What Venezuelan Migrants Are Fleeing

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Mary Harris: In the blitz of coverage about those private planes that carried dozens of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard last month. There’s this one fact I can’t stop thinking about. It’s about where these migrants were coming from. Not Mexico, not Guatemala, but Venezuela. There are seven countries between the United States and Venezuela. That means the people on those planes were at the end of a very long trip. Cindy Arnson from the Wilson Center’s Latin America program. She wasn’t surprised by who was on this plane. She says over the last few years, 20% of Venezuela’s population has fled.

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Speaker 2: Sometimes they’re coming directly from Venezuela. Sometimes they’re coming from other countries to which they had migrated to leave Venezuela. The reality that people need to focus on is that the numbers of people from Venezuela, from Nicaragua, from Cuba, all left wing dictatorships that are opposed not just by the Biden administration, but by the Republican Party, by Ron DeSantis himself, the governor of Florida. Those are the countries that have seen a surge in arrivals at the U.S. border.

Mary Harris: Did it strike you as kind of ironic?

Speaker 2: It’s probably something that Governor Santos was not paying a lot of attention to.

Mary Harris: To understand why so many people are fleeing Venezuela. In particular, just go check out the State Department’s website. The U.S. government explicitly advises against going to Venezuela yourself due to rampant crime, civil unrest, poor health, infrastructure and kidnapping, among other things. If you go anyway, the State Department recommends you draft a will leave DNA samples with a medical provider and be prepared for an indefinite stay. All of which helps to explain why migrants would journey so far by foot by car, and then end up on this flight north. One migrant told the New York Times he had been robbed at gunpoint and then watched a friend drown while crossing the Rio Grande River.

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Speaker 2: And I think people who undertake the journey in some ways are aware of the risks. But despite the risks, I think that it is worth it to try to get to the United States and to leave the situation that they’re in. Within Venezuela, it’s an economy that has collapsed and collapsed dramatically. It is the largest economic collapse outside of war time, something like an 80% decline in GDP in a very short number of years.

Mary Harris: Yeah, I realize at some point, reading that man’s story, that life in Venezuela must have been intolerable for you to keep going as you’re watching people die around you, as you’re getting robbed and going on foot and by car up to the United States.

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Speaker 2: And yet large numbers of people do make it to the U.S. border. And what happens to them when they get to the border is, I think, what has become so politically controversial in this country.

Mary Harris: Today on the show, what is behind this stunning demographic shift at the border and why can’t the U.S. figure out what to do with these asylum seekers once they cross? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around.

Mary Harris: Cindy Arnson says understanding what happened to those migrants in Martha’s Vineyard starts with understanding what they left behind. Venezuela has been teetering on collapse for years, led by a series of violent dictators. Nicolas Maduro took over in 2013, but he uses the same moves perfected by his predecessor, Hugo Chavez.

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Speaker 2: Well, the playbook was mostly, I think, implemented during the Charvis years, where many private sector enterprises were expropriated, where independent journalism was shut down, where there were extreme limitations on opposition political activity. It is a country that has hundreds of political prisoners, that uses torture, threats against people’s families. The United Nations Human Rights Council just issued about a week ago around the time of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, a report, a report accusing the regime of crimes against humanity.

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Mary Harris: So an authoritarian regime for sure, but also largely dependent on oil revenue. And oil is volatile in terms of its price, which has caused problems for the whole economy. Right.

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Speaker 2: It’s not just the price volatility, although that is an important aspect of virtually all commodity exports. Venezuela has the largest known oil reserves in the world. It is a petro state. Its principal economic activity has to do with the extraction and marketing of oil. The oil sector has also collapsed due to the lack of maintenance of facilities due to corruption. The mass stealing of government resources from the state owned oil company Televisa.

Mary Harris: So how does all this chaos impact ordinary Venezuelans lives? My understanding is it’s incredibly hard to get health care. It’s incredibly hard sometimes to get food.

Speaker 2: All of those things are true. And this was particularly evident during the COVID crisis where hospitals were overstretched. There are very good studies by universities and non-governmental organizations in Venezuela that have documented the looting of hospitals, the lack of availability of even the most basic medicines. That said, people who can pay in dollars to a private clinic, which very few Venezuelans have access to, can get pretty decent medical care.

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Speaker 2: The same thing Those who have dollars can find food products at very high prices, but the average Venezuelan does not have access to that. There is a government subsidized food box that does not make it through more than maybe a week or or ten days of the month. It’s not enough to get by on and this is one of the main drivers of this really extraordinary outflow of Venezuelans to principally other countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, but increasingly now to the U.S. border.

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Mary Harris: And this is happening even though there’s been a bit of a rebound in terms of the oil economy, given Ukraine.

Speaker 2: Right. Well, after an economy collapses to go back to growth, rates of six or 7% is heralded as a turnaround. But what it basically means is that, you know, you’re going from being on life support to one less critically needed intervention. It is not a healthy economy and the oil sector is a shadow of its former self and a shadow of even what it was during the government of Chavez.

