Venezuela's best and brightest camp on sidewalks

By Joshua Goodman

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Jan. 31 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

CARACAS, Venezuela — Citizens of Venezuela's socialist revolution have grown accustomed to long lines for everything from bread to buying a car.

But 26-year-old Daniela Rodriguez hopes this line will be her last.

Like some 50 other college students and graduates, she's been lounging for the past three days on the cement sidewalks of a busy Caracas office district waiting for a consulate stamp that she hopes will be her ticket to a brighter future. Her destination? Ireland, a country she knows almost nothing about. Not that it matters.

"I'll blindly go anywhere," said Rodriguez, who has been unable to find work as a journalist since graduating college in 2010, instead working as a sales clerk at a clothing store. "Here you kill yourself just to get nowhere, but outside Venezuela in two years your effort pays off."

The sentiment is widely shared by Venezuela's best and brightest, who are abandoning their homeland in droves rather than wait for a punishing currency crisis, record shortages and 50 percent inflation to ease. But not everyone is fleeing the madness. Some Venezuelans are posing as students and recycling on the black market increasingly scarce hard currency meted out at the official exchange rate to pay for schooling abroad.

Amid the desperate search for opportunities abroad, Ireland has emerged as an almost ideal escape.

The country has long attracted language students from all over the world, and unlike the U.S., Australia and Canada, Venezuelans don't need a visa to enter the European Union.

And while Spain, for years the preferred destination for Latin American emigrants, has youth unemployment of above 50 percent, the Irish economy is recovering steadily from Europe's financial crisis. Venezuelans already studying there report that it's easy to find work, which Ireland's immigrant-friendly laws allow.

"It's very sad that having invested so much in institutions to develop quality human resources we can't take advantage of them to add dynamism to the economy," said Anitza Freitez, a Caracas-based demographer who has studied migratory trends. She estimates the number of Venezuelans living abroad jumped 12 percent between 2005 and 2010, a pride-shattering reversal for a country whose oil-fueled prosperity made it a magnet for immigrants from southern Europe and South America for much of the last half-century.

Ties with Ireland stretch back to Venezuela's 19th century war of independence — one of Liberator Simon Bolivar's closest aides was an Irish military officer named Daniel O'Leary. But until recently fewer than 200 Venezuelans were living there, according to Freitez's research.

Now, Venezuelans rival Brazilians, a country with a population seven times larger, as the biggest foreign student population at many Irish language schools.

And the exodus keeps building.

Seda College in Dublin said it received 7,640 unique visitors to its website from Venezuela in January, equal to a third of total inquiries for all of 2013. MeQuieroIr.com, or "I Want To Go," a Venezuelan website that provides information to people looking to emigrate, also reported record traffic this month at twice the normal levels.

So popular has Dublin become among Venezuela's youth that leading satirical website El Chiguire Bipolar recently joked it had become Venezuela's safest city — a reference to the violent crime that overruns Venezuelan streets, another factor driving people overseas.

"This isn't like previous waves we saw after elections," said Esther Bermudez, MeQuieroIr.com's founder, who moved to Montreal in 2007 fed up with currency controls that made it impossible to do business with advertisers and suppliers abroad. "Interest in leaving seems more sustained, less emotional, as people come to grips with the structural crisis the country is facing."

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