Venezuela’s Crisis Has Professionals Scrubbing Toilets in Miami

The newest wave of migrants is arriving with college degrees and not much else.

Andrea Jimenez.

Photographer: Rose Marie Cromwell for Bloomberg Businessweek

The newest members of the Venezuelan diaspora can be found every Friday at the Value Store It Self Storage in Doral, Fla. On the fluorescent-bright fourth floor, four units are stacked to the ceiling with donated sheet sets, towels, dishes, toys, clothes, and, on this day, 60 boxes of floral slip-on women’s shoes. The recipients begin arriving at 2 p.m.: a public accountant and his journalist wife, a veterinarian, a registered nurse with her baby and 10-year-old daughter in tow. All have been in the U.S. for mere months. “I didn’t know there were places like this,” says Idianna Diaz, the nurse, who started to cry after collecting some kitchenware and a microwave.

Patricia Andrade

Andrade.

Photographer: Rose Marie Cromwell for Bloomberg Businessweek

They’re mostly young, educated professionals and have been arriving in greater numbers as they flee political persecution or the collapsing economy. In Doral, a Miami suburb where Venezuelans and Americans of Venezuelan extraction represent more than a third of the population, Patricia Andrade says she began fielding desperate calls in 2015. “There were so many of them,” says Andrade, who emigrated from Caracas in the 1980s. “They needed everything.” To help the new arrivals get on their feet, she founded a charity that solicits donations from the community. Her organization now stages the weekly giveaways.

There are no official statistics on how many Venezuelans have emigrated, but according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, they ranked No. 1 among asylum seekers in the fiscal year ended in March, with 14,525 applications filed—up from 2,181 in 2014. Data compiled by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security show that the number of Venezuelans who overstayed their travel visas jumped 78 percent, to 12,729, in 2015 from a year earlier.

Once upon a time, people didn’t flee Venezuela; they flocked to it. “Venezuela has always been a country of immigrants, not emigrants,” says Tomás Páez, a Venezuelan sociologist and author of the 2015 book The Voice of the Venezuelan Diaspora. From the 1960s on, he says, the country was a “big magnet,” attracting Europeans, particularly Spaniards, and South Americans. Among its draws were a temperate climate, an oil-fueled economy, and a history of democratic rule. The Concorde flew to Caracas from Paris. Venezuelans would hop over to Miami for a little shopping. “That’s cheap; I’ll take two” was their trademark phrase.

Then in 1999, Hugo Chávez swept into power and instituted a program of petroleum-funded socialism and strongman rule. Before his death in 2013, Chávez annointed a successor, Nicolás Maduro, to lead the Bolivarian Revolution. By then the price of oil was falling, plunging the economy into a recession made more painful by rigid price and currency controls that have caused critical shortages of everything from basic food staples to cancer drugs. The International Monetary Fund estimates gross domestic product contracted 18 percent last year and will shrink an additional 7 percent in 2017. Inflation this year is expected to average 720 percent a month.

The richest were the first to leave, soon after Chávez took office, followed by oil workers who headed to Texas, Calgary, and Saudi Arabia when the government purged the ranks of the national petroleum company. Many in the latest wave are middle-class professionals, which is why some are calling the exodus a brain drain. Páez estimates that by 2014 more than 2 million Venezuelans were living abroad. The country has a population of about 31 million.

In Miami the first arrivals brought resources with them and built import and export businesses and political muscle, marching against Chávez and Maduro. The growing Venezuelan presence is visible in the Brickell financial district, where some of the new residential high-rises boast colorful, distinctively Venezuelan geometric facades.

Helene Villalonga

Villalonga.

Photographer: Rose Marie Cromwell for Bloomberg Businessweek

The newest immigrants often come with little more than the clothes on their backs. “We’ve found Venezuelans sleeping in cars,” says Helene Villalonga, the founder of a women’s association for Venezuelan women living abroad. “The people that have been coming since 2014, everyone is a professional. Everyone is capable of working, of contributing.”

Sony Betancourt fled the country with 24 hours’ notice in December 2015. In Caracas he owned a graphic design and art installation business. When an officer in the Venezuelan military asked to use his company to launder money, Betancourt, now 30, says he refused, and filed a complaint. An intelligence officer warned his mother, a retired secretary with the military, that her son needed to leave, and fast. Betancourt found a flight to Florida through Trinidad and packed a carry-on bag and $1,000. When he arrived, he bunked with six other Venezuelans in a Miami apartment, paying $200 a month to sleep on a couch.

“I know so many people here from good families, families that had money, from good parts of town who went to good schools and colleges,” Betancourt says. “They’re all here driving Ubers, washing cars, anything.” The university graduate now cleans hotel rooms from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., attends English classes from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m., and then works various art freelance projects in the afternoon. The hotel job pays $8.50 an hour—enough to cover his living expenses, along with the medicines he used to send to his mother back home. She died of cancer three months ago.

Sony Betancourt

Betancourt.

Photographer: Rose Marie Cromwell for Bloomberg Businessweek

He’s also paying off the $2,500 cost of his asylum application; he’s allowed to stay in the country and work while it’s being processed. “There are paralegals who charge $6,000” to help file an application, says Betancourt, who got a break by using a nongovernmental organization where a friend works.

Over coffee in Miami’s financial district, Betancourt and Andrea Jimenez, who was a TV journalist in Venezuela, tick off all they’ve done to earn money since arriving in the U.S.: delivering food, baby-sitting, dog walking, gardening, busing tables, construction. Betancourt considers restaurant work the most humiliating, because, in addition to waiting on diners, he had to clean toilets: “Most Venezuelan immigrants here are professionals. But here you’re the same as a Dominican or a Bolivian or a Nicaraguan who never had an education.”

Jimenez was jailed in 2014 because her social media coverage of street protests angered the Maduro administration. As an emigrant, she hit emotional rock bottom when she put on a particularly ugly green uniform for a food delivery job, she says. “I looked in the mirror and thought, Just look at yourself, the big TV journalist. I cried. I cried a lot, in fact.”

Both miss Venezuela. But like 80 percent of the approximately 900 emigrants Páez and his researchers interviewed for his book, neither plans to return.

Hundreds attended a May 8 rally at a restaurant in Doral that specializes in arepas, a type of corn cake that’s a staple of the Venezuelan diet. The guest of honor was Florida Governor Rick Scott, who presented an award to jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López in absentia and called for the immediate release of all political prisoners in Venezuela. The crowd chanted “Stop buying the oil!” and broke into the national anthem.

In an interview after the rally, Doral’s Cuban-born mayor, Juan Carlos Bermudez, said the federal government should consider adding Venezuela to the list of about a dozen countries eligible for temporary protected status. That would mean Venezuelans living in the U.S. illegally couldn’t be deported and would be permitted to work while they apply for residency. Says Bermudez: “I think an argument can be made that Venezuelans today are suffering much of what has been happening in Central and South America in the last 20 years.”

The bottom line: Venezuelans have been emigrating in greater numbers. Many are professionals who don’t plan to return.

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