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Mary Harris: Listeners might remember that a few years ago there was this moment of hope for some people in Venezuela because an opposition leader, this man named Juan Guaido, was declared the rightful president, but he never took office. Nicolas Maduro remained in power. It seems to me like the country has been in this protracted stalemate politically.

Speaker 2: Well, let’s go back to the emergence of of Guaido. As I mentioned, he came out of the National Assembly, which was controlled by the opposition, which won power through highly skewed elections and in the regime’s favor, but nonetheless, the opposition. One Guaido’s interim presidency was strongly embraced by the United States by about 50 other governments around the world as legitimate government. But he remained for all of his courage and the symbol of hope and optimism that he represented largely a figurehead.

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Speaker 3: It’s been three years since Opposition Leader Juan Guaido was deemed the winner of Venezuela’s presidential election. But despite international support for Guaido, President Nicolas Maduro continues to lead the embattled country, which is undergoing a shrinking economy and a growing humanitarian and refugee crisis. For more on Venezuela.

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Speaker 2: And to the extent that one can honestly assess public opinion within Venezuela, there is obviously a great desire for change. There is a lot of skepticism and I think a pessimism regarding the chances that that will happen. But given the Guaido interim presidency’s an ability to actually deliver sort of concrete benefits, changes on the ground, his popularity has fallen and Maduro remains very, very low.

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Mary Harris: So I can see why an average Venezuelan would look at all this. And just think. Well, we tried to have a political change. It didn’t work. Things are still pretty bad here. Why not take a risk and try to go north? That seems to be like the calculus most people are making.

Speaker 2: Well, I think the calculus that people make is that their only hope of a better life is to leave. And more than 20% of the population have left with the bulk of those people leaving since 2014. It’s a very short period of time. And I think it’s important to point out that countries of South America in particular, but also the Caribbean, are bearing the brunt of this. We understand the politicisation of the refugee crisis here in the United States, but Colombia alone is home to about two and a half million Venezuelans. This is after its own economy was hit by the COVID pandemic and now by this, you know, huge increase in energy and food prices and inflation interest rates. So these are countries that have even less wherewithal to deal with these massive inflows.

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Speaker 2: The final point on this is that the Caribbean has far fewer numbers in terms of like the gross numbers. But as a percentage of its population, the small island states of the Caribbean have a much larger percentage of Venezuelans relative to their own domestic population than any place in the world.

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Mary Harris: After the break, what happens to Venezuelan migrants who do make it to the U.S.? The answer is it’s complicated.

Mary Harris: While lots of Venezuelan migrants settle somewhere between their home country and the U.S., more and more are making their way further north. So I asked Cindy Arnson what happens once they get to the U.S.?

Speaker 2: For the most part, they’re asking for asylum. They are required, along with that asylum request, to report regularly to immigration authorities. And their cases can take can take years. And life is very, very precarious and I think much harder than people probably even would have imagined. They arrive to the extent that they make it beyond the border and beyond a detention facility, you know, run by CBP or ICE. They do not have shelter. And life is extremely precarious for the people, even those who succeed in making this long and dangerous journey.

Mary Harris: It’s interesting because my understanding is that Venezuelans have been fleeing to the U.S. and other places for a long time. Certainly, the volume of people may have increased, but it seems like the population of who is coming is changing. Like a few years ago, I was reading about wealthier Venezuelans catching a flight to Florida and just staying. But now it seems like the people who I’m hearing about are much more desperate, undertaking much more fraught journeys. Is that fair?

Speaker 2: I think that’s true. I think that the initial waves of Venezuelans leaving Venezuela did so during Hugo Chavez, saw what was happening politically, but also economically in their country and in many cases had businesses that were taken away or family members who were threatened or put in jail. And those early waves of migrants, many of them, as you indicate to the state of Florida, were economically much more well off. And there’s a real change now in the economic status of the people who are leaving. They are people who are desperately poor. They are not professionals. The professional class, including people who worked in the oil sector, left many years ago.

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Mary Harris: To Cindy, this point is important because this demographic shift makes it easier for politicians to dehumanize these asylum seekers.

Speaker 2: They are seen as as burdens. They are not seen as people who would contribute professionally or economically to the United States. They are seen as people who are going to drain the resources of local and state governments at a time when when the federal government is not providing enough support. And I think what really underlies all of this is the need for some effort, which I think politically is probably impossible right now to come together and come up with a consensus based federal policy that is in line with U.S. law and human rights commitments and that recognizes the burdens that are placed on border states that are the principal recipients of migrant populations, but also understands the opportunities that migrants represent.

Speaker 2: There is a shortage of of agricultural labor right now. There are policies of giving temporary visas to people during harvest seasons to allow them, you know, to participate in an agricultural harvest. But there is no sense overall in the United States at this point of what immigrants can contribute to society. I think the the predominant view is that they are here to hurt us in some way to take away our jobs or serve as as drains on the taxes that hardworking Americans pay. And these kinds of sentiments don’t come out of nowhere. It’s certainly existed for a long time. But the political exploitation of this issue is very much a factor of the polarization in the times we live in.

Mary Harris: Do you think one side, the Democrats or Republicans, is doing that more or less?

