Democracy Lab

To Leave or Not to Leave

President Hugo Chávez’s victory in the presidential election has some Venezuelans wondering whether it's time to leave.

On the evening of Sunday, October 7, a small group of Venezuelan expats gathered together on Chicago's South Side to hear the official results of the presidential election as they came in. We had an idea of what was coming, but, even so, the announcement of the official results came as a blow. Maria, a first-year medical resident, was first to break the silence. "I can never go home now," she said. "I had hoped that I might someday go home."

The Venezuelan diaspora is roughly estimated to consist of about one million people worldwide, with particularly large concentrations in the United States, Spain, and Colombia. In the presidential election, its members overwhelmingly supported the opposition candidate Henrique Capriles -- who, they had hoped, might set about reversing some of President Hugo Chávez's more hardline revolutionary policies, someday allowing for a return to normalcy for a country ravaged by 14 years of class divisions, economic mismanagement, and capricious foreign policy. But his defeat, which means six more years of Chávez, has dashed those hopes. In the photo above, Venezuelan expats protest at a 2009 demonstration in Miami. But what of the 29 million Venezuelans who remain behind? Will they be likely to join their compatriots abroad? If Maria feels she cannot return to Venezuela, might more of Venezuela be coming to her?

It might certainly seem so at first blush. Just hours after the first official results were announced, my wife Marianella, a doctor, had received nine separate Facebook messages within the space of two hours from former medical school colleagues who wanted to ask about her experience emigrating two years ago. Countless Venezuelan Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and away messages this week featured sentiments along the lines of: "This is the last straw," or "That's it. I'm off to Miami."

Many in the international media have seized upon the idea that Chávez's next term -- including his promised "revolutionary deepening" and the country's looming economic woes -- is likely to precipitate a new mass exodus of Venezuelan refugees. I find this argument unconvincing. While the factors encouraging flight for the Venezuelan professional class (rampant crime, poor professional opportunities, disastrous government policies), are likely to grow worse, the available avenues for middle-class immigration may actually become more limited.

In Venezuela, emigration is primarily a middle-class and upper-middle-class phenomenon. Even in these difficult times more people are moving into the country than away from it as unskilled workers and independent merchants from places like Colombia, Ecuador, and Haiti pour in to take advantage of higher daily wages, generous social programs, and the higher prices their goods might command resultant from petro-liquidity. For these same reasons, the country's majority poor are reluctant to relocate to safer countries nearby, such as Colombia or Ecuador. Meanwhile, the very rich -- those hypothetically able to secure U.S. citizenship at will via a $500,000 investment for an EB-5 visa -- are often reluctant to leave a country where they are well-connected or enjoy high social or family status in exchange for a safer option where they might be a nobody. As one local saying puts it: "Better to be the head on a mouse than the tail on a lion."

What is currently happening is not so much an exodus, in fact, as a brain drain. And the pressures informing the brain drain are in some ways specific to the subgroups most affected: small business owners and members of the trained professions.

For several years now, a combination of stagnant wages and high inflation has rendered professional salaries increasingly inadequate when compared to the fortunes that can be made through dynamic entrepreneurship or public sector graft. Since education tends to be portable, and opportunities for professionals are often better abroad, many professionals in high-demand fields have already left. Even before the events of this week, a majority of my wife's medical school class from Venezuela's Central University had already departed for greener pastures, many of them going to Spain, the United States, Australia, or other nations elsewhere in Latin America. In fact, the scarcity of nationally trained doctors has become so acute in Venezuela that the government was forced to set up a special exchange program that trades oil to Cuba in return for physicians.

Beyond those in high demand professions like doctors, technicians, or engineers, others have relied on multiple citizenship to facilitate a move abroad. In the period following the Second World War over one million foreigners, primarily from Europe, settled in Venezuela serving as a labor force during the country's economic boom. As many countries award citizenship based on blood ties or ancestry, middle class Venezuelans often preserved these nationalities both as status symbol and as a possible hedge, multiple citizenship is not uncommon.

