Conditions in the authoritarian socialist country remain dire. But struggles abroad have led some émigrés to go back.
CARACAS, Venezuela — The number of Venezuelans who have fled the socialist state’s political, economic and social meltdown in the past eight years has now surpassed 7 million, according to the U.N. refugee agency. Most have settled in neighboring countries where, since 2020, they’ve struggled with coronavirus lockdowns, economic turmoil and increasing hostility toward migrants.
Now many are making another life-changing, potentially risky decision: They’re returning to the country they once escaped.
Three hundred thousand Venezuelans have returned to the South American nation, the government of authoritarian President Nicolás Maduro reported in January, more than 30,000 of them with the help of a repatriation program called Return to the Motherland.
The dollarization of Venezuelan’s economy has brought a boom in imported food and new restaurants, making the capital more appealing. But outside an elite bubble, the country is still beset by power shortages, insufficient running water, political instability and an inflation rate that reached 234 percent in 2022.
Nonetheless, Venezuelans who have returned say it was the best option for them.
After Yessica Barajas’s mother died in 2019, she decided it was time to follow her brother out of the country. With four children in tow, she crossed the border to Colombia, the most common destination for fleeing Venezuelans, a country with which it shares language, history and culture — somewhere she felt at home.
In Bogotá, she worked at a restaurant and a supermarket, earning just enough to make it through each month. Then came the coronavirus. Colombia imposed some of the most stringent quarantine rules in the region, and Barajas lost her job. “I didn’t have the money to pay the bills anymore,” she said. “With four kids, I was desperate. I couldn’t get food.”
She traveled back in September 2020 along the route by which she had left. “We returned with the help of the humanitarian path managed by the U.N.,” she said. “We stayed in 6 different tents, waiting to cross.”
“It’s one of the hardest things I had to do,” she said. “But now, a year after I returned to my safety and stability, I brought my father and sister back to Venezuela with us.”
And she’s not leaving, she said. “I have a house here. I know the people around my neighborhood. It’s easier to find a job, help; and my children are happy.”
“More than happy,” she said. “I feel at peace.”
With a newborn child, Ana Francheska Palomino left for Colombia in 2018 to reunite with her child’s father. Escaping a country where diapers and baby formula were scarce, she moved to Bogotá to work in whatever job she could find.
“One day I decided to return,” she said. “I am very close to my mother and I was really lonely without her.” Caring for a baby without family support also put pressure on the couple. Her husband stayed in Colombia. She returned to Venezuela, where she plans to continue her studies in business administration.
“I feel great here. I wouldn’t leave my family and country again — I felt really lonely,” she said. “Here I have my family’s support.”
Franklin García left Venezuela in 2018 to escape long food lines outside empty supermarkets and street demonstrations that were sometimes violently repressed — and to share his magic with the world.
A magician, García traveled to the Dominican Republic. He worked in a car shop and a bar before landing a gig performing on a cruise ship.
The pandemic stopped cruises, and García returned home to visit his family. He was struck by how much Venezuela had changed.
“I was in shock at first,” he said. “Suddenly the supermarkets were full. People changed, too.”
“I came back and everything had to be paid in dollars,” he said. “But to come back, that was the right decision.”
Carlos Alvarado, a comedian, was used to migrating for work. In 2013, he relocated to Panama, where he found a community of Venezuelans eager to celebrate their roots through laughter.
“It was a good decision. I had good shows,” Alvarado said. “But after six months, nearly every Venezuelan had seen my show and I decided to tour in my own country.”
In 2015, he moved again, this time to Colombia. “It wasn’t easy,” he said. “I had to work selling perfumes on the street, as a doorman at a bar, bartender, selling coffee — and only then I started to find places to perform.” A breakup led him to return to Venezuela in 2019 with no plans. That year, the country suffered a 5-day power shortage that shocked the country. Then gas shortages around the country left many stuck in place.
Alvarado was one of them.
“All that forced me to reinvent myself,” he said. He started a burger delivery business with friends called El Perezoso — The Lazy One — he performed on Zoom and offered comedy courses online. Now he’s planning to live in Venezuela — but might travel.
“I’m an only child, and I realized that my mother is the only person I have, and I am the only person she has,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever live abroad again. But I want to know new places and to perform in other countries of South America, Europe and the United States.”
Stefan Licheri has been traveling since the age of 17. As a professional musician, he has studied classic guitar and music in Venezuela, France and Germany, where he stayed for 11 years. He has experienced the pains of his own country and the luck of a stable system in others. After finishing a master’s degree in Europe in 2021, he decided to return to Venezuela for a little family time.
After two years, he has no plans to leave.
“I want to return all the things I learned abroad,” he said. “I wanted to give something back to my country.”
Licheri said his main reason to stay is family, but also a business idea he is developing with a group of engineers of the Central University of Venezuela. The goal, he said, is to create experimental instruments to export.
In the meantime, he teaches German.
“There are so many thing in Venezuela that I love,” he said. “Not only my family, the weather, the food; the opportunity to develop new ideas and produce the musical instruments here. That would be amazing.”
Yamileth Galindo would cross the border from Venezuela to Colombia every time she needed to find food or toothpaste. During the years of acute scarcity, Colombia offered what many Venezuelans didn’t have. Every three months, she said, she took a small bag and moved to the neighboring country for a little while, and then she came back.
But the last time she was surprised with big news: Venezuela had closed the border with Colombia due to covid-19 and she could not return home.
“I had left my son in Venezuela and I was in Barranquilla,” she said. “I got covid there and I was so scared. I cried the entire time. My mom was so worried.”
As soon as she could, one of those rare days where people could step out on the streets, she got her things and, along with her sister, she decided to return.
“It was horrible. A horrible experience. We had to go through the river with the help of some guys we paid,” she said. “We crossed in a motorcycle on dirt roads, scared that the Colombian guards would stop us.”
“After that, a guy charged us $100 each to take us to Maracaibo,” she said.
When she returned home, she said, rain was pouring, flowing down the streets. “I stood there and let the rainfall on me, like a miracle,” she said.
She hugged her son, her family, and decided to stay for good.
“I don’t want to go anymore, my family is everything,” she said. “Being away from them was too hard. I’m happy here.”