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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  1. There’s good immigration and there’s bad immigration. This surely doesn’t need explaining. One just has to look at how Muslim and African immigration is turning some European countries into total shitholes.

    And how it costs host countries so much in social services and welfare.

    When the author’s grandfather emigrated to Venezuela, he didn’t receive welfare, subsidized housing, or free medical care. Nowadays, this is expected by immigrants as some kind of a right.

    Most of today’s emigration isn’t like yesterday’s.

  2. Fantastic piece of writing. These immigrants, many of them our parents and grandparents, (plus American and European Savoir Faire – Oil Companies, etc) is what developed Venezuela from the 50’s to the 80’s-90’s.

    Not the uneducated Indios that were here, mind you. In general terms it was the hard-working, better-educated immigrants who built the Venezuela we knew, grow to love the local people and mixing with them, as my family from Spain also did. Heck, they even taught the locals how to set up proper Panaderias (mainly the Portuguese and Spanish did), grow fruit and raise Chickens. How to build houses, airports hospitals and roads. How to administer a company without excessive corruption.

    But that was a minority. Then the previous MUDcrap of AD/Copey failed to recognize the importance of educating and assimilating the majority of locals, the pueblo-people. They grew alienated, disgruntled. They became jealous of the ‘burguesia’, the ‘sifrinos’, us, the hard-working immigrants, for the most part.. That deep resentment brewed the charismatic Chabestia and Chavismo. It was easy to exploit the usual populist/socialist bullshit propaganda against ‘capitalism’, ‘la derecha’ ‘el imperio’ ‘el fascismo’.. terms most pueblo people doesn’t even comprehend.

    Result? Klepto-Narco Cubazuela.

    How could it have been avoided? 10 more years of Marcos Perez Jimenez.
    That’s how. Unfortunately.

    How can it start to be fixed? Only by force. Unfortunately. Tough laws, tough government. Lots of crooks going to jail, and a few decades of EDUCATION and more tough laws. Then, Klepto-Narco Cubazuela might start resembling Colombia or Costa Rica, if lucky.

    • “Not the uneducated Indios that were here, mind you.”

      So, I guess there were not uneducated whites prior to the second advent of the Europeans.

      “How to administer a company without excessive corruption.”

      Yup, like Jaime Lusinchi, “the son of an Italian immigrant” did not squandered billions of USD.

      Then you complain of the chavestias trying to re-write history.

      • I concur that Poeta Criollo uses some harsh words, but I do think he has a point.

        That prosperous Venezuela, the one from the 1960s and 70s, was created in large part by newcomers that gave our society a boost. Our grandparents came here, some with just a suitcase, worked hard, became successful and moved to Eastern Caracas. I’m sure a lot of CC readers have similar stories in their families.

        40 years later, Chavismo taught real Venezuelans, whatever that is, to hate us, all of us. It’s reverse apartheid, it’s envy. It’s Delcy saying the infamous Carib war cry Ana Karina Rote — “Solo nosotros somos gente”

      • There is a bunch of very racist sons of Spaniards here. Thanks God they are not the majority of the sons of Spaniards who migrated to Venezuela.

  3. ” Starting in the 19th century, immigration laws were heavily influenced by Spencerian social positivism…”

    Key word: “Laws”.

    Did your Grandfather apply for immigration according to Vz law, or did he sneak in, and then head for the nearest “Sanctuary City?”

    And are you advocating a Libertarian, completely open boarder policy between countries, or do you think governments have a responsibility to vet prospective immigrants?

    • I am not an expert but I may say that Venezuela hardly had immigration laws back then.

      Select immigration with a proven net positive impact is the way to go. No need to bring unwanted or unrequired people that will negatively affect the locals or the path of a country.

      About open border policy, that goes against the definition of a Country, so why bother?

  4. Nice way to gloss over the downside to “dumping” that goes on.

    Notice how the author ignored any form of concern about violence by criminals who escaped across borders as “refugees”. Security for the hosts as well as genuine victims cannot be ignored. But your article avoids any reality.

    Tolerance goes both ways. Those immigrants coming in must be willing to follow the laws and rules of their new hosts. And they can’t bring violence-first (Antifa) or sexism (Sharia) or the envy/hate that comes with Socialist/Communist party platforms.