Speaker 2: You know, it’s hard. I think that the intense demonization of migrants and refugees took place during the Trump years as a very, very conscious policy. And at the same time, I don’t see a lot of energy on the Democratic side for trying once again to come up with an immigration policy that would make sense for the United States. This has become the purview of a handful of of immigration research, think tanks and migrants, rights groups and human rights lawyers. But there is really no national conversation about. What would make sense in the 21st century for U.S. immigration policy?

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Mary Harris: Yeah, it’s funny because I look at the lawsuits. Migrants suing DeSantis and the sheriff’s investigation, and I see why those have been brought. But I also think that at the end of a trip, like the ones we’ve discussed, walking and driving miles and miles through multiple countries, a free flight to Martha’s Vineyard would look pretty good.

Speaker 2: Well, it would look good, except that it was provided under really deceptive conditions. There have been numerous reports that talk about this particular woman who was called Perla, who made all kinds of promises. And the promises were empty ones, but it was to lure migrants onto an airplane in the sense that they were going to go on to Nirvana. And those people were welcomed to the best ability of the of the residents of Martha’s Vineyard. But that was certainly not at all anything close to a resolution of their migration status in the United States or a path to stable employment or to housing or any of the other kinds of things that that migrants are looking for.

Mary Harris: You’ve alluded to this, but one of the curious things about this flight of Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard to me is that Governor Ron DeSantis, who orchestrated it, has so many Venezuelan constituents in Florida, and he relies on them for votes. He talks about them, he talks to them. Do we know how this flight is being received in the Venezuelan community?

Speaker 2: There’s certainly been indications that the Venezuelan American community in Florida is is critical, has been critical of Desantis’s efforts to politicize this issue.

Speaker 4: Growing outrage tonight from the Venezuelan American community over this. Governor Ron DeSantis confirming the state of Florida chartered two flights to Martha’s Vineyard, dropping off 50 Venezuelan migrants.

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Speaker 5: And now he’s carting them around like cattle from state to state.

Speaker 4: Questions also growing.

Speaker 2: And at the same time, though, that community is not necessarily looking to have, you know, thousands of desperately poor Venezuelan migrants show up in Florida and draw on the needs of the community. The community already sends lots of money back to Venezuela in remittances. But I think there is a growing sense within the Republican Party in Florida that in the state of Florida, within the Venezuelan community, this is not popular, but it probably is an overall plus for the governor in terms of the average Florida voter.

Mary Harris: Yeah, I mean, it’s funny, I found this video of Ron DeSantis from earlier this year having a roundtable discussion with a bunch of Venezuelan activists and personalities.

Speaker 5: Well, good afternoon. We’re really excited to be in Doral.

Mary Harris: At the time, he was talking about the fact that President Biden, given the war in Ukraine, was sending a diplomatic delegation to Venezuela and criticizing the president for that, saying that, you know, Biden’s going hat in hand to legitimize Nicolas Maduro, who’s responsible for countless atrocities.

Speaker 5: And I know a lot of Floridians are very angered by the Biden administration’s recent attempt to legitimize the brutal Maduro regime in Venezuela. This is something.

Mary Harris: And to me, I look at that and then I look at this migrant flight and it seems hypocritical.

Speaker 2: Well, again, I think the distinction is to the average American voter, the power of of a migration anti-migration message is so much more useful and so much more powerful than a rather rarefied foreign policy debate over the nature of the Venezuelan government. Hmm.

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Mary Harris: Yeah. Sounds to me like if you had your druthers, the president or someone would basically say, Hey, this flight to Martha’s Vineyard we’re all talking about, it’s a real inflection point. And we do need to talk about all the ways our immigration system is broken. It’s time to fix it. But it also sounds like you’re saying you don’t see a lot of appetite for that.

Speaker 2: I don’t see a lot of appetite for that at all. And you especially would think that there would be a larger appetite now that the huge increases in border crossings are from three authoritarian, repressive governments in the region that Republicans constantly demonize Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, and that the Democrats also have been very critical of and understand that it is not possible to send people back to those countries. You cannot deport people back to their fate. And so this disconnect between the foreign policy aspects of what’s taking place and the exploitation of the immigration theme for domestic political gain is quite dramatic.

Mary Harris: Cindy Arnson. I’m really grateful for your time. Thanks for coming on the show.

Speaker 2: Thanks so much.

Mary Harris: Cindy Arnson is a distinguished fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She’s the former director of the center’s Latin American program.

Mary Harris: And that’s the show. If you’re a fan of what next? The best way to support what we do is to join Slate Plus. And the best way to do that is to go on over to Slate.com, slash what next? Plus, and sign up. You get ad free podcasts like this one and all access to Slate.com. It’s super great. So go show us some love. What next is produced by Elena Schwartz, Mary Wilson, Carmel Delshad, and Madeline Ducharme. We are getting a ton of support right now from Anna Phillips and Jared Downing. And if you didn’t catch Sunday’s episode of TBD with Lizzie O’Leary, go scroll back in the feed right now and give it a try. It’s a debate between William MacAskill and Robert Wright on long termism. What should we be doing now to preserve future generations? We are led by Alicia montgomery and Joanne Levine. And I’m Mary Harris. I’ll get you back in the feed tomorrow.