the Caribbean, where he would meet my grandmother. Under the merciless sun, he glimpsed some guys trying to hit a tiny white ball with a stick. A friend told him they were American workers from the now extinct Creole Oil Company, and that they called that weird game “baseball”. From that day on, he wouldn’t miss a game. Migration made the boy from Cámara de Lobos fall in love with an American game on a Venezuelan oil field.

If that’s not an engine for tolerance, what is?

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