Latin America 101: Venezuela, From Promised Land to Barren Wasteland for Italians

"No one got there for the pleasure of traveling and no one stayed if they could live elsewhere."

Orlando Araujo, Compañero de viaje y otros relatos



Venezuela, though, is undoubtedly one of the most divisive countries in Latin America. For many years, it has been the Promised Neverland for Italian immigrants who are seeking fortune but in the last decade, it has become a barren wasteland from which to flee hardship and political and economic issues.


Boy saluting, immigrants arriving in Boston, Photograph by Edmunds E. Bond, ca. 1915. Courtesy of the Trustees of Boston Public Library.


Venezuela, which was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1498 and became part of the Spanish Empire, experienced the formation of a powerful independence movement at the turn of the 19th century, as did the rest of Latin America. After a failed insurgency in 1806, Francisco de Miranda joined forces with Simón Bolivar - El Libertador - and, together, they freed Venezuela from Spanish soldiers in 1810, declaring independence the following year. Since the independence, the country has been building its economic and social structure for several decades. Venezuela has been able to experience substantial economic growth because of the discovery of key natural resources - such as oil - becoming a magnet for European migrants who were seeking economic success in the mid-20th century.


In particular, Italian immigration through Venezuela assumed peculiar features since the immigration rate recorded until World War II was very low in comparison with the rate of other nationalities. The barely-small community was substantially stable on the territory, giving a relevant contribute on the country’s economic and social ground. The two main economic activities led by Italians dealt with mostly with agri-food and manufacturing and were principally found in the capital, Caracas. This successful landscape certainly generated and grew the myth of a country with great possibilities, which could be compared to El Dorado. Therefore, the Italian migratory flux toward Venezuela become more consistent between World War II and the end of the 1950s.


Migrantes-Report Italians in the World. Data processing: ISTAT, Yearbook of labour and emigration statistics.


On average, more than 20,000 Italian migrants flocked to the Latin American country each year, enticed by what their countrymen who had already established there and made a fortune. Migrant stories painted a "magical" landscape: the almost surreal beauty of Caracas, Venezuela's vibrant and prosperous capital; economic activities that allowed migrants to earn substantial salaries and pay off debts while also allowing families to visit relatives; and a massive presence on the streets and in homes of goods that were considered luxury in their home country. In those years, Venezuela allowed needy people to finally depart their misery and their lands, which had been nearly destroyed by the War. The Italian presence was undeniably the driving force behind the socio-economic reforms of Venezuelan villages and cities, which benefited both sides. The Italians contributed to the country's development. While the rest of the Ancient continent struggled to recover from the destruction, Venezuela's economy soared, making it the world's fourth richest country in 1950.


However, at the end of the decade the Italian migrant history changed: the migrant trend declined sharply, owing to the opening and consolidation of new migration "routes" to Europe or the Italian industrial triangle, which allow a less radical choice to move away from their roots. The years 1959-1960 appeared to show an attempt - which was then quickly abandoned - to restore the peace that had been disrupted by Marcos Pérez Jiménez's regime fall. The composition of employment in economic activities varied significantly as well- the number of those seeking employment in agriculture drastically fell and the number of immigrants wishing to work in non-agricultural sectors rapidly decreased. Instead, the number of people entering as residents increased, at least until the end of the 1970s, indicated a raising mobility and, most likely, an economic situation that allowed more people to enter. It was unquestionably noteworthy since it showed the evolution of both Italian emigration to Venezuela and the Italian economic situation as it came up from the post-war crisis and entered the years of the economic miracle.


Caracas by night – [Photo] National Geographic


The collapse of the Perezjiemeist dictatorship and the subsequent Betancourt administration represented a turning point in the connection between Italian emigration and the Latin American country, disrupting the previous regime's harmony with Italian community representatives. Foreigners, particularly Italians, were accused of being tied to the dictatorship throughout the transition to democracy, causing tensions. In this environment, the regime's interests, as well as those of Italian entrepreneurship in the country and diplomatic circles, were determined in 1957 by the promulgation of an electoral legislation that permitted foreigners to vote. As a result of these circumstances, the Venezuelan government's media took a strong stance: the Italians mostly followed the electoral law by publishing a manifesto. This act was the culmination of a complex plan devised by leaders from the Italian economic and diplomatic worlds, who were able to gain the support of fellow immigrants. All of those decisions did not arouse the favour of the Venezuelan people, who launched a violent propaganda and material campaign against non-natives, particularly Italians. It was difficult to calculate the number of deaths and injuries, as well as the monetary losses suffered by the Italians due to the disfigurement of their goods and shops, during the turmoil. As a result of these tragic events, many of them have decided to return home or abandon their adopted nation.


