An established presence in many places already

Photo: Vivas Las Arepas

How the Venezuelan Diaspora Is Leaving Its Mark

With thousands leaving the country as the situation deteriorates, what’s the noticeable impact Venezuelan migrants are having around the world? The answer will come from culture and food

The Venezuelan exodus has already surpassed the 5 million mark according to UNHCR estimates, with Latin America, North America, and Europe being the usual destinations for a better future, or just for a lesser wreck of a country. Now that we’re a departure point instead of a destination, it’s time to look at the effects our diaspora will have in their adoptive nations. 

I left in 2015, and as an immigrant myself in the region of Abruzzo, in central Italy, I was happily surprised to see just how much of my country could be found abroad.

Italians I meet usually tell me, for instance, that they have a Venezuelan relative, or the’ve been to Venezuela, or lived there many years ago, something frequently followed by one of our expressions that a friend taught them or a story about that time they visited Margarita while on vacation with their cousins. There’s even a little town in the southern part of the country called Marina di Camerota, that’s known for its bond with Venezuela, it has a Simón Bolívar statue in one of its main squares, his name on streets and a cinema, and Spanish is spoken as often as in Doral, Florida. 

If you come to Abruzzo, you’ll find coffee shops and restaurants with Venezuelan food and aesthetics if you know where to look, although that’s probably nothing compared to the ones in Madrid, Miami, or any Colombian city. Just near my house, there used to be a bar called “Avila Caffè” that (probably) had the best chicha in all of Europe, and even though their story is a sour one: they went out of business last year, but it proves that fellow citizens are trying to promote our flavors and keep our traditions alive wherever they go. 

How many Venezuelans will return home once the regime has fallen can only be speculation at this point, but what seems obvious to me is that a large part of those who left won’t be returning. And once we acknowledge this, we can start recognizing how we’re changing the social fabric of our adoptive countries. 

The spread of culture through hardship is a common occurrence in history. Adversity can lead to mass migration, with a profound impact on the social, economic, demographic, and political conditions of the native populations, something that can be observed with the Middle Eastern and African waves of immigration to Europe in the last decade. 

In a way, our exodus imitates its predecessors, when thousands of Europeans escaped the war and its consequences in the old continent by reaching Venezuelan shores. It essentially changed the social fabric of our country. 

If we could group Venezuelans living abroad in a single chunk of land, its population would surpass any of the 23 states in the country taken separately, making it the biggest electoral district in the whole nation. And that’s without taking into consideration that they now live in places with better opportunities where starting a family could be a possibility, giving birth to second or third-generation Venezuelans, increasing our numbers altogether, a stark contrast to the families still in the country, where even childbirth means to risk death thanks to the lack of the most basic medical tools. 

This demographic potential comes to mind when we think how migration connects people: the consequences it has on immigrants and their destinations are not unilateral. By going on with our lives abroad, all of us in the diaspora indirectly spread our habits, traditions, and expressions to the local population, either by something so simple as teaching foreign friends a little bit about our lifestyle or maybe marrying someone from a different country, intermixing customs and creating ties that will last for generations. The United States and Canada are perfect examples of multicultural societies that followed the same old pattern Venezuelans are starting to generate in places like Cúcuta or Lima.  

However, this goes beyond showing how arepas are made. Among the negative effects of our exodus to others there’s the fact that immigrants with few resources need all the help they can get, increasing the pressure on foreign countries to provide them with long-term support, a cost that many South American governments may not be willing to pay, given the already high tensions in the continent where Venezuelans face accusations of bringing in crime, crowding the job market, or increasing the cost of services like healthcare and education. And although most of these accusations are probably just xenophobic discrimination (like the latent one in Panama), they’re based on real problems that the receiving countries of the diaspora must face, especially for Latin American and Caribbean nations, who were not prepared to handle such a vast quantity of immigrants and refugees neither in the economic or social sense, as it has been the case with Trinidad and Tobago.

On a brighter note, the positive effects appear to surpass the negatives ones in the long term, as Venezuelans are highly valuable immigrants thanks to how most of them are young working-age people, many of whom have a university degree, an advantage to the countries that are receiving young, cheap, and professional individuals into their own workforce. Additionally, with fertility falling, migration is expected to slow the aging of populations in the developed regions, thus substantially helping their economies while making richer and more diverse societies.

Venezuelans in exile are integrating into their new countries, enriching them in some way or the other, a process with many obstacles ahead that vary according to the economic level, the legal status of the immigrant, and the opportunities of its destination. A friend in the United States (that I won’t name to keep ICE away) who could hardly speak any English before leaving Venezuela, now unfortunately living in fear of the strict American migration rules, is fully committed to stay and have the decent life that harsh conditions at home made impossible, despite the legal and linguistic barriers. 

People gravitate to what they know and people living away from their home countries move to whatever feels closer to home, a phenomenon that can be seen all over multicultural cities like London or New York, where entire corners are famous ethnic enclaves (such as Chinatown or Little Italy). With time passing, some of us will probably be fully assimilated, but in places where there’s a strong Venezuelan presence, people may build that kind of networks with other members of the diaspora to try to connect and preserve our national distinctiveness, sharing common experiences and counseling others. In the province of Teramo, here in Italy, there’s a cultural association called “Alma Criolla” that’s doing just that, frequently organizing events where members of the diaspora can interact with each other or even donate to NGOs sending funds and medicine to Venezuela. 

In a way, our exodus imitates its predecessors, when thousands of Europeans escaped the war and its consequences in the old continent by reaching Venezuelan shores. It essentially changed the social fabric of our country. 

We surely are doing the same thing right now in places like Colombia or Peru, possibly resembling other historical waves of migration, except that we’re not exactly fleeing war but an authoritarian government and the mess it has created, that, to be fair, looks and feels like a warzone.