Uruguay is Receiving Venezuelans, With a Caveat

The Southern small and peaceful country is trying to become an immigration haven again, but granting only a rare -and constraining- figure of citizenship that dates from 1830

During the last years, Uruguay has given concrete signals towards its goal of becoming a country attractive to migrants, outlying as an open-doors place in a tightening Latin America. Its government launched a single framework to validate academic credentials from foreign institutions through one office at the Ministerio de Educación y Cultura; the 2023 Census added questions about the migrants’ reality; and the provinces created discussion boards to assess the needs of migrants and refugees regarding local laws.

However, since February 2023 Uruguay implemented a fee of  3,400 Uruguayan pesos (USD 85) for residency applications for citizens from Mercosur countries, which include Venezuelans. Previously, applications were free. Mercosur citizens, especially from Argentina and Venezuela, account for most of the immigration in Uruguay. In 2022, there were 7,209 Argentine citizens and 2,613 Venezuelans who applied for residency in Uruguay. 

Though this fee may look rather low compared to international standards, it can be a burden for migrants who are already economically vulnerable, which tends to be the case of many Venezuelans in the Americas. A family of four needs to pay USD 340 to apply for residency. Only with residency, you can have an ID and access to health, education and social security; the right to sign a contract; and the possibility of a work permit. In Uruguay, labor is mostly formal, and informality occurs only in some places near the border. Migrants need to be residents, and in this country, almost all of them have residency.

The process is still quite simple, but the new fee also means that more migrants would try to get refugee status, creating a bottleneck in the refugee application pipeline, curtailing the fame of Uruguay as a country that has been fast and effective at processing such applications. Ultimately, this compromises the 3-million-people nation’s goal to become more attractive to foreign labor.  

A limited citizenship

It’s more complicated when it comes to citizenship, because of a figure that the country’s leadership is not talking about: legal citizenship, the only one available for those who aren’t born in Uruguay, or abroad from Uruguayan parents.

A Venezuelan-born person who is granted legal citizenship in Uruguay still needs a Venezuelan passport and a visa to enter any country in the Americas, excepting Colombia and Mercosur member States. 

Uruguay is one of the few countries in the world where foreign citizens acquire naturalization only through the status of legal citizens, a figure established in the Constitution since 1830, for which one can apply after five years living as a resident in Uruguay. To apply for a legal citizenship, a resident must address the Electoral Board, not the Interior Ministry, but even so a legal citizen must wait for three years before acquiring a civic credential that allows voting in elections. 

The most important thing here is that a foreign national that becomes a legal citizen in Uruguay is not a full Uruguayan citizen. Legal citizenship gives access to a passport that reads that your real citizenship is the other, Venezuelan for instance. In practice, a legal citizen can’t travel with that passport issued by Uruguay, but with one of the other citizenship. 

A Venezuelan-born person who is granted legal citizenship in Uruguay still needs a Venezuelan passport and a visa to enter any country in the Americas, excepting Colombia and Mercosur member States. 

A legal citizen is not a proper Uruguayan citizen, no matter how many years has been living in the country or how much mate can drink through a normal day. Foreign-born residents in Uruguay can’t have an Uruguayan passport with the same global rights of entry of an Uruguayan by birth. 

Legal citizenship is the status of more than 35,000 people in Uruguay, including Cubans and Venezuelans whose citizenship of birth became more problematic to travel around the world in recent years, due to diplomatic conflicts and measures to counter the exponential growth of Cuban and Venezuelan migration flows. 

In September 2021, some lawmakers of the ruling Coalición Multicolor tabled a bill, “Libertad de Circulación de los Ciudadanos Legales Uruguayos”, to correct legal citizenship, but it hasn’t entered discussion outside the constitutional commission of the chamber of representatives. The political system has shown no interest in the matter, even when politicians across the aisle and authorities are fully aware of the problem thanks to a number of public discussions with refugees and migrants. 

Besides the fact that a Venezuelan in Uruguay must have a valid Venezuelan passport and a visa to travel to almost everywhere -both of which are very hard to obtain due to the current state of Venezuelan identification services and our extremely limited options in consulates abroad- , the constraints of legal citizenship pose a problem to all migrants in Uruguay and affect their mobility rights. Uruguay must address this issue with true political involvement, if this country really wants to integrate its increasing migrant community.  

Ángel Arellano

Author of the book “Venezuelans in Uruguay” (2019). Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of the Republic (Uruguay), master's in politics and government from the Metropolitan University (Venezuela).