BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA – The winter sun was setting over the Argentinian capital when Scarlett Jaimes walked out of the University of Palermo and onto the quiet street minutes after 5 p.m. Despite the creeping evening cold, the 23-year old from Caracas, Venezuela, wore a white t-shirt and navy-blue leggings, her shoulder-length dark brown hair kept untied. A small group of people waited on the sidewalk a few steps from the exit. They clutched eggs, cooking flower, mayonnaise, vinegar, and even some yerba mate. Jaimes steeled herself for what was about to happen. The group immediately surrounded and pounced on her. A minute later, Jaimes was covered from head to toes in sticky batter, her hair matted and her clothes filthy, laughing and squealing.
What an unaccustomed observer might have mistaken for an attack was actually a celebration. Jaimes had just graduated from the University of Palermo with an acting degree. And when people graduate from university in Argentina, it’s customary for their friends and family to gather up and douse them with all sorts of things – usually foodstuff but sometimes other nastier stuff too. This rite of passage is one of those national and cultural idiosyncrasies that defy easy explanation but which most graduates undergo. Many describe it as a cathartic moment, a moment of release after years of toil. For Jaimes, it was a symbolic milestone that cemented her bond to a country she had been living in for only three years after leaving her native Venezuela.
“I’d been waiting for this moment ever since I started my degree,” she told WikiTribune as she and her friends ambled from the university to her place, a 10-minute walk away. They joked and laughed as they went, while Jaimes thanked the occasional passerby who congratulated her. Her beaming smile and caked attire made her hard to miss.
Jaimes left Venezuela for the last time on July 14, 2015, after her father bought her a last-minute ticket to Buenos Aires the day before. Venezuela’s oil dependent economy had began to falter since the price of the oil barrel dropped from around $120 per barrel in mid-2014 to under $30 by early 2016, accelerating political instability and everyday violence. Jaimes told WikiTribune that 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. Scarlett had been contemplating moving to Argentina for some time because of its thriving cultural and artistic scene. But the suddenness of the decision came as a shock. “I had 24 hours to pack my life into two, 23 kilogram bags and leave Venezuela,” she told WikiTribune.
Despite being only 20 years old at the time, Jaimes had already been making a name for herself as an actor. She had recently finished the 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 spiralling into drugs, depression, domestic violence, and suicide. Jaimes played Valero’s wife in a film that was selected to represent Venezuela in the category for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars in 2017 (EFE) but which was also censored by Venezuela’s highest court (BBC Mundo).
When Jaimes arrived to 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, over twice the amount than the previous year. That number would more than double in 2016, and more than doubled 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 ($37 at current rate) per 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’ time in Argentina has had its ups and downs, but she says she wouldn’t go back to Venezuela. She’s happy here, despite being worried (as are most Argentinians) about an economy that seems close to recession (Bloomberg) and missing her family, who she hasn’t seen since she left Venezuela. Now that she’s graduated, she plans on dedicating 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 after a quick shower to wash off the remains of her graduation ceremony.
A national exodus with regional implications
Stories like Jaimes’ are becoming increasingly 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). Venezuelans WikiTribune spoke with 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 them over the edge 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 Belgrano, a neighborhood in downtown Buenos Aires. For Osuna, the episode left an indelible mark. He still recalls the exact contents of the shopping basket: “Zucaritas [a type of cereal], ham, cheese, and a Coke.”
Before that, Osuna had resisted Vegas’s calls to emigrate. He had 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,” said Osuna.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that the number of Venezuelan nationals living abroad has increased from 700,000 to 1.6 million between 2015 and 2017. 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 – make 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 them have crossed overland border into Colombia and Brazil, while 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 an “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 come into 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,” says Osuna. Once they had set their sights on Argentina, they made sure to learn as much as they could about their prospective home, sold their car and set aside the cash as an emergency cushion in case they couldn’t find employment, and 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 since.
The young couple said the main challenges they faced when they first arrived was finding a flat and stable employment. Buenos Aires’s more defined climate – colder winters, and hotter and more humid summers than Caracas’s – was also difficult to navigate at first. But through hard graft and frugality, the couple managed to save enough money to rent and furnish a small apartment. They now both send 1,000 pesos each in remittances to help their families get by in Venezuela. Osuna now works as a graphic designer for a global digital agency, while Vegas is a digital media analyst for a local digital agency.
Some older Venezuelans WikiTribune interviewed said their age made it harder to find and retain employment. Sexism is certain industries – particularly hospitality – is also a barrier to entry for women. And all of the people WikiTribune interviewed stressed the importance of “conscious migration” to avoid ending up penniless, with little to no support, and sleeping rough.
Part of the problem is due to the Venezuelan diaspora in Argentina still needing to organize civil societies capable of organizing and helping newcomers without having to depend on the Argentinian government, 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 (née Gladys Chirinos) told WikiTribune.
In general, however, Venezuelans seem to be integrating into Argentinian society without major incidents when compared to immigrants from other South American nations. Outside of a few isolated cases (Instagram, in Spanish), they 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 that 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 that the relatively low level of discrimination suffered by Venezuelans in Argentina compared to 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 with them transferable skill sets that employers want.
“Unfortunately for Venezuela, many of those migrating are professionals. So Argentina is benefiting from this migration because it is receiving highly-trained people who were educated by another state,” he told WikiTribune.