Venezuela native Manuel González, a 24-year-old laboratory technician graduate, had envisioned a special moment when he traveled last year from his home in Colombia to surprise his mother in Maracaibo in the western region of his homeland.
He planned to hug his mom and then shout ‘I love you!’ as loud as he could. But when he finally saw her after being apart for a year, he froze in disbelief. Olivia, a former secretary in her early fifties, had lost so much weight that the skin on her face and body were translucent, the bones protruding.
Despite the 600,000 Colombian pesos (about $188) González sent every month from neighboring Colombia to help pay mostly for food, his mother’s emaciated body served as evidence that there is little to buy.
“I didn’t yell that I loved her. I only yelled at myself. I told myself that it was time to take Mom to Colombia with me,” González said.
Olivia now lives with her son in Bogotá, about 600 miles away from her former hometown. Since her move in March, she has regained some weight.
“She was a burden in Venezuela, financially speaking. I’m now saving 60 percent of the money that I was sending to her to live in Venezuela. I feel more relieved both emotionally and economically,” said González, who currently has a job at a call center for a local telecom provider and earns the equivalent of about $700 per month.
Like González, thousands of other Venezuelan migrants who fled their homeland years ago to find work and send remittances to relatives are now opting to take their parents out of Venezuela as the quality of life there continues to deteriorate.
Venezuela’s withering economy has been fueling the increasing exodus of an elderly population, which up until recently had been reluctant to leave.
Hyperinflation is at unprecedented levels. The opposition-led National Assembly calculated the inflation rate from May 2018 to May 2019 at 815,194 percent.
The cost of food, medicine and basic needs is extremely high. In a country where the current minimum monthly income is about $5, the cost of 2.2 pounds of flour or rice can swallow a quarter of average earnings. And a box of 30 pills of acetaminophen can cost as much as $10 dollars.
Venezuelans living abroad say it is cheaper to pull their parents out of the country than try to support them with remittances.
Just three years ago, even with the brewing political and economic turmoil, $50 per month was enough to buy groceries and even pay for so-called luxuries like going to the movies or eating out. Not anymore.
Isabel Leal, who fled Venezuela five years ago with a degree in engineering from Zulia State University, sends a box every month filled with food and basic necessities to be delivered to her mother’s house in the western region of the country.
Leal, who now lives in Boca Raton, said it is cheaper to purchase and ship the products from Florida rather than send the cash to her mother, who suffers from breast cancer.
Most of the products are pricier in Venezuela. “If I send her $100, that wouldn’t last two days in Venezuela. The difference is abysmal. It is absurd,” Leal said.
Asdrúbal Oliveros, a well-respected economist, has publicly stated that the cost of living in Venezuela — calculated in U.S. dollars — went up 554 percent between December 2017 and April 2019.
“Not too long ago, few dollars served to bear the costs in Venezuela. Whoever had foreign currency lived in ‘a fantasy world’ but that changed. In December 2017, a family of four in Venezuela needed $110 dollars for basic expenses. In April of this year, they needed $720,” Oliveros recently posted in Spanish on his social media feed.
That simple but overwhelming math led a TV producer to decide to get his mother — a former teacher and lawyer in her 60s — out of Venezuela earlier this year and have her join him in Connecticut. His mother flew to the United States on a tourist visa, overstayed and is seeking asylum.
Monthly remittances of $150, which he began to send in 2015 to help his mother while she was in Venezuela, multiplied to $500 three years later.
“I made the decision to keep her here with us after I realized that I was going to spend more money supporting her in Venezuela,” said the producer, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear that his mother’s asylum request would be rejected.
The logical move
Sara Mouallen Silva, 38, thought she would be able to support both of her parents when she moved from Venezuela to Lebanon five years ago and then to Panama.
Her parents’ home in Maracaibo, in western Venezuela, was equipped with a water well and a generator to endure the collapse of basic services. But as fuel prices increased, so did their level of anxiety and uneasiness.
“A little after my father died, I brought my mom to Panama. The expenses are practically the same as what I spent having her in Venezuela,” Silva said.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Venezuelans are one of the single largest population groups displaced from their country.
An estimated 4 million Venezuelans have recently fled, according to UNHCR and IOM data. That means that 12 percent of Venezuela’s 30 million residents have left their homeland mostly to neighboring countries, including Colombia, Peru, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Argentina as well as various places in the Caribbean and United States.
According to the latest Encuesta sobre Condiciones de Vida (National Survey on Life Conditions), which is conducted annually by college professors in Venezuela, about 90 percent of the mass exodus has been happening since 2015.
The poll concluded that 88 percent of Venezuelan migrants were of working age, between 15 and 59 years old.
For those elderly parents opting to join their children abroad, it is often a matter of life or death, even as they struggle to adjust.
Seventy-five-year-old Esmeiz Faneite, who moved to Miami last year with her daughter and her granddaughter, is homesick. She uses her cellphone to stay up-to-date on all that is happening in Venezuela and daydreams about a political change that would allow her to return.
Faneite, who is about five-feet tall, dropped to 79 pounds during her final days in Venezuela. In the year since arriving in Miami, she’s regained 30 pounds and is now receiving medical treatment for neuralgia, which she could not find or afford for months at a time in Venezuela.
“I would have wanted my mom to spend her last years in her country,” said her daughter Emely Faneite. “Circumstances led us to this. If she had stayed in Venezuela, she would probably be dead now.”