Likewise, among those employed at large multinational companies, it has been common to actively seek transfers to out-of-country locations, an increasingly frequent practice as companies disengage from Venezuela. For example, when Procter and Gamble opted to relocate their Latin American headquarters from Caracas to Panama City in 2007, well over 100 Venezuelan executives were relocated in the process.

In the past, certain Chávez-era government policies have done much to facilitate professional flight from the country. But these may now be on the way out. Since 2003 Venezuela has maintained a strictly controlled currency regimen, ostensibly to mitigate capital flight and stimulate the import economy. The government has done this by keeping the value of the bolívar fuerte, Venezuela's currency, artificially high to stimulate imports (a mirror image of Chinese policy on the renminbi, if you will), with official values pegged at roughly three times those offered on the black market. By arbitraging the official rate to cover education costs abroad, it is less expensive for a potential entrepreneur to study at Harvard Business School than at IESA, Venezuela's top management school. Whereas previously popular education abroad initiatives were highly competitive and required an agreement to repatriate upon graduation in exchange for scholarship funding, the current informal arbitrage regimen is accessible to nearly everyone (provided they have the bolívars to cover one-third of the cost) and comes with no strings attached.

The availability of cheap government dollars has also made it easier to purchase citizenship abroad in some cases -- if not in very expensive markets like the United States, then in more realistically affordable ones like Panama. Yet given the seeming inevitability of a substantial devaluation in January, as well as recent initiatives to restrict the availability of subsidized dollars towards basic imports it is uncertain how much longer these policies will be around to smooth the way for future emigrant waves.

Of course, as in any culture, the decision to stay or to leave one's country is a deeply complex and personal one. A great many individualized factors are almost certain to come into play. In a country where family ties run very deep, some Venezuelans may wish to leave yet feel unable to do so due to family responsibilities - an elderly parent who cannot be moved, for example, or a dependent child from a former relationship. For others it may well be a matter of personal conviction that they owe it to their country to stay and help turn it back around. Still others may be reliant on a business that cannot be easily moved or sold (such as a store), or else a profession tailored specifically to Venezuela, such as in the case of a lawyer or bureaucrat. The list goes on.

Where the exact tipping point might lie for folks such as these is anyone's guess, but if they have not left already, it seems likely that they may stick around until things get substantially worse. Other factors such as perceived weaknesses in the regime and Chávez's uncertain health status, may likewise entice some Venezuelans to hold off a little longer.

The Venezuelan opposition needs them to do just that. On December 16, Venezuelan voters will again return to the polls to vote for new governors in the country's 23 states, eight of which, including most of the capital, are currently held by the opposition. Losing ground might well kill off what remains of the opposition's pre-election hopefulness and unity. A couple of years later a new parliament will also have to be elected. While non-resident citizens are allowed to participate in presidential elections, they are constitutionally disenfranchised at the regional and parliamentary levels and each vote thus lost to emigration would take the opposition further from its goal.  

If it hopes to remain relevant, the challenge for the opposition will be to keep hope alive, so that the 6.5 million anti-revolutionary Venezuelans who supported him Sunday will stick around to vote with their hands instead of with their feet.

In weathering the storm unity will be key. Historic divisions within the opposition have previously rendered it weak and disorganized and from Simon Bolivar to Chávez himself, Venezuelans have always responded to strong leadership. Now that the opposition has found a leader worth rallying around in Capriles, it must make every attempt to maintain internal harmony (at least publically) and not succumb to the internal gripes and fractures that for many years rendered them politically irrelevant.

They must also communicate to their supporters that, while the presidency may have been lost, hope should not be. Chávez owes much of his success to having stayed in permanent campaign mode throughout his tenure, and if the opposition ever hopes to beat him they must learn to do likewise and they will not be able to count on even a fraction of the government's considerable resources to do so. Yet by focusing on positive messages rather than divisive ones, and holding Chávez accountable to the unrealistic promises he made during the recent campaign, they may succeed in capitalizing on regime missteps as Venezuela itself continues to break down.

