June 3, 2018 at 4:14 PM
An unruly 9-year-old bolted from his classroom, prompting a volunteer teacher to chase him down the hall. He would normally be hauled straight to Romina Sciaca’s office. But the guidance counselor was gone — part of a wave of staffers to flee Aquiles Nazoa Elementary School.
This collapsing socialist state is suffering one of the most dramatic outflows of human talent in modern history, with Aquiles Nazoa offering a glimpse into what happens when a nation begins to empty out. Vast gaps in Venezuela’s labor market are causing a breakdown in daily life, and robbing this nation of its future. The exodus is broad and deep — an outflow of doctors, engineers, oil workers, bus drivers and electricians.
So far this year, 48,000 teachers — or 12 percent of all staff at elementary and high schools nationwide — have quit, according to Se Educa, an educational nonprofit group. The vast majority, according to the group, have joined a stampede of Venezuelans leaving the country to escape food lines and empty grocery store shelves.
At Aquiles Nazoa — a school named after an ill-fated poet — Sciaca was the first to go, heading for Chile a year ago. Reinaldo Cordero quit a few months later, leaving behind his second-grade class and a salary that hyperinflation had shrunk to a black-market worth of around $29 a month.
Esperanza Longhi — who also taught second grade — quit in February. She’s at home, packing for Peru. To get there, she’ll go through Ecuador — the same country where Maryoli Rueda, who used to teach third grade, recently moved.
14,000 percent hyperinflation
Principal Deliana Flores has tried and failed to find qualified replacements. As droves of teachers leave, some grades in Venezuelan schools have gone months without classes. At Aquiles Nazoa, the third grade stayed home for two weeks. Desperate, Flores is plugging holes with unpaid volunteers — basically school moms such as Kory Hernandez, 24.
But it isn’t really working.
Hernandez dragged the 9-year old back into the classroom by his shirt sleeve, then sunk into her seat and sighed.
“Quiet,” she said helplessly, as her class erupted in open rebellion .
“Please,” she said. “How are you ever going to learn?”
Think of Venezuela like one big factory where the societal assembly line no longer works — partly because there are fewer and fewer people to run it.
During the first five months of the year, roughly 400,000 Venezuelans have fled the country, following 1.8 million who left over the last two years, according to the Central University of Venezuela. Yet even those numbers may not fully capture the scope of the exodus. Aid workers dealing with the crisis in bordering nations say an average of 4,600 Venezuelans a day have been leaving since Jan. 1 — putting the outflow during this year alone at nearly 700,000.
The Venezuelans are running from a nation broken by failed socialist policies, mismanagement, corruption and lower global oil prices — the country’s principal source of cash.
“It’s not just about a few doctors leaving anymore,” said Tomas Páez, a migration expert at the Central University of Venezuela. “It’s about [understaffed] hospitals closing down whole floors.”
Tens of thousands of Venezuelans — especially from the upper classes — began leaving the country following the rise of left-wing firebrand Hugo Chávez, who became president in 1999. But in the past year, Venezuela’s economy has fallen off a cliff, prompting a more drastic exodus. Experts say the outflow is set to surge in the aftermath of the reelection of President Nicolás Maduro on May 20. Denounced internationally as illegitimate, the election removed any real chance for change. Amid food shortages, hunger is pervasive and growing in a country that was once Latin America’s richest per capita. Without medicines, treatable diseases such as HIV and malaria have become rampant. With hyperinflation soaring toward 14,000 percent, it now takes five days work at the minimum wage to buy a dozen eggs.
The value of local salaries is falling by the day. In the middle of 2017, an average teacher’s salary was worth nearly $45.
Today, it’s worth about $8.
“If we continue like this, Venezuela won’t even be a Third World country anymore,” said Flores, the school principal.
Massive gaps in the labor force are undercutting critical services here. Inside the darkened halls of a Caracas subway station on a recent afternoon, for instance, passengers climbed broken escalators and filed past closed ticket booths. The conditions reflect the shrunken workforce; last year, 2,226 subway employees — more than 20 percent of the staff — abandoned their posts, according to Familia Metro, a Caracas-based transit watchdog group.