    But let’s not be so nostalgic for a mythical warming and accepting VZ. Today’s VZ is anything but that which you are dreaming.

    My family tells of how the color of those from the Caribbean heritage are/were treated so poorly, and probably still are, that they were not allowed to be teachers or doctors at good schools or hospitals.

    Notice how socialism only leads to group think? How is diversity celebrated now?

  5. Or a university city where you grow up going to
    school with kids from chile, argentina, spain, colombia, etc
    and therefore you learn to love empanadas chilenas,
    jugar parchis, go for a milkshake served from a whole blender
    in the chinese cafeteria next to the chinese restaurant en el viaducto,
    etc, etc

  6. Venezuela gave him a chance, and he made the most of it.

    This is lost on many people. Many people emigrate from absolute shitholes, and are like your grandfather. All they want is a chance to make it. Many others are “saved” from their shitholes, are brought to America, and want The American Dream handed to them on a silver platter. They don’t want to assimilate. They want to be accommodated.

    “My grandfather integrated, and so did most immigrants who came to the country back when the Venezuelan economy was booming.”

    Another win. For everyone. Especially in an economy that needs people who WANT to work.

    Right now, the US needs to make it easier for law abiding hard workers to enter and take a run at the American Dream. Right now, where I live, we have 2% unemployment in a world where 5% of the employable population can’t be trusted to guard a dead rat.

    Yes. We need a wall to keep the undesirables out. But we need immigrants who want to work and contribute and we need them RIGHT NOW.

  7. Remember this essay, as the main page says, was an essay finalist in the open-borders category. That does explicitly mean it is not going to mention arguments for immigration restrictions.

    Were all the immigrants in Venezuela back then really legal? It’s too cut and dried trying to argue illegal immigrants simply don’t want to carry their own weight. Many do. Regardless, controlled immigration is preferable to uncontrolled Mass migration. This is why I supported America’s 2013 Senate immigration bill, which despite it’s flaws, would have strengthened border security and established a Nationwide e-verify system mandatory for all employers, greatly reducing incentives for illegal hiring and therefore illegal immigration. (My reasonable comment might provoke some angry replies)

  8. Really well-written/well-done, Juan. Placards at a Chavez demonstration saying, “Get out of Venezuela, Sons Of Shit Immigrants”, whose keynote speaker was a Son Of Shit Zambo, who has returned the Country literally to its pre-Oil pre-immigrant sons-of-shit state.

      • Clean and white as the driven snow–but his Barragana was something else! (just one guiso–2/3 of the Ven. Govt. officials in Miami overseeing exports to Venezuela/exchange control fees-assessments-approvals were direct employees of them).

  9. I generally like this article but we have to be careful of historical revisionism. Democracy, as a model of democracy, kinda never fully existed or it was not a “model” particularly with the Punto Fijo pact and the betrayal of it by CAP II. In the best case, it was at the beginning of 1958 and even then the Communist Party was all but banned. So, that notion of model democracy is arguably accurate except that the Adeco/Copeyano exchange was a lot more open and certainly more sophisticated than the gorillas currently in power.

    The author mentions the immigration of “over 800,000 immigrants did the same between 1948 and 1961”. Well Venezuela was hardly a democracy on those years and many of those immigrants were supportive of caudillism. Furthermore, lots of those immigrants ended up in the armed forces hence becoming part of the machine.

    That being said, this attempt to create that sort of division is kinda of stupid nowadays, or only applicable to relatively recent immigration or to the guys like Poeta Criollo that feel somehow superior to the rest just because Spain and Italy still allows their lost sons to come back even after a second generation. The same way Chavez tried, unsuccessful mind you, to play the racial card.

    At the end of the day, Venezuela is a country of immigrants since Colon put his foot somewhere near Sucre and the first gallego got his blood boiling with an uneducated indian girl (nod to Poeta Criollo) and a quite large group of blacks got here rather against their will. Past that point it has been a stream of French, Germans and others that made the base for what that “second wave” of immigrants found as a country. I certainly agree, Venezuela really benefited from them as they brought the experience of total destruction after two world wars and the spirit of entrepreneurship combine with a country awash in money from oil.

    So, let’s try to stay away from this cliché of a perfect country before Chavez because we weren’t and that is the reason Chavez got here to fuck us all.

