“Never before in the United Nations’ history have we had so many refugees, displaced people and asylum seekers… the world must do more to prevent forced displacement, address its root causes and support solutions for those affected by it. It requires greater resources, and more political leadership… unprecedented cooperation by the international community.”
Ban Ki-Moon, October 2014.
Our challenge with the Venezuelan migrants, while not new, is unprecedented in its character and volume. The migration before was largely temporary and circular. The present one appears to be one-way for a sustained period since the undeclared war against President Nicolás Maduro’s regime will not be resolved in the near future.
The pouring out of migrants is expected to top five million by year end. Trinidad, to quote late Prime Minister Patrick Manning in a different context, is experiencing collateral damage.
From 1908 in the time of Juan Vicente Gómez, the longest lasting and most tyrannical President in Venezuela, we have had waves of migrants. In spite of increasing oil wealth there, many families fled to Trinidad. This migration continued as a result of the three coups between 1945 and 1958.
Their descendants are now arguably more numerous and influential than those of the French and English. Seigert, De Lima, Navarro and Bermudez are local business icons. Angostura is literally a town, now called Cuidad Bolivar, in Venezuela.
In 1937, Jesse Henderson, a significant landowner of Venezuelan roots, played an instrumental role in creating St James. Moreover, Sylvan Mohammed—an enterprising Trinidadian, who opened the Trinizuela school in San Fernando in the 1960’s, teaching young Venezuelan students English and other skills—tells us we can find and create value.
Venezuela, the richest economy in Latin America in 1968, became a pauper by 1998, characterised by the presence of great wealth and severe inequality. In a bid to regain the magic of ‘Saudi Venezuela’ (unprecedented wealth), the people voted back in Carlos Perez for a second term. It was not to be. He was forced to implement austerity measures and three hundred lives were lost in a wave of protests, riots, looting, shootings and massacres that became known as ‘El Caracazo’.
Two-thirds of the population of Venezuela was driven below the poverty line, giving rise to Hugo Chavez. From the 2002 PDVSA strike against Chavez—which cost the nation nearly 8% of its GDP—to now, their internal battles have been fierce.
In the last three years, the exodus has accelerated dramatically. Daily life became a nightmare. This year, the US tightened sanctions on gold and oil exports and the banking system, worsening the plight.
Venezuela cannot be restored without an international agreement. Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley and CARICOM’s political leadership in attempting to resolve this issue was doomed to failure due to exogenous factors. Without a resolution, the migrant problem will worsen.
As the US experience since the 1980s shows us—despite huge investments in surveillance and large-scale deportation practices—getting rid of this problem is nigh impossible. More restrictive laws and actions worsen their working and living conditions yet do not get rid of the migrants. As a country, we are virtually helpless in the fight to manage and control the flow. To argue otherwise is to engage in deception.
Our best course of action, in this context, is to adapt and learn from these migrants. They may be homeless, but they are not without culture. They are not terrorists but people fleeing terror. They have taken immense risks in fleeing and that drive can help to create a better Trinidad and Tobago.
We have an ageing problem which threatens the existence of the NIS system by 2030. The bulk of migrants seen in the media photographs are young people, who can counteract this problem. The work ethic of many of us is spoilt, leaving jobs unfilled or filled with sullen, surly folk.
Migrants are by nature resilient, resourceful and capable of acquiring the necessary skills. They start from the bottom to work their way up. They have to send remittances back home. Many of us are familiar with this story, based on our families’ experiences in New York.
The migrants, working hard, will go from home to work to home. They will purchase televisions and other items of creature comfort to occupy their time. They will seek to avoid any interaction with the police and ensure that they can keep their jobs. They may marry locals, but their goal is always to return home as soon as is practical.
There is evidence that migrants can help host economies (Boeri and Brucker, 2005, LaLonde and Topel, 1997). It is not true that migrants worsen the crime situation; the impact is virtually zero (Blanchi, Buonnano and Pinotti, 2012).
Sadly, we—The UWI and/or the Central Bank or any Ministry—appear not to have done the work needed to understand the potential impact. Yet we spout stuff that appear to have no real basis.
Did the Ministry of Labour seize the opportunity in the registration process to identify skill sets? I am willing to wager they did not.
Under all the sound and fury, we need to collectively, as a nation, rise to the challenge of figuring out how to make an orderly process of integration. Our future will depend on it.