“There’s a huge lack of people in operations and maintenance now,” said Ricardo Sansone, head of Familia Metro. “They have no people to sell tickets at many stations, so passengers are often not even paying to use the subway.”
At the Jose Manuel de los Rios Children’s Hospital in Caracas, 68 doctors — or 20 percent of the medical staff — quit and left the country over the past two years. The hospital’s cardiology department is now only open for a morning shift, since three of its six specialists are gone. There are 300 vacant nursing positions. Personnel shortages are so bad that the facility can only staff two of its seven operating rooms.
“It now takes eight months to a year for a surgery appointment,” said Huniades Urbina, a senior staff pediatrician.
This year, thousands of blackouts have hit Venezuela, darkening cities for weeks at a time. A lack of imported spare parts to fix the poorly maintained power grid is one problem. But so is “the flight of our trained workers,” said Aldo Torres, executive director of the Electricity Federation of Venezuela, an association of labor unions.
“Every day, we’re receiving dozens of calls from colleagues saying they’re going to Colombia, Peru and Ecuador,” Torres said. “They’re being replaced by people who are mostly not qualified.”
'I can't wait anymore'
Seven miles down the road from Aquiles Nazoa Elementary School, the campus of Simón Bolívar University is oddly quiet. Once considered the MIT of Venezuela, a university that churned out some of the best Latin American engineers and physicists is now in danger of becoming a ghost town.
In 2017, 129 professors — nearly 16 percent of the staff — quit, the vast majority to leave the country. It’s no surprise, officials here say. Using the black market rate for dollars, a professor’s salary here now tops out at about $8 a month, because of hyperinflation.
Thirty professors retired last year but have not been replaced, in part because of a lack of qualified candidates. The university is so short-staffed that three departments — languages, philosophy and electronic engineering — are about to close.
Yet as Venezuela’s young people depart in droves, Simón Bolívar also does not have the demand it once did. Three years ago, electronic engineering had nearly 700 students. Now, it’s down to 196.
Jesus Perez, 20, is one of the students who are just giving up. He was studying to be a computer engineer. But over the past six months, he’s lost 10 pounds from a lack of food. “I can’t wait anymore,” he said. “I have to leave. So far, 15 of my friends from school have left the country since February.”
He’ll go to Peru, a country that two decades ago was far poorer than Venezuela.
What will he do?
“I don’t care,” he said. “Be a waiter, clean floors. I can’t ask for much.”
A 40-minute bus ride away from Aquiles Nazoa Elementary School, Deiriana Hernandez sat on the floor of her one-room home, puzzling out her homework.
A student at the school, she is on her third teacher in one year. One of them retired. Another quit to leave the country. Her latest — “Mrs. Kory” — is a volunteer who only recently finished her high school equivalency degree.
Deiriana recently spent two weeks at home because her school could find no one to teach third grade. With a volunteer teacher, she can at least go to class. But she and other students are slipping behind.
Their grades are falling, and behavioral problems are worsening. Deiriana is 9. But she can barely read.
She was looking at a list of 16 words now, and instructions to separate them into four groups — animals, colors, cities, plants.
She scratched her head and called for her mother.
“You don’t understand?” said her mom, Yanelis Blanco, 26.
Blanco was nervous.
“She’s behind for a third grader,” the mother said. “She doesn’t read correctly, has lots of grammatical errors when she writes. It’s a terrible thing that her teachers constantly leave.”
Deiriana’s classmates are also leaving. Last year, her class had 24 students. Now they’re down to 19.
Two days after Deiriana labored over her homework, her mother received news from the school.
Mrs. Kory had quit.
For Deiriana, it’s back to staying at home, where her family is discussing another big change. Unable to put enough food on the table, her father is thinking of going to Peru to look for work.
“At least maybe that way we can pay for private schools where teachers, I imagine, are being paid better and given incentives to stay?” Blanco said. “I don’t know.”