One of the best-selling pop singles to ever come out of Venezuela was 1997's "I'm staying in Venezuela" by Caracas singer-songwriter Carlos Baute. The refrain goes: "There's no evil that lasts a thousand years, no body would be able to resist it./I'll be staying in Venezuela, because I'm optimistic." This is essentially the message that must be successfully communicated by the opposition to their supporters if they are to retain momentum and inspire weary middle-class Venezuelans to continue giving their country the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, they will not be able to rely on Baute himself. He moved to Spain in 2000.

Joe Raedle/Staff/Getty Images


Rock Stars

Why geologists deserve their own Nobel Prize. 

Alfred Nobel intended his prizes to honor those who had "conferred the greatest benefit on mankind." But on top of choosing militarist peace laureates, and overlooking giants like Tolstoy, Joyce, and Ibsen in literature, the awards have another weakness. They are missing a science that has shaped our economy and society so profoundly that we are not even aware of its contribution. It's the reason we have unprecedented mobility, nutrition and comfort; can have some warning of volcanoes and tsunamis; can contemplate "deep time" on a planet 4 billion years old; and have some inkling of our own origins.

Alongside economics, chemistry, physics, and medicine, there should be a Nobel prize in geology. With any luck, a Russian metal magnate or Texan oil tycoon will step up to endow it.

Every fourth year, the Nobel committee does award the Crafoord Prize for geosciences (taking turns with mathematics, astronomy, and biology). Though worth $500,000, it doesn't draw anything like the attention the Nobels do. The Vetlesen Prize was created by a Norwegian shipping baron as a kind of geology Nobel, but though it comes with prestige and a big check, it is not awarded annually.

The absence of a geology Nobel is surely an oversight, given how Alfred Nobel's older brother Robert made his fortune. Working grudgingly for his younger brother Ludvig, he was sent in 1873 to the Caucasus to find walnut wood for the Russian government. Instead, arriving in Baku, he caught oil fever and spent the twenty-five thousand roubles of "walnut money" on a small refinery.

With gushers such as "The Devil's Bazaar" and "The Wet Nurse," Robert and Ludvig developed the oil tanker, became the oil kings of Baku, and broke Standard Oil's monopoly on international trade. Russia briefly became the world's largest producer, a position it would regain in the 1970s, then in the twenty-first century. A young Stalin cut his revolutionary teeth organizing strikes among the workers.

Exhausted by his labors, Ludvig suffered a heart attack at 57; confusion with his better-known brother gave rise to the famous "Merchant of Death" obituary that inspired Alfred to endow his prizes.

Had history worked out a little differently, who might have won the geology prize? Given more than a century's injustice towards geologists, we will have to relax the restriction on posthumous awards. But the great 19th-century pioneers do not qualify -- only work since the first Nobels in 1901 is eligible. So, with apologies to many other great geologists, here is my shortlist.

This year is the centenary of Alfred Wegener's Continental Drift hypothesis. Wegener, a German meteorologist, noticed that the coasts of Africa and South America fit together, as do Antarctica, Australia, India, and Madagascar. What is more, distinct ancient plants, the fern Glossopteris, and traces of glaciations are found across the southern continents. He proposed that the continents had once been combined into Pangaea -- Latin for "All Earth"-- and that the Atlantic and other oceans had then opened between them.

A scientific outsider, Wegener was scorned by geologists and physicists alike. He died in 1931 during an expedition to Greenland. His body, not found for six months, was reburied where it lay and now lies under 100 meters of ice and snow.

Wegener's ideas were kept alive by a few converts until a new generation of brilliant geologists took them up in the 1950s and 60s. Their discovery, plate tectonics, explains how Wegener's continental drift operates, and ties together earthquakes, volcanoes, mountains, ocean trenches, fossil lineages, petroleum basins, and mineral belts into a paradigm as intellectually satisfying as relativity or genetics.

In 1926, a director of what was then Anglo-Persian (now BP) declared that Saudi Arabia appeared "devoid of all prospects" for oil, and found Albania more promising. Oregon native and Stanford graduate Max Steineke thought differently. Arriving in the kingdom for the first time in 1934 as chief geologist of what is now Saudi Aramco, the world's largest oil company, he grew a beard and donned robes to make himself less strange to the local people.