The fall of Pérez Jiménez, the Betancourt government's immigration policy, and a nearly ten-year period of economic distress were the most significant factors in diverting the still-large Italian migratory flows in other ways. It was the initial point of contact between migrants and Venezuela, a tipping point in Italians' decisions. The viernes negro of the Venezuelan economy - when the value of the bolivar was liberalized on the 18th of February 1983 - was a second part of the schism, which primarily affected Venezuelan resident. President Herrera Campíns adopted a differential exchange rate system in response to the drop in oil prices and the country's foreign debt, which produced a massive outflow of cash. This spelled the end of monetary stability and the start of the bolivar's fast depreciation. Furthermore, Venezuela's overwhelming reliance on the sale of oil, as well as the impermeable economic measures implemented, particularly in the last 20-to-30 years, has meant that the country has reached rock bottom. Italian immigrants, like the local population, began to live in harsh conditions after becoming wealthy. If in the years of the economic boom, 80 percent of them lived comfortably, second and third generation immigrants are increasing in difficulty, particularly in terms of health care and medicine. Because of the political environment, pharmaceuticals no longer enter the country, and when they do, the costs are prohibitively high. The corporate condition has definitely deteriorated, continuing a trend begun at the end of the past century as a result of the economic crisis. The majority of nationalized enterprises, particularly those working for oil companies, were Italian; expropriated business-people have received no compensation from the Venezuelan government, which now oversees them.



Venezuelans protest against Maduro’s government – [Photo], Freedom House


According to Venezuelans - whether native or of Italian descent - Hugo Chavez is to blame for the country's final degeneration of its economic situation: the proclamation and implementation of the Bolivarian Revolution, contrary to expectations, has actually triggered a vortex of crises that has become increasingly acute over time. With the entrance of Maduro, the situation deteriorated even further, as he was unable to establish economic strategies that could balance assistance with industrial development, ensuring both consumption and output. Long-established immigrants have witnessed a terrifying fall in their living conditions; not only is the economy and healthcare system crumbling on itself, but their personal safety has also been jeopardized, as there is no functional police force to safeguard the people's safety.


The population perceived a ray of hope in 2019, yet frustrated. Venezuela had two presidents who did not recognize each other; the Italian-Venezuelan community continued to demand new elections, demonstrating vehemently against a government that did not identify them and continues to do so. Along with the Venezuelan flag, the Italian flag has become increasingly visible on the streets of Caracas, in protest of their parents' homeland decision to not support and recognize the temporary president, Juan Guaidó. Many have left to countries such as Spain or Brazil, while others return to Italy, a country about which their grandparents and parents have told them.



Nowadays, Venezuela is a far cry from the country Simon Bolivar dreamed of. What's left of the Promised Land is a bleak wasteland.



 

References

  • Berglund, S. (1994). Italian Immigration in Venezuela: A Story Still Untold. University Central de Venezuela.

  • Borrelli, S. S. (2019, January 27). Italian government split over Venezuela crisis. POLITICO. https://www.politico.eu/article/5star-league-italian-government-split-over-venezuela-crisis-alessandro-di-battista/

  • Cunill Grau, P. (2000). Italian Presence in Modern Venezuela: Socioeconomic Dimension and Geo-cultural Changes. Universidad Central de Venezuela.

  • Griffith, O. (2019). The Tragedy of Venezuela. American Foreign Services Association. https://afsa.org/tragedy-venezuela

  • Harvey, M. (2021). Italians in Venezuela – The Italian Diaspora in South America. Dickinson College. https://blogs.dickinson.edu/italian-diaspora/gli-italiani-in-venezuela/italians-in-venezuela/

  • J. Guzman; M. Rico Benitez. (2020, December 4). A new role for the EU in Venezuela. CEPS. https://www.ceps.eu/a-new-role-for-the-eu-in-venezuela/

  • Pineda, J. (2019, February 4). Italo-Venezuelans Who Feel Betrayed by Rome That Fails to Support Them. Lavocedinewyork.Com. https://www.lavocedinewyork.com/en/news/2019/02/04/italo-venezuelans-who-feel-betrayed-by-rome-that-fails-to-support-them/

  • The Policy Circle. (2021, August 11). Socialism: A Case Study on Venezuela. https://www.thepolicycircle.org/minibrief/socialism-a-case-study-on-venezuela/

  • The Venezuelan migrant crisis A growing emergency for the region. (2018). European Parliament. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2018/630343/EPRS_BRI(2018)630343_EN.pdf


Image references

  • Migrantes-Report Italians in the World. Data processing: ISTAT, Yearbook of labour and emigration statistics.

  • Venezuelans protest against the Maduro’s government – [Photo], Freedom House. https://freedomhouse.org/country/venezuela/freedom-net/2021

  • Boy saluting, immigrants arriving in Boston, Photograph by Edmunds E. Bond, ca. 1915. Courtesy of the Trustees of Boston Public Library. https://globalboston.bc.edu/index.php/home/ethnic-groups/italians/

  • Caracas by night – [Photo] National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/photo/development-highway/




Author Photo

Federica Panico

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