Venezuela brain drain: I miss mom, but don't want to go back

Venezuelan high court ruling spurs protests
Venezuelan high court ruling spurs protests

Alejandro Nava is leaving his home in Venezuela, and he doesn't plan on coming back.

Nava set his sights abroad because he has lost hope in his country, which is battling an economic crisis that has spiraled out of control, triggering a never ending list of chronic problems, from violent crime to basic health care.

Last year, his middle-class family lived without basics like eggs, milk and butter for weeks at a time, as the country struggled through a food shortage crisis. But that's not his biggest problem. Safety is.

"We live in constant fear of getting robbed and shot everyday," says Nava. "There's no sense of stability. You can't save money, you can't plan for the future."

Nava, 24, is moving to the U.S. where he recently received an immigrant visa. An associate lawyer and university professor in Maracaibo, Venezuela, Nava earns $50 a month. Skyrocketing inflation has decimated his salary. He hopes to work as a paralegal while he applies to Ivy League law schools in the United States.

Related: Venezuelan court reverses move to revoke National Assembly's power

venezuela alejandro nava
Alejandro Nava, 24, is leaving Venezuela to live in the U.S.

Nava is becoming part of a rising trend and it has grave implications for Venezuela's future.

Nearly 2 million Venezuelans have left the country since 1999 when a populist regime took over, according to Tomas Paez, a professor at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas and an expert on emigration. Venezuela has 30 million citizens.

But the pace is picking up fast. Last year, Paez's analysis found that about 200,000 Venezuelans had left. That's double the rate of 100,000 per year on average between 1999 and early 2015.

Other data support his findings. Venezuelans' asylum requests in the U.S. rose nearly 170% last year, according to Pew Research. And in Argentina, residency applications from Venezuelans shot up 120%. In Spain, the number of Venezuelan immigrants doubled in the last two years.

Related: Venezuela's food crisis: Faces of hunger

Venezuela's government doesn't publish any emigration data.

The tragic irony is that Venezuela -- a country rich in resources -- used to have a long history of welcoming immigrants. Now it's suffering from mass emigration. And Paez says that a lot of those deciding to leave are educated and skilled.

Venezuela's crisis has no end in sight. Massive food and medical shortages have crippled the country while violent crime means few can leave home after dark and kidnappings are common.

Last week, the Venezuelan Supreme Court seized power from the opposition-led legislature, a move that would essentially allow it to write its own laws. The decision was quickly reversed after severe public outcry.

Inflation is expected to rise 1,660% this year in Venezuela, according to the IMF. The country's currency, the bolivar, is worth less than one penny.

Nava recognizes he's fortunate to be able to go to the U.S. where be believes he can get a job. But many are going wherever they can as soon as possible.

Related: Venezuela crisis: I flew to the U.S. to buy toilet paper

venezuela analiz suarez
Analiz Suarez, 37, moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina to escape Venezuela's crisis.

Analiz Suarez had to leave behind her ill mother, Onelia, and move to Buenos Aires, Argentina. She lives in a 7-person, 1-bathroom apartment with five Venezuelans and one Cuban. Suarez arrived last June after an unsuccessful attempt to get residency in Colombia.

A former journalist, Suarez, 37, works at a digital marketing company earning 14,000 pesos ($909) a month. It's a lot more than the nearly $100 a month she earned at the end of 2014 living in Caracas, Venezuela's capital, as hyper inflation erased her earnings.

But after taxes, rent, food and saving up for her mother's medical treatments and flight to move to Argentina, Suarez barely has enough to get by. She's trying to do more freelance work in graphic design and writing press releases for companies.

Related: Venezuela's food crisis deepens as imports plummet

Suarez has slashed spending on everything. She cuts her own hair now and stopped coloring it. She buys the absolute minimum amount of food. She watched only one movie in her first six months in Argentina. Friday nights are spent drinking cheap beers with other Venezuelans in their crammed apartments. Everyone chips in.

She tells herself to not lose hope that things will get better.

"My friends don't live in my country, they all left," say Suarez. On the thought of potentially never going home: "You have to turn off a mental switch to make yourself strong and not fall into depression."

venezuela diego hernandez
Diego Hernandez, 23, left Venezuela as crime skyrocketed and the economy spiraled into crisis.

Diego Hernandez, 23, won't be going back either. He moved to the U.S., tried to get a university to accept him and sponsor his visa but couldn't, and eventually moved to Argentina too.

He arrived in August and lives with his older brother, who asked not to be named because he says he was once kidnapped in Venezuela.

Hernandez recently moved to a third apartment in eight months. The walls of the apartment are barren. It is located right next to a local commuter rail on the outskirts of an upscale neighborhood. Trains blare past every few minutes. Hernandez's mattress rests on the floor. The lone luxury is an old PlayStation the brothers stay entertained with.

Related: CNN en Español kicked off air in Venezuela

Hernandez works at a clothing shop earning, 10,200 pesos ($662) a month. After living costs, he has the equivalent of $135 left over per month -- or under $5 a day. He's looking for a second job while he studies at the University of Buenos Aires at night, hoping to become a nutritionist.

But he appreciates the little pleasures of life in Buenos Aires. Hernandez says he can take his cell phone out in public here without fear of being robbed or killed.

His mom often calls him from Caracas, crying that her boy is gone and may not come back.

"It's really hard. I miss my mom, my family, my house, my customs, my favorite foods," says Hernandez. But: "If Venezuela doesn't change, we don't want to go back."

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