The winter sun was setting over Buenos Aires when Scarlett Jaimes walked out of the University of Palermo and onto a quiet street. Despite the creeping evening cold, the 23-year-old from Caracas, Venezuela, wore only a white T-shirt and navy blue leggings. Nearby, a small group of people on the sidewalk clutched eggs, flour, mayonnaise, vinegar and even some yerba mate. Jaimes barely had time to react. The group surrounded and pounced on her. A minute later, she was covered from head to toe in sticky batter, her shoulder-length brown hair was matted and her clothes were filthy.
What an uninformed observer might have mistaken for a brutal attack, however, was actually a celebration. Jaimes, who laughed and squealed while being assailed, had just graduated from the University of Palermo in the Argentinian capital with a degree in acting.
When students graduate from universities in Argentina, it’s customary for friends and family to gather and douse them with all sorts of things – usually foodstuff but sometimes nastier items, as well. The rite of passage is one of those national idiosyncrasies that defy easy explanation, but which most graduates endure.
Many describe it as cathartic, a moment of release after years of toil. For Jaimes, it was a milestone that cemented her bond to a country she’d been living in for three years since leaving her native Venezuela.
“I’d been waiting for this moment ever since I started my degree,” Jaimes told WikiTribune, as she and her friends ambled from the university to her home, a 10-minute walk away. The group joked and laughed as they made their way up the street, and Jaimes thanked the occasional passerby who congratulated her. Her broad smile and caked attire made her hard to miss.
Fleeing home and career
Jaimes left Venezuela in July 2015 and she’s never returned. Her father bought her a last-minute ticket to Buenos Aires the day before her departure and that was that. Venezuela’s oil-dependent economy had begun to falter when the price of oil dropped from around $120 per barrel in mid-2014 to under $30 by early 2016. The subsequent financial shortfall accelerated political instability and violence around Venezuela.
Jaimes told WikiTribune she and her father had barely managed to escape three kidnapping attempts in the previous seven months. Her father, a self-employed businessman, felt he could no longer ensure her safety. He wanted her out of the country.
Jaimes had been contemplating a move to Argentina for some time. The country’s thriving cultural and artistic scenes appealed to her. But the suddenness of the decision was a shock.
“I had 24 hours to pack my life into two, 23-kilogram bags and leave Venezuela,” she said.
Just 20 at the time, Jaimes had already made a name for herself as an actor in Venezuela. She’d recently finished a 12-week shoot for a major part in El Inca (IMDb), a film about the life and death of Edwin “El Inca” Valero, a Venezuelan boxer who became an undefeated world champion in the mid-2000s before spiraling into drugs, depression, domestic violence and suicide. Jaimes played Valero’s wife in a film that was selected to represent Venezuela in the Best Foreign Film category at the Academy Awards in 2017 (EFE), but which was also censored by Venezuela’s highest court (BBC Mundo).
When Jaimes arrived in Argentina, she had few friends and a career to start from scratch. She was one of 5,798 Venezuelans to settle in Argentina in 2015, more than twice the amount that had come the previous year. That number would more than double in 2016, and more than double again in 2017 to reach 31,167, according to official migration statistics (in Spanish).
She enrolled at the Universidad de Palermo and found a job as a waitress at a bar in Recoleta, an affluent porteño neighborhood. As the economic situation back home deteriorated, she started sending 1,000 pesos (about $37) a month to her mother.
“The first time I sent her money, she told me, ‘I’m rich. I went from counting how much money I needed to make ends meet to being rich.’ With 1,000 pesos! What can you do here with 1,000 pesos?” said Jaimes. Argentina’s 2018 minimum wage is 10,000 pesos ($366) per month, according to national news agency Télam.
Jaimes’ life in Argentina hasn’t been perfect, but she says she won’t go back to Venezuela. She’s happy here, despite being worried (as most Argentinians are) about an economy that seems close to recession (Bloomberg). She misses her family, who she hasn’t seen since she left Venezuela. But now that she’s graduated, she plans to dedicate herself full-time to acting.
“I thank this country for all it’s given me in such a short space of time,” she said, sitting at the kitchen table of her apartment in Palermo, which she shares with friends.
National exodus, regional implications
Stories like Jaimes’ have become common in Argentina, where almost 70,000 Venezuelans – most of them economically active young adults with university degrees – have settled since 2015, according to official Argentinian statistics (in Spanish). The more than 10 Venezuelans WikiTribune spoke with for this story said they seek stability and a shot at a normal life abroad as Venezuela’s economy implodes, violence levels soar and its government becomes increasingly authoritarian.
Edgar Osuna, 28, and Daniela Vegas, 26, remember the exact moment that tipped the scales and made them decide to leave Venezuela. It was mid-2016, and the couple were out shopping for groceries in Caracas, where they both held full-time jobs in advertising, but lived with Osuna’s parents to save money.
“We were paying for one small purchase that had at most 10 items and we spent both our salaries, which we had just been paid,” Vegas told WikiTribune while sitting at a Starbucks in the Belgrano neighborhood of downtown Buenos Aires.