    • No, it wasn’t perfect, just that massive oil income/small population (then) allowed hefty corruption/economic development to co-exist. Now, we have galactic corruption, 4x the population, and oil income less than 60-70 years ago, especially after factoring in Chinese oil debt payments, and not even mentioning the nearly $200 bill debt owed to international creditors/corporations/suppliers.

      • And that’s my point. Some people see the old Venezuela as the paradigm of perfect which was not by any remote extend. All the crap was sweep under the rug made with the fabric of oil revenue until the rug could not hold any longer.

        Furthermore, the formation years of Maduro and Co. were exactly that time of some of the larger corruption scandals in Venezuela like: CAP I Sierra Nevada and Diego Arria hand in the Centro Simon Bolivar, LHC Vinicio Carrera (Spaniard by the way), Leopoldo “el Bufalo” and Orlando Castro (Cuban, another excel immigrant) among many, JL Recadi and many many more shit (which by the way Antonio Ledezma got into some of it as well not once but few times – he was CAP’s anointed pupil), Ciudad Higuerote and many others, RC I and II with the Children Museum fiasco and his sons dealings (remember “El Pimenton”), CAP II with Viasa, CANTV and other “clean” privatizations, Claudio Fermin (our wannabe Vice-president ) guiso with the walk ways in Caracas downtown.

        And none of these son of bitches got a day in jail. Except Castro (in US) and El Chino de Recadi. Ledezma got some but for a completely different reason.

        So, Maduro may say in front of the judge that he is corrupt and allowed corruption just because that was part of his education and he did not know better.

  10. Do you think governments have a responsibility to vet prospective immigrants?

    Do you vet strangers who come into your house, or do you just throw open the doors and stand back for the stampede? Anything ever broken or stolen?

    • Funny thing… one of my employees went driving up to Canada about a year ago to do some fishing, and the Canadian government wouldn’t let him into Canada because he had a misdemeanor DUI infraction 4 years ago. He has otherwise been law abiding.

      Funny how Canadians want the US to open its borders to anyone when they won’t even open theirs to weekend visitors.

      • Oh, it gets even worse than that. Canada is the most hypocritical bastard country on earth:

        An American can’t even FLY on a commercial flight…or SAIL HIS BOAT…over Canadian territory to reach certain parts of ALASKA, because of old misdemeanor judgments.

        99.99999999% of whom are trying to reach to legitimately reach Alaska, Americans trying to reach America.

        And these scumbags say no.

        • Guess what? Us customs did the same to me. Refused me entrance to Miami on a in transit stop from Canada to Venezuela. Fucked up that flight in a hurry. Now I must find direct flights only. Just politics man. Nothing personal.

          • @Marc: Indeed! I know of two persons who have been placed back on a plane to Heathrow due to criminal behavior in their distant past. It isn’t just Canada with these sorts of laws.

      • Ah, the good old days! Spring of 1960 a buddy and I crossed into Ontario at Niagra Falls, drove to Fairbanks, camped out every night, and part of our gear was a ’94 Winchester 30-30.

        Never spent more than 5 minutes clearing customs the whole trip and back.

  11. How many VZ ex-pats has Canada accepted?

    The number is a joke, mainly because Canada hardly issues tourist visas for fear of illegal stay-over. And immigrant visas?

    Fucking pitiful.

    Yet they want to posture on how more “humane” they are than the U.S.

    • My parents know a whole butt load of them. Canada was promoting immigration during Chavez’ reign. Chavez was even saying nice things about us at the time. My parents helped many young breeding professionals to now call western Canada their home and they have adapted and thrived there (despite -40 degree winters. But yes, only the best were selected, it was a great deal for Canada and for those brainiacs (mostly engineers for some reason) that decided it was a good time to flee. There are lots of them in Calgary and Edmonton, I suspect at least one of them that pops in here from time time to time.

  12. Its childish when comparing two things (like todays venezuela and the pre chavez venezuela) to think only in terms of pure perfection vs crap , its much more rational and realistic to think in terms of better than and worse than , in that sense even if the pre chavez venezuela was not pure perfection it was much much better than the crap we have now ,so much so that I doubt that any Venezuela if given the chance would choose to live in todays crap rather than in the pre chavez venezuela ……unless he is a boliburgues or is brain addled …by idological idiocies.


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