Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Venezuela, Uncertainty Spurs a Middle-Class Exodus

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Venezuela, Uncertainty Spurs a Middle-Class Exodus

Article excerpt

Mervin and Lissette, a middle-aged Venezuelan couple, never imagined they'd leave their hometown in Maracaibo, where virtually their whole family lives. But on a recent day, they sat in a Panama City real estate office and finalized the purchase of an apartment here.

The reason: they feel that under the governance of President Hugo Chavez, Venezuela faces an uncertain future.

Mr. Chavez won the presidential vote by an overwhelming majority last year, but when he was sworn in as president in January, his rhetoric shifted.

Now that he's calling for a referendum to reform the Constitution, including eliminating term limits for heads of state, this country is seeing a migration of middle-class residents who say they are fleeing economic and political instability and persistent crime.

"We never thought of living anywhere else. Venezuela is the most beautiful country in the world, and we have everything there. But if he reforms the Constitution, Venezuela is going to be a very dark place, and there is nothing we can do about it," says Lissette, tearing up. (She and Mervin did not want their family's last name published because they haven't left Venezuela for good yet.) "The truth is we need another option."

They are not alone. According to Luis Vicente Leon, the director of the polling company Datanalisis, 1 in 3 Venezuelans would consider leaving the country if they could. In addition to politics, they're driven by annual inflation of about 16 percent and a weakening national currency. Oil wealth has largely skipped over the middle class while blessing the rich and funding billion-dollar social programs.

The number of Venezuelans leaving is hard to nail down. According to the US Embassy in Caracas, the number of nonimmigrant visa cards has risen from 70,366 in 2003 to 109,586 last year.

But many Venezuelans are opting for other countries, as US immigration laws have tightened in the wake of 9/11. Nearby Panama, with a similar climate and political and economic stability, is a popular alternative.

"We've had millionaires here forever," says Jose Batista, the director of urban planning in the Ministry of Housing here. "But as soon as Chavez won, we began to see Venezuelan restaurants and small businesses opening across the city."

At one such restaurant, dubbed the "Bakery of the Venezuelans", newcomers congregate nearly every morning. Carolina Belmonte, eating there on a recent day, relocated six months ago to Panama City with her husband and brother after looking at Costa Rica, Spain, and Miami. …

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