Venezuelans Fleeing the Crisis Leave Ghost Cities Behind

Every time they get home, lonely parents or temporarily orphaned children are reminded everyday of chavismo’s worst cruelty. Because of emigration, crime or lack of medicine, we’ve all lost people we love. Time stood still in Venezuelan homes that saw their inhabitants walk away.

Photos: Mariana Vincenti

Jorge Badra’s room remains exactly as he left it. The blue sheets cover the bed, the books are in a shelf by the wall, the old soccer trophy competes with papers to clutter the desk in the corner. The afternoon light and the smell of grass easily slip in through the window. His bedroom was his sanctuary, the place in the house where he spent most of his time. He abandoned it along with most of his belongings, the day he boarded a plane bound for Spain.

Migration isn’t a new topic for his family. Elisa Martínez, his mom, fled Cuba at 14 years old to make a home in Venezuela. And that’s what she did for over 40 years. She taught her two children the meaning of roots and country; the importance of family. “None of my children had the idea of leaving.” But then, the first of her descendants was left unemployed. Taking the leap wasn’t easy for the lawyer, but neither was remaining in a country were laws are vulnerable. “I convinced him because his career had no future here.” In late 2016, he made the choice and landed in Madrid in August, 2017.

Jorge Badra’s Room (30). Left to Madrid after losing his job. Caracas, Venezuela, 2018.

Elisa lives a repeated tale. She lives in two places, with her heart split in two. “It’s the last thing I would’ve wanted for my children. Stability’s lost because the family is divided.” For Jorge’s father, a university professor, the hardest part has been visiting Jorge’s bedroom, full of memories but empty without him: “It’s a space that’s always empty”.

There are no precise figures for the mass exodus of Venezuelans, because there are no official reports. On September 3, the government offered “verifiable data” for the first time in two years. Maduro stated that there are only 600.000 people who have left the country, and 90% regret ever leaving in the first place. The government dismisses one of the largest diasporas in Latin America. “It’s less than what they say,” said the president. Some studies estimate that at least two million Venezuelans have left the country, while others estimate up to four million. The most recent United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM) report provides a clue: 2.328.949 Venezuelans have left. Measuring the unheard-of Venezuelan diaspora is a difficult task. But, it’s evident in classrooms without students, in hospitals without doctors and in businesses that close their doors for good. A country that drowns in silence little by little and not because of absence of noise, but because of a lack of voices.

Andrea Moreno Brana’s Room (24). Left to Spain with her boyfriend thanks to a program in Granada University that allows her to finish her career there. Caracas, Venezuela, 2018.

Nolberto Contreras and Grasibel Blanco no longer live in the house they inhabited in El Valle neighborhood in Caracas. When their children left Venezuela, over a year and a half ago, they also left their home: it was painful to be there with so many empty rooms. “We built this house for them and they left,” they lament.

Gabriela didn’t look back when she left with two suitcases. “I stood by the window to watch her leave, and she didn’t even look back to say goodbye,” says her mom, “She didn’t explain how she found the plane ticket to Chile either.” Her older brother followed her months later. The income of their parents (a motorizado and a healthcare center employee) weren’t enough to cover a double migration; so they, mysteriously, found the way. Leaving the country isn’t just for the middle class: 12% of homes with emigrants belong to low-income families.

Danuvis Padrón (49) and Carlos Lino’s Room (44). Left to Tenerife due to crime.  Caracas, Venezuela, 2018.   

For the 23-year-old, living in a country ruled by chavismo was unbearable. There was an eternally present argument with her parents, who voted for the late president Hugo Chávez in every election. They even supported Nicolás Maduro because that’s “what the commander said.” Their children were dissidents and now, so are they: “I stopped being chavista when my children left,” said Nolberto.

Their rooms now temporarily host other relatives. However, their mark is indelible: nobody has changed the calendar set on “June” in Gabriela’s room and some of her shoes are still hidden under the bed.

Although Grasibel’s eyes are flooded with sadness, having their children come back home isn’t an option. “It’s better for them to stay away. I’ll join them if something happens to me. Meanwhile, we survive for as long as we can. There’s no hope that this will change.”

Vanessa Pérez (37) and Fabiola La Corte’s House (49). One left to United States and the other one to Spain after their mother died. Caracas, Venezuela, 2018.

Venezuela is immersed in a profound crisis that affects the daily lives of its inhabitants: Hyperinflation, food and medicine shortages, poverty and crime. This severe situation has intensified in the last couple of years after Nicolás Maduro came to power. Almost 80% of those who have left the country have done so between 2016 and 2017. Without options and consumed by despair, many have seen immigration as their only solution.

This wasn’t a country of emigrants. Years ago it was the destination of millions of people who fled their own countries in search for better conditions. The trend shifted. Now it’s Venezuelans who are leaving and the numbers have reached alarming proportions. Each day there are more and more people who choose to leave it all behind to start over abroad. Colombia, the United States and Spain are the countries that have received the most Venezuelans. But migrants aren’t just a number.

Filomena Di Martino’s Room (18) left to Tenerife to pursue a career in arts. Caracas, Venezuela, 2017.

What happens with the empty space they leave? What happens with the places that reflect a person’s life? What happens with a family forced to split?

José Ángel Uribe is 25 years old and he lives alone in a three-bedroom house, but not by choice: his mom and his stepdad emigrated. He moved to the main bedroom, but he didn’t take anything with him. The room still has some of his mother’s belongings. The corner still has the religious figures and stamps that she collected for years in the church’s choir.

Danuvis Padrón (49) and Carlos Lino’s Room (44). Left to Tenerife, Spain to find a safer place away from crime and insecurity. Caracas, Venezuela, 2018.  

Danuvis Padrón was the first to leave in June, 2017, forced by crime. She wanted to take her son with her, but he refused to leave until he’d finished his medical career. “She wouldn’t think of leaving without me, I forced her,” he says. Carlos Lino’s turn came in February, 2018.

Today, only the silent evidence of the diaspora remains. “They used to play the guitar, they rehearsed, they sang. We talked at night during dinner. My dogs barked at the neighbors and I could hear her paws scratching the floor. All of that is gone.”

Mireya Roso’s Room (57). Left to Argentina to find economical stability. Caracas, Venezuela, 2018.

Valeria Pedicini

Venezuelan journalist from UCAB. Patea la calle with a bag full of notebooks and curiosity, eager to ask questions. Her passions are writing and photography, which allow her to tell stories that move her, both with words and many clicks.