“Waiter!” called a Peruvian businessman, fidgeting in his seat. This was Lima’s VIPs-only Jockey Club restaurant, and the staff snapped to it. But Dr. Jose Perdomo just kept walking.
“Waiter!” the businessman called again, now indignant.
Perdomo did a double take.
Wait. That’s me.
He circled back, passing a bank of tables – his new station, both at work and in life. In his native Venezuela, the 33-year-old medical resident had saved babies and mothers in a maternity ward in his collapsing socialist state. He’d also enjoyed the prestige of a doctor’s life, even minor celebrity, as his comedic quips on hospital mishaps earned him 10,000 followers on Twitter.
He would occasionally sip aged rum at private clubs like these. Now, he was an immigrant working in one. A month ago, he had packed up his gold class ring, his stethoscope and his clothes, which had grown baggy after his monthly salary barely covered the cost of a dozen eggs. He’d said a prayer on his ebony rosary, hugged his boyfriend, Daniel, goodbye and ridden off to join the largest migrant wave in modern Latin American history.
For host nations from Peru to Chile to Argentina, Venezuela’s exodus amounts to the greatest injection of highly educated human capital since at least the early 20th century. Of the vast number of Venezuelans who have left in recent years, surveys and experts suggest that hundreds of thousands have university degrees or technical training, marking one of the globe’s most-skilled migrant flows.
As the Cubans did in Miami in the 1960s, and as the Syrians are doing today in Berlin, industrious Venezuelans are set to rebuild their ravaged lives in Lima, Bogota, Santiago and Buenos Aires. But these are the early days. And it’s hard to see the end game from the starting line.
Fresh off the bus three weeks ago, the best Perdomo could get was a gig as the new guy at the Jockey Club, perched above the dust and manure at Lima’s largest horse track. He set the tables for lunch, swept the floors and washed dishes. He still didn’t know his taku taku from his Huancaína sauce, but they’d given him three tables. Besides his $10-a-day salary, he could score a couple of bucks more in tips.
On Day 1 – and this was only Day 3 — he’d gone to a park after his 12-hour shift, sat down and cried. He felt humiliated and hated himself for it. He’d