Yurani and Florencio are old friends with the same dilemma – whether to leave the country they love. They’re both Venezuelan doctors and strongly approve of President Hugo Chavez’s desire to help the poor. But they fear the way he’s doing it will lead to class warfare. And they’re not alone; here it’s the middle classes who are becoming economic migrants. So can Venezuela find a Latin American Third Way? Can it develop an alternative to American-style globalization that’s not Cuban-style socialism? And what will Yurani and Florencio decide – should they stay or should they go?
From high up, Venezuela’s capital looks an idyllic, prosperous place. But this is a divided city, where rich and poor jostle together unhappily. Caught between them, the middle classes face a difficult choice. Many claim their President’s taken a wrong turn trying to eradicate poverty; they fear he’ll turn into another Fidel Castro.
Yurani and Florencio are old friends with the same dilemma – whether to leave the country they love. As doctors, they want to care for the poor and approve of many of Chavez’s initiatives but they also believe he has gone too far.
They fear the way he’s doing it will lead to class warfare. Already there’s violence and insecurity in the city. And they’re not alone – here it’s the middle classes who are becoming economic migrants. Many of their friends have already emigrated to better-paid jobs overseas. Yurani Gomez Gutierrez is a junior doctor in Venezuela’s biggest children’s hospital. Like many professionals in Venezuela, Yurani is thinking about going abroad to work. Hundreds of thousands have already gone – including her two brothers.
‘My brothers have gone, that’s right. They leave the country for a better way of living. They have a family, they have to support the family; they found in another country better education for their children, their children can walk in the street safely, they can live safely in other countries.’
Her friend, Florencio Quintero, works as a psychiatrist in a public hospital. Of the 67 doctors Florencio trained with, 50 have either stopped practising or left the country. Florencio loves his job but finds it hard living on his salary; despite double-digit inflation, he hasn’t had a pay rise in three years.
‘I am 27 years old, I am a medical doctor and still living with my parents because I don’t have enough money to pay for my own place. So it’s really quite difficult, the salaries are very, very, very low and the cost of life is very high; so you have like a paradox there, a contradiction.’
In the children’s hospital, Yurani has good news for one mum, Linola. Her baby is well enough to go home. They’re picked up by Linola’s mother Betty. She’s now a Venezuelan citizen, thanks to a Chavez reform. Stories like hers are a strong argument for doctors to stay. Betty lives in a squat in Caracas with her six children, her grandchildren, her husband, her sister and her nephew. She’s learnt to read, thanks to a Chavez government scheme, and her family now has more free healthcare. She has high praise for doctors like Yurani, and the service they provide.
‘My grandson was in the children’s hospital for 13 days and he received good attention, like the tests which were done, and his food. The doctors were taking good care of him and doing the follow up, interacting with the relatives to know how the baby was doing. He got his treatment without interruption. In my opinion it has improved 100% because now there are things that we didn’t have before,’ says Betty.
Her daughter agrees: ‘I don’t see him as a bad president but a good one. Nothing is perfect, but I wouldn’t say that everything is falling apart either. He has done many good things for us, for all Venezuelans.’
Andres Izarra, a Minister in Chavez’s government, understands why professionals are leaving. ‘They’re going because better salaries abroad. You see in Spain there’s a lack of doctors and they’re paying doctors and they’re importing doctors and they’re paying very good salaries. We are not able to pay those doctors what we pay here in their professional career, but you see that those doctors have had a free education in Venezuela so we’re in a way subsidizing the development of the rich countries.’
Yurani and Florencio go to see Michele Carezis, who runs a website for professionals who want to emigrate – mequieroir.com (I want to leave dot com). Her hits have quadrupled to 60,000 per day. Where do people visiting her website want to escape to? ‘Oh, the US of course. Then Canada and Australia, and then Spain.’
But Yurani has found that many countries won’t accept her qualifications as a doctor. Michele says that she may have to start working as a nurse and work back to being a doctor again. ‘You have to do a lot of sacrifices and the path is not easy at all. You have to be very, very sure on what you are doing, but at the end you will receive good things, at the end it will be worth the sacrifices,’ she tells her.
On balance, Florencio decides to stay – for the time being. But Yurani is still uncertain. ‘If you wish money, of course, maybe it’s very good to leave the country. If you don’t, if your preferences are about family, love, friends or whatever, maybe you should think about staying. It’s a personal decision, very particular for everyone.’
There’s information on Caracas here.
For information on the country’s oil wealth, now used to fund community centres and other services for the poor, go to the Petroleos de Venezuela (Venezuela State Oil Company) website (in English).
President Chavez has his own TV show every Sunday which can run for up to 10 hours. On the Alo Presidente website, you can watch live or download past programmes.
Michele Carezis runs a successful information gateway website on opportunities abroad for young professionals at mequieroir.com.
For the World Bank’s assesssment of Venezuela’s progress on achieving Millennium Development Goals, go here.
Music in this programme was provided by Audio Network