Being hit with the reality of their paltry purchasing power left an indelible mark on Osuna. “Zucaritas [a type of cereal], ham, cheese and a Coke,” he says, reciting the exact contents of their shopping basket.
Before that shopping trip, Osuna had resisted Vegas’s suggestions to emigrate. He’d recently started a new job at a big advertising agency in Caracas, and they both led relatively comfortable lives.
“But at that moment, I said, ‘Let’s leave.’ Because I almost started crying at the till,” he said.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that between 2015 and 2017 the number of Venezuelan nationals living abroad increased from 700,000 to 1.6 million. Last year alone, up to 900,000 Venezuelans emigrated, as the world’s highest rate of inflation (Forbes) and a shortage of basic goods – particularly food and medicine – made life in the once-prosperous Caribbean country intolerable. (Precise migration estimates are unavailable because Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s government does not publish official statistics.)
Most of these emigres have crossed overland borders into Colombia and Brazil. Others have headed further south to Chile, Peru and Ecuador, and north to Central America. The head of the World Food Programme, David Beasley, called the situation a “humanitarian disaster.” In April 2018, the IOM launched a multi-million dollar, two-year program involving 19 countries to “strengthen the response to large-scale migration of Venezuelan nationals in South America, North America, Central America and the Caribbean.”
In 2017, Venezuelans overtook Colombians to become the third-largest immigrant group behind Paraguayans and Bolivians to settle in Argentina. Venezuelans still constitute a fraction of the total foreign-born population of Argentina, estimated at around five percent of the country’s almost 44 million inhabitants, according to a recently published report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). However, the surge in numbers has spurred the Argentinian government to formulate specific policies to manage the influx. These include relaxing certain residency requirements to make it easier for Venezuelans to enter the formal economy, and a program to incentivize newcomers to settle in the interior of the country, given that most are settling in Buenos Aires.
“We seek to direct migrants to where they are necessary for the development of the country and where they can better integrate by applying their knowledge or skills,” Horacio García, head of Argentina’s National Direction for Migrations (DNM), told WikiTribune.
New beginnings, new challenges
Osuna and Vegas, who had also considered moving to Chile, said the relative ease with which they could enter and work legally in Argentina was a key factor in moving here. They also took into account how best to leverage their professional skills.
“For us ad people, Argentina is the mecca of advertising,” said Osuna. Once they decided on Argentina, they made sure to learn as much as they could about their prospective home. They sold their car and set aside the cash as an emergency cushion in case they couldn’t find employment. They stayed up late every night scouring the national airline’s website for cheap tickets to Buenos Aires. They left Venezuela in November 2016 and haven’t returned.
The young couple said the main challenges they faced upon arrival were finding a flat and stable employment. The Buenos Aires climate – colder winters, hotter and more humid summers than in Caracas – was difficult to navigate at first. But through hard work and frugality, the couple managed to save enough money to rent and furnish a small apartment. They now each send 1,000 pesos a month to help their families get by in Venezuela. Osuna works as a graphic designer for Wunderman, a global digital agency, while Vegas is a digital media analyst for Webar Interactive, a digital marketing agency.
Some older Venezuelans told WikiTribune their age made it harder to find and retain employment. Sexism in certain industries – particularly hospitality – is also a barrier to entry for women. But each of the 10 or so immigrants WikiTribune interviewed for this story stressed the importance of “conscious migration” to avoid ending up penniless, with little or no support.
The Venezuelan diaspora in Argentina still needs to organize civil societies capable of helping newcomers, without having to depend on the Argentinian government for assistance, according to Azabache, a Venezuelan artist, musician and political activist who has lived in Argentina for almost two decades.
“I don’t know if the [Argentinian] government knows all the problems that exist, because there are many Venezuelans arriving who are on the streets,” Azabache told WikiTribune.
Mostly peaceful assimilation
In general, Venezuelans seem to be integrating into Argentinian society without major incidents, especially when compared with immigrants from other South American nations. Outside of a few isolated cases (Instagram, in Spanish), Venezuelans seem to be spared the discrimination experienced by immigrants from Paraguay, Bolivia and Peru.
Diego Morales, director of litigation and legal defense at the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), a local human rights organization, told WikiTribune that CELS hadn’t done enough work to determine to what extent discrimination against Venezuelans was an issue in Argentina. He suggested the discrimination suffered by other groups of immigrants, generally less well-educated and often quite poor, was due to prejudices that mixed class and race.
In 2017, Argentina’s National Institute Against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism (INADI) – a government body responsible for receiving complaints and pursuing charges against citizens accused of acts of discrimination or hatred – pursued six nationality-based discrimination cases brought by Venezuelans, according to official documents (in Spanish) seen by WikiTribune, from a total of 155 instances.
Aníbal Gutierrez, INADI’s director of promotion and development of practices against discrimination, suggested the relatively low level of discrimination suffered by Venezuelans in Argentina compared with immigrants from other South American countries is explained by the fact that their numbers remain low in absolute terms, and because Venezuelans coming into the country are generally well-educated and bring transferable skill sets employers want.
“Unfortunately for Venezuela, many of those migrating are professionals,” he told WikiTribune. “So Argentina is benefiting from this migration because it is receiving highly trained people who were educated by another state.”