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On April 2014 a loud explosion woke Yeraldin Moreno-Perez, at 5 a.m. in her apartment in Caracas, Venezuela. She heard yelling by her window. Through the glass, she looked down and saw university students being violently attacked by Venezuela’s military after the students’ protest closed down the roads. As the brutal scene unfolded in front of her eyes, fear and helplessness coursed through her veins.
“I didn’t feel free,” she said.
On that night Moreno-Perez told her husband they had to leave Venezuela. Six months later, in October 2014, they arrived in Sydney, Australia, to start a new life — a safe life.
Since 2014, more than 2.3 million Venezuelans have fled the country. Venezuela was once known as one of the wealthiest countries in South America thanks to its massive oil reserves, however, since the rise of President Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s problems have continued to worsen. It is estimated that more than seven per cent of the Venezuelan population has fled in the last ten years. Dr Luis Angosto-Ferrandez, a Latin American scholar and researcher from the University of Sydney, said that the most common reason why Latin American citizens find themselves fleeing their birth nation is due to unstable political and economic situations. Venezuela, in particular, has seen a rapid depreciation of the bolivar — its local currency — seeing hyperinflation of 536.2 per cent in 2017. As of May 2020, one Australian dollar is equivalent to 133,349 bolivars, and the average minimum salary earned monthly in Venezuela is 400,000 bolivars (3 AUD), but the average cost of a loaf of sliced bread is more than 380,000 bolivars. As a result, the economic situation in Venezuela is next to impossible to survive in.
“Migration is the only option for economic stability,” said Angosto-Ferrandez.
Many Venezuelan citizens also face the problem of living through daily power outages that last an average of 12 hours, having little to no access to running water for days or weeks, on top of little to no food security. The power outages and lack of utilities do not discriminate between city or wealth. Moreno-Perez lived in Caracas, the capital city of Venezuela, with a leadership position in HR that gave her an above-average lifestyle.
“If I don’t have water service or electricity, it’s normal that I complain. We pay for that,” she said.
Venezuelans in smaller cities run into shortages and outages more frequently, and they can last for days. Residents of Maracaibo went three days without access to basic utilities, while some other areas of the country spent more than ten days without any access. A mother of two young children at the age of five and two, Mariangel Cabrera, is one of the lucky ones in Venezuela that still has a livable income from her own business. Regardless, Cabrera and her family have gone two days without any access to electricity or running water in the past.
“When there is no light, we ask [the children] to have patience with the hope that it will arrive quickly,” said Cabrera. “They listen and don’t fuss too much, but every now and then they ask ‘Mami, is the water coming yet?'”
During a blackout in 2019, their auto repair shop was robbed, and they lost nearly everything. Cabrera wishes to leave Venezuela to give her family a chance at a better life. However, every time she attempted to get paperwork such as passports for herself and her children with the correct visas, the embassy denied her application after taking away the hard-earned equivalent of 600 AUD in bolivars she had to saved up to apply without explaining what was wrong with the application. She’s one of the lucky ones, she has a family business that does okay even when it is hard to find car parts for her customers, but Cabrera wants to leave. She has places she could go where she will have support, such as Panama City, Miami and Sydney, but the Venezuelan government is not letting her escape to a safer place to live. For now all Cabrera and her family can do is hope that in the future, Venezuela will become better and fix its problems of bad administration.
Cabrera and Moreno-Perez have also endured the fear of nearly losing their husbands. Moreno-Perez’s husband was assaulted and robbed several times while living in Caracas and was almost kidnapped on a separate occasion.
Leaving Venezuela is not a choice but the only option for a chance at a better future for many. However, according to Angosto-Ferrandez, only those with the economic resources to leave will make a move, such as individuals from high social profiles, the educated and the middle class. But even with those boxes ticked off, there is no guarantee a Venezuelan citizen can leave.
Since 2010, Australia has seen a 70 per cent increase of Venezuelan migrants making Australia their new home. According to the 2016 Australian census, there were more than 5,400 Venezuelan-born individuals living in Australia, a 360 per cent increase from the 1,500 individuals who were documented in the census ten years prior.
The social background of an individual and their resources is what determines if an immigrant will go to a neighbouring country or be able to fly to a place like Australia. The higher their economic status, the more likely they can afford to emigrate by aircraft. Venezuelan immigrants residing in Australia have an average age of 35 years old and are more likely to come from well-educated backgrounds with university degrees.
Michael Maldonado, 36, decided to leave Venezuela in 2008 when he learnt he was going to have a son. At the time his options were Chile, Canada and Australia.
“The country was not getting better,” he said. “I was scared of [Chile] earthquakes; I needed to learn French [for Canada]. I needed to go to a place where the second language that I have can help me out, and that’s when I discovered Australia.”
By 2009 Maldonado registered with an immigration agency to get help with an Australian permanent residency visa application. He arrived in Sydney with his son and wife in October 2012 with no real help from the immigration agency except a sheet of paper with numbers of institutions they could contact like Centrelink.
“I did my visa process with an agency that told me I had the best profile and would find a job easy. But when I came, it wasn’t the case. It was more difficult than I thought, more difficult than I expected,” he said. At the time of Maldonado’s application he was a young man with a mechanical engineering degree which was in high demand in Australia’s job market.
In 2016, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection received more than 3,000 similar applications of Venezuelans requesting for approval to move to Australia on permanent and temporary visas.
In 2015, three years after arriving in Sydney, Maldonado found himself creating a YouTube channel called: el CocoMike. With nearly 9,000 subscribers as of today, Maldonado makes videos in Spanish to advise those who are considering moving to Australia, what to expect, and the reality of how difficult the immigrant life can be. His most popular videos are the ones where he talks about the visa application process for coming to Australia.
“I wanted to speak about my experience; there was a lot of heartaches. A lot of this is not what I expected,” he said.
It was not the picture-perfect idea that the immigration agency gave him. Maldonado had to figure out how to survive and live in Sydney on his own, with no family or friends around to support him.
Meanwhile, Moreno-Perez was one of the lucky immigrants who already had family in Sydney. Her older brother provided her all the support she needed to live in Sydney. After that night in April 2014, Moreno-Perez left her high-paying HR job in Venezuela and found herself being a student again in her 50s. She recently completed a diploma in project management and began a new diploma in January. She wants to change her student visa status to a more permanent one, so she is currently looking for job opportunities that will sponsor her application.
For many immigrants, the hardest part of leaving is having to start from zero someplace new and not knowing anyone. The fear of being somebody and becoming nobody can be too much to bear. Maldonado and Moreno-Perez both struggled to find jobs in their early lives in Sydney. Maldonado was a mechanical engineer in Venezuela, but in Sydney he is a salesman and a YouTuber. However, Maldonado is happy no longer being a mechanical engineer because communicating and content creation was the passion he was not allowed to pursue while at university in Venezuela.
While having nearly 6,000 Venezuelans residing in Australia is not a significant number compared to immigrants from other countries, there is no doubt that the Latin American community has slowly been growing in Australia. Angosto-Ferrandez does not believe that the immigration numbers will slow down any time soon for Latin Americans. We will have to wait for the 2021 Australia Census to see if the growth of Venezuelans in Australia will rise, if Venezuela continues to deteriorate and not protect its people.