DUBAI: A Venezuelan man sits on the sidewalk of a city in chaos. He clutches a black gym bag, carrying all his possessions, forced to leave his home due to unbearable economic and political crises that have withered the country.
A world away, a Lebanese woman withdraws US dollars from her bank every week and tucks them under her bed for fear that the economy, and the currency, will crash. Both countries are suffering dire economic woe, yet more and more Venezuelans are migrating to Lebanon every year.
“When people leave Venezuela, they are not thinking: ‘I’m going back to Lebanon because there is no government.’ They are looking for work,” Amir Richani, a geopolitical analyst with ClipperData, told Arab News.
“The migration of Venezuelans is due to the economic situation. As long as it does not improve, we will only see more people leaving.”
Venezuela — sitting on the world’s largest oil reserves — has suffered economic meltdown under President Nicolas Maduro, marked by hyperinflation and shortages of basic necessities, including food and medicine.
Opposition leader Juan Guaido, who declared himself the interim president last week, argues that Maduro usurped the presidency following elections in May 2018, widely considered to have been fraudulent.
Yet despite this turmoil, what could possibly motivate Venezuelans to leave their country for one in as bad a condition as Lebanon?
It has been nine months since Saad Hariri was tasked with forming a government in Beirut. Lebanon has the third highest debt to GDP ratio in the world, and its economy is in tatters.
Last year, the global ratings agency Moody’s gave Lebanon’s economy a “low (+)” grade, due to “the deterioration in the regional economic and political environment.” This, and the fear of a real estate collapse, have taken the country to the brink.
Economic growth has plummeted. At a solid 9 percent before the Syrian conflict began in 2011, it has hovered around 1.1 percent for the past three years. Public debt stands at $82 billion, equivalent to 150 percent of GDP.
However, the Mediterranean country is still seen as a more stable option than Venezuela, where the value of the minimum wage keeps dropping with daily fluctuations in the price of dollars on the black market.
“Although many of them come back to Lebanon as Venezuelans, a big portion of them are still attached to their Lebanese roots,” Richani said. “So as long as Venezuela is in conflict, we will see a larger number of Lebanese descendants coming back or trying to come back to Lebanon.”
‘It’s sad and it’s frustrating’
Venezuela has long been a country with problems. Its capital, Caracas, is the second most dangerous city in the world, with a murder rate of 111 per 100,000 people. Its inflation rate has reached hyper levels as consumer prices rose 488,865 percent in the 12 months since September 2017, and it is ranked 139th of 140 countries in the world for corruption, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2018 Global Competitiveness Index.
According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, about 3 million people have fled Venezuela, with more expected to follow. Roughly 350,000 of Venezuela’s 32 million citizens are of Lebanese descent, while more than 12,000 Venezuelans are registered with the embassy in Beirut.
Lebanese-Venezuelan Rodan Imad was one of those who left. Imad fled Venezuela for the US in 2007 before moving to Beirut in 2011, after he and his family were robbed at gunpoint in their home, which was becoming a regular occurance.
“The sweat and hard work that my parents had put in, in just one night, was completely destroyed, and we just have to accept it,”
After he left for Beirut, Imad studied architecture at the American University, where many other Venezuelans also enrolled. While he was lucky enough to be able to afford the tuition, many others were not.
“I saw how people were coming from Venezuela, they were coming from very rough times, they lost their businesses, they lost all their savings,” Imad said.
“You see engineers who graduated from Venezuela, engineers and doctors, who come to Lebanon working in low-paying service jobs just to make ends meet. It wouldn’t be the same in Europe, but they don’t have any family elsewhere so have to come to Lebanon because they think they will feel secure. But when they arrive, it’s hell.”
While Lebanon is more financially and politically secure than Venezuela, it is still far from ideal. “Lebanon is not the land of opportunity. People just had to start again,” Imad said.
‘My second home’
As more Venezuelans of Lebanese descent arrived, a Latin American club at the American University of Beirut was formed to bring all those who had fled closer together and to create a community in their new home.
“We started out as 40 members who were mostly just Lebanese, but over the years, as more Venezuelans came, we reached higher numbers, with Venezuelans, Chileans and Colombians,” Ihab Richani, co-founder and former president of the club, told Arab News.
Apart from organizing Spanish classes and get-togethers, the club also tries to voice its members’ opinions on the conflict in the South American country.
“We try to, but we don’t have much of a voice here in Lebanon. We’ve reached 200-250 people in a protest, so it’s not a powerful voice, but at least it feels like home when we’re all from Venezuela, and everyone is interested in going back,” Amir, Ihab’s brother, said.
While they attend protests against the regime in Caracas, they also attend Lebanese protests. “It’s our second home, at the end
of the day.”