Forced Migration and Our Life Projects

For many, the ‘Venezuelan dream’ has been damaged by the need to migrate. That dream, that project that we didn’t know we had for our lives, is our right. A right worth fighting for

Photo: Composición de Sofía Jaimes Barreto

“Migration broke us. It killed us in symbolic ways. Now I live with absent chairs. I’m content with a screen and sending remittances to mitigate the guilt of my abandonment,” said an anonymous source to Los Migrados, a journalistic effort to reveal how forced migration has changed the lives of Venezuelans, now filled with a sense of having been uprooted. That’s the price for escaping violence and a chaotic economy that, together, embody compelling reasons to pack suitcases—or simply walk. Luggage, however, lacks the capacity to carry family dreams, professional aspirations and everything that represents the right to a “life project”.

At least six million Venezuelans have left the country, seeking protection and dignified standards in other places. Those who flee nowadays are also motivated by “family reunification,” as identified by the last National Survey of Living Conditions (Encovi). The majority of them, unfortunately, remain in a vulnerable status, with a “stamp on their foreheads.” And even most of the lucky ones, those who are now successful and nurture our national pride, are reduced to celebrating their achievements with many of their loved ones over a video call. 

We are all, in one way or another, often reminded that this wasn’t what we had planned. We are often longing for that career we had to quit, for hallacas made by all the members of their production chain, for birthdays where everyone’s able to sing “Ay, qué noche tan preciosa.” Again, for everything that represents our right to a life project.

What’s the Right to a Life Project?

When professor Cecilia Bailliet was getting an Uber to visit the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR), in Costa Rica, she would have never wondered about the upcoming conversation. Her driver happened to be a former judge from Venezuela that, just like her, used to teach at Law School. That driver had to put his professional ambitions on hold in order to provide for his family and look after his safety. He would, nevertheless, be completely able to understand the repercussions of his right to a life project…

The legal notion of a life project was coined by the Peruvian author Carlos Fernández Sessarego at the end of the 20th century. Building on philosophical concepts that describe humans as temporal beings, he argued that such is the characteristic that makes us project ourselves into the future based on our individual aims. Moreover, the purpose of the author is to bring the spotlight over the silent damage that humans endure when they’re denied the possibility of projection. Fernández Sessarego refers to it as “a component of the generic damage to the person,” and calls for its protection under national and international law given that its ultimate effects would signify an existential vacuum for the sufferer. 

This isn’t merely a theoretical proposal. The IACHR has concurred with considering the chance of developing a life project as a human right, thus, with the obligation of safeguarding it.

In fact, the regional court was the forerunner in its inclusion within international law in 1998. In the case of Loayza Tamayo, the Court acknowledged that a life project takes into account the person’s calling in life, particular circumstances, and potential, allowing a person to set, in a reasonable manner, specific goals and attain them. Strictly speaking, continues the Court, those are “the manifestation and guarantee of freedom” which have “an important existential value for human dignity” and “can never be quantified”. This was ratified in more than ten subsequent rulings; but, ​​as admitted by former judge Antônio Cançado Trindade, its legal enlargement has slowed down due to limited consensus amongst the magistrates as to the direction it should take.

In any event, what the Court has said, in simple words, is that to be able to project oneself in time, one must be able to decide and, to be able to decide, one must be free. Only with freedom is how we, as humans, can undertake a series of projects, counting those which are fundamental to our existence. As Venezuelans, we have been prevented from our freedom, as well as many other rights. What is worse, several have been forced to renounce the opportunity of living in our own country. And all who stayed have also been forced to bid farewell to their family members and friends. How could we ponder the trauma? How could we really comprehend the implications of our fate? 

The ‘Co-Existential’ Nature of Venezuelans

Almost every week—if the electricity and internet services in Maracaibo allow me—I call my grandmother from Oslo, where I live now, to check on her. That “almost” doesn’t apply to her justified nagging. Without exception, at a certain point of the conversation she includes the exact same sentence: “Out of fifteen grandchildren, only two are here with me.” I limit myself to comforting her, but in parallel, I wonder about my former habits. 

Every Sunday my entire family gathered at my grandma’s for lunch. “Bendición, abuela,” yelled the kids whilst we were running towards a room to play with our cousins. I have a vivid memory of the smell of barbecue in the garden, domino pieces rumbling in the living room, and a choir integrated by my mother and my aunts yelling ¡A comer! from the kitchen. For more than twenty years that was a sacred ritual. Inevitably, every Sunday at a certain point of the day, the exact same sentence crosses my mind: “Out of fifteen grandchildren, only two are there with my grandma.”

