CARACAS, Venezuela — An eerie emptiness fills the hallways of Central Venezuela University’s School of Chemistry building. Bottles of solvents gather dust inside the locked-up classrooms. Buckets sit underneath rusty pipes, wooden stools lie on top of the work stations, and the safety shower, used in the case of chemical emergencies, doesn’t work properly. The campus, with its moldy ceilings and suffocating silence, has the feel of a 1970s horror movie set.
Professors say the School of Chemistry, at Venezuela’s top-rated university, won’t open this semester because the administration lacks both the permits and the money to buy chemicals. There are more than 400 students waiting to complete lab courses who are, instead, filling their time with lectures and electives; many of them will not graduate in time.
“We are trying to survive,” said Mary Lorena Araujo, director of the School of Chemistry. Araujo makes around $50 a month at the black market rate. Many professors at the school, known as UCV, make less than $30, well below the minimum wage and not enough to buy the basic food basket, a government-established set of goods deemed necessary for a healthy life.
“What most students want is to graduate and leave Venezuela.”
The problem replicates itself throughout the university. At the dentistry school, students have to pay for their own tools, sometimes working at the weekends to afford basic items like gauze and gloves. Professors, sympathetic to the challenges of finding the various pieces of dental equipment students need to work with, like full sets of teeth to make removable dentures, have lowered the number of requirements to pass classes. In many instances essential hands-on practice has been replaced by training videos, while class sizes have grown to accommodate students whose professors have abandoned them, often to seek opportunities abroad.
“What most students want is to graduate and leave Venezuela,” Yolanda Osorio, dean of the School of Odontology, said.
She called those staying behind, including herself, “masochists.” Osorio said she spends her days either calling alumni to ask for donations or signing, on average, 50 daily certificates for students who want to finish their studies abroad.
More than 1,120 professors have left the UCV since 2009 (there are currently around 4,000 active instructors there). And the problem isn’t just the mass exodus, said Gregorio Afonso, secretary of the university’s association of professors, but a diminishing emphasis on original research, with the majority of incoming professors working exclusively, and often part-time, in classrooms. “There is no possibility of development without the development of science and technology,” said Afonso.
The UCV is a microcosm of what is happening across Venezuela: Salaries are generally insufficient to buy all the basic items families need, many of which are frequently unavailable anyway, as shortages batter the country. Skyrocketing inflation adds to the problem. Finding essential items has become an arduous journey often entailing queueing for hours, heavy markups and a deep-dive into the growing black market for everything from toilet paper to surgical tools.
In a country where 5% of the population already lives abroad, including some of the most highly educated minds, many of those left behind are increasingly becoming fed up with the challenges of everyday life and looking for a way out of Venezuela.
Ebelyn Rodríguez, 24, sat inside a shopping cart on a recent Saturday afternoon, near the end of a line that wrapped around a giant supermarket parking lot. She and her 19-year-old brother, Franklin, had already stood in a four-hour queue to buy chicken and appeared resigned to waiting again as red-shirted supermarket security men stood by with stern looks.
They had devised a plan for when they got inside: Franklin would go directly to the checkout line while Ebelyn waited for two packets of meat and then collected two kilograms of sugar and two liters of milk (the amount allotted to each person at this supermarket). But as she held her spot in the meat line, someone yelled that coffee had arrived and dozens of people whirled by in what threatened to become a stampede.
“I’m not going in there,” Ebelyn said — she was afraid of getting hurt and preferred to go home without coffee. In any case, the arrival of a shipment proved to be a rumor, as confirmed by an employee who stood below a large sign reading, “A Bolivarian revolution achievement.”
Shortages have been plaguing the country since 2013, as production costs have surpassed government-controlled prices while dollars, needed to import raw materials, have become more difficult to access. The government recently established a system in which people can only buy essential products like rice, sugar, butter, and coffee on selected days of the week, depending on the last number of their official identification cards. The same applies for medicine and even for getting appointments at some public offices.
President Nicolás Maduro has said the shortages are the result of an economic war waged by the country’s right-wing opposition, orchestrated by and from the U.S. embassy in Caracas.
As a result, many people now spend large chunks of their free time waiting to buy food.
“It’s sad that the university and the country invested so much in us and now we are busy trying to find milk,” said María Rodríguez, chief of the chemistry department at the UCV’s Faculty of Science.
“Don Quixote is nothing compared to this.”
As lines have become an inescapable fact of life in Venezuela, business for bachaqueros, the name given to people who resell items at three or four times the regular price, has boomed. The government recently installed fingerprint scanners in a number of supermarkets to try and curb its growth. But at a market in Petare, one of largest slums in Caracas, women sat behind stands illegally selling many government-regulated items, including diapers, toothpaste, shampoo, and razors carefully arranged beneath black plastic sheets.
Back at the UCV, Claudia Requena was waiting at the administrative offices in a line that snaked twice around the hallway. Requena had been trying to get her two daughters’ documents in order since November but every time she has come back the staff here tells her she is missing some document or other.
“Don Quixote is nothing compared to this,” she said. Both of her daughters had left for Spain in recent years and she wished she could join them, but the family’s business is in Venezuela. “I’m no one there,” she said. “I’d have to live off of my children.”
Professors, too, are leaving in mass numbers. Sixty-three percent of instructors at the UCV make less than minimum wage, according to a recent report published by El Nacional newspaper. “The drama is enormous,” said opposition leader Henrique Capriles, referring to the challenges students and professors are facing. “A general earns more than double, without taking benefits into account, than the rector of a university.”
It is not just students and professors who are leaving Venezuela in droves. More than 1.5 million people — 5% of the population — have emigrated in the last two decades, according to Ivan de la Vega, a sociologist at the Simon Bolivar University and an expert in Venezuelan migration patterns.
“Venezuela is on the road to the total underdevelopment of the country,” he said. According to his research, 260,000 Venezuelans have settled in the U.S. (primarily Florida, New York, and New Jersey), 200,000 in Spain, and 150,000 in Italy. “It is becoming violently undercapitalized.”
A poll conducted by De la Vega found that insecurity, government, political polarization, and low purchasing power were the leading reasons for emigration. Between 60 and 80% of students surveyed at four universities in Caracas said they want to leave Venezuela and not return under current conditions, De la Vega said.
And it’s often the most educated people who are leaving, De la Vega said. More than half of those who have settled in the U.S. have a bachelor’s degree or higher. They are young, too; their median age is 32.
It was not always so. During much of the 20th century, Venezuela was a receptor country, drawing Europeans and Latin Americans hoping to find refuge from hostile political regimes and join a flourishing economy. But now, the children of many of these immigrants are seeking passports to their parents’ home countries.
Rosaura Rodríguez, whose family emigrated from Spain, spent a recent morning in line at the Spanish Embassy. She was waiting to renew her daughter’s passport. She said her family did not have concrete plans to leave, but they want to make sure their papers were in order for when they did decide it was time to go.
“No Venezuelan is making a real life,” she said. Everyone “is trying to find distant family relations abroad to leave.”
Back at the supermarket line, Franklin took a photo of his sister, sprawled inside the shopping cart, and uploaded it to a chat app on his phone. He laughed as Ebelyn yelled at him to take it down, and for a brief moment, the siblings seemed to forget the monotony of the line.
Ebelyn played with the flip-up child seat, pushing it with her legs out toward her brother, and suddenly the two fell quiet.
“I’ll go anywhere but here,” said Franklin. “Even to China.”
Meridith Kohut and Gustavo Alemán contributed reporting from Caracas, Venezuela.
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