Six wells had been drilled, unsuccessfully, at Dammam on Saudi Arabia's Gulf coast. Steineke wanted to drill deeper at Dammam-7 in 1936, but the well encountered a series of problems and he had to fly back to head office in San Francisco in early 1938 to urge perseverance. In March, the drill bit struck a large oil reservoir, the first of the Saudi giants. Shortly before Steineke's death in 1952, Ghawar, the world's biggest field, was identified. As the American Association of Petroleum Geologists puts it, "The methods [Steineke] developed probably resulted in the discovery of greater reserves than any other geologist."

Iran and Iraq were already important oil producers. But the enormous volumes of cheap Saudi oil fuelled the postwar economic boom. They made possible mass-market motoring, suburbia, globalized trade, and routine air travel. The West was able to out-compete the Soviet Union; Japan, without fossil fuels of its own, became the world's second-largest economy. Modern medicine may tend to 7 billion people, but it is mechanized agriculture and chemical fertilisers that feed them. Now, China and India are adopting the same lifestyle, with powerful impacts on global energy markets and the environment.

Steineke was one in a line of geologists whose discoveries have powered our civilization with coal, oil, gas, and uranium. We could also mention the Soviet greats, or the visionary scientists who discovered North Sea oil in the 1970s, uncovered the giant Brazilian "pre-salt" oil fields in 2006, and created the U.S. shale gas revolution. Their efforts have kept the "peak oil" wolf away.

Yet the extraordinary concentration of petroleum in the Middle East distorted the region's societies. It unleashed the long struggle between companies and governments for control of this unique prize, a battle that led to the formation of OPEC in 1960. And it fuelled a series of wars and embargoes, throwing the world into economic crises, tarnishing oil as geopolitically risky, and furnishing opportunities for several peace prizes.

But geology isn't just about resources. It also promises answers to some of the most profound questions we have, on the origins of life and of human beings. British palaeontologist Simon Conway Morris, a brilliant lecturer, made his name studying Canada's Burgess Shale. Its immaculately preserved fossils are a unique window into the emergence of complex life 500 million years ago, including familiar animals such as molluscs and sponges, but others that are mysterious, including Hallucigenia, a spiny-backed worm with legs.

It is humbling to reflect that the tiny eel-like Pikaia in the Smithsonian museum may be the ancestor of all vertebrates -- FP readers as well as our pet cats and goldfish, the crows cawing outside, and Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Yet in contrast to the aggressive atheism of Richard Dawkins, Conway Morris has sought to reconcile evolution with his Christian faith, speaking out against both creationism and reductionist genetics. "Of all the possible examples of evolution can there be a more glorious accident ... than human intelligence? But is this correct?" he has said. "Rather than trudging across the arid landscapes skimpily sketched by the materialists, we need to accept the invitation and accompany the Artist that brought Creation into being."

The final nominee, geologist of ancient climates Wallace Broecker of Columbia University, created the expression "Global Warming" in 1975 upon realizing that burning coal, oil, and gas was leading to rapid accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Broecker made fundamental discoveries about global oceanic circulation and the carbon cycle.

One of his most important observations: "The climate system is an angry beast, and we are poking at it with sticks." He has documented severe, persistent dry periods in California during medieval times, suggesting the state's modern climate is unusually wet. This summer's droughts, and the unexpectedly rapid disappearance of Arctic ice, remind us of the possibility of sharp tipping points in climate as we continue our unintentional and perilous experiment with the atmosphere.

Broecker, who is still going strong at 80 years old, advocates carbon sequestration -- taking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and disposing of it safely in rocks underground -- as one way of tackling the problem, but is not optimistic. As one of his colleagues puts it, "Whenever we sit around over beers at one of these conferences, we talk about where we think we'll be 50 years from now. To a man, the answer is: carbon dioxide will still be rising. Climate will have changed. We'll have developed sequestration technologies -- and maybe they'll be doing 3 percent of what's needed."

For the profound importance of his work to the future of humanity as much as its past, Broecker is my choice for inaugural winner of the geology Nobel. Geologists have been too successful: having "conferred the greatest benefits" on 20th-century humanity, now they are turning to saving it in the 21st.