Living in Venezuela is the option that most of its citizens would, otherwise, have taken as the natural course of their lives. This assumption is supported by uncountable demonstrations of forced migrants, refugees, and their relatives who remain in the country. “Every day I ask myself, how long will it be until I can return?” said a Venezuelan who was part of A Journey in a Caravan of Misery and we can add as sharp evidence the rest of the testimonies recently compiled in the series Los Migrados.

Besides clear legal compatibilities, there are local sociological studies that illustrate how profound the consequences of preventing Venezuelans from enjoying their right to a life project are. They provide the answer to why it’s so vital for the population of Venezuela to return or, at least, to be reunited. 

The late researcher, writer, and priest Alejandro Moreno explained that the majority of Venezuelans convey as an original and basic exercise what he called “living in relation.” That is “the primary ‘practicing’ of most Venezuelans, in which vitality takes place without previous choice.” This practice provides the spectrum of possibilities for their projection in life. The Venezuelan person is a relation unceasingly occurring. In Venezuela, life isn’t about individuals, but a life lived together; which obviously conditions the formation of life projects for its nationals.  

According to Moreno, for Venezuelans, especially those with low income, their world “is the life-among-men that becomes a reality above all in the neighborhood and family. They leave it to pass through the world of production as an inevitable and ungrateful necessity, but their world of life is the coexistence, that is why he’s properly described as a Homo convivialis.” Or one can say: they migrate, as an inevitable and ungrateful necessity, leaving behind their world of coexistence, which is their life. 

These arguments make the Venezuelan diaspora exceptionally painful. Co-existence is intrinsical to Venezuelans, and its disruption is a tragic violation of our human rights. The phenomena of forced migration comprise irreparable losses for every Venezuelan who, obliged to flee, is deprived of the minimum elements to project oneself. Our natural way of living has been corrupted. Our identity and our worldview, our family nucleus, our homes, our very lifestyle, and everything that, as Moreno sustained, is in sum our co-existence.  

Reclaiming What Was Taken From Us

As inferable from my family’s anecdote, it’s not exclusively those who leave who are victims, the relatives who still reside in Venezuela are victims too. Their core has also been fragmented. In conclusion, the relationship between the damage to the right to a life project of both Venezuelans abroad and those in their homeland is symbiotic, and the Venezuelan State must be held accountable. 

Justice must be sought for the dismembered families, for the years of professional training that can’t be used, for the inheritance of our ancestors that we can’t enjoy, for not having the pleasure of serving Venezuela, or for any other of the multiple forms in which a co-existential life project is manifested. Now, it’s necessary to assume that the juridical abstraction called life project faces practical difficulties in its execution. Beyond the conjunctural impossibility of resorting to the Court since its effective denunciation in 2013, it’s improbable that any other judicial instance would process a case solely under that argument. This doesn’t connote that there are no alternative means to reach a solution.

In the short run, it might be a relief for our life projects to set a fixed day of the week for a group call to see how our friends’ children are growing up; or to plan a family reunion somewhere in the middle, using a second cousin’s wedding as the perfect excuse.

We might even dare to join the entrepreneurship adventure and launch the first ‘arepera’ in our new town (please include mandocas in the menu). Nonetheless, we’re also required to think prospectively, in solidarity, when demanding our rights. 

The Independent International Fact-Finding Mission established in Venezuela and the progress of the investigation prepared by the International Criminal Court are valuable assets; yet, civil society agents can’t merely rely on them. Transitional justice mechanisms, for example, could address potential solutions for the damage that has been caused. Despite tremendous obstacles, we must not rest until we manage to enforce justice on those who are responsible and, simultaneously, produce proper reparations for all victims. Until we manage to somehow produce conditions that satisfy the high threshold of our co-existential nature. 

The damage to the life project of Venezuelans has no relief measures in any of the response plans designed by the international community to tackle the regional migration crisis. Understandably, given the urgent visceral priorities of offering shelter, food, and health assistance to Venezuelans in transit or final countries. But, as a nation, we shouldn’t overlook or underestimate the value of this right born in Latin American academia and jurisprudence. This right, this dream, my grandma reunited with all her grandchildren, is something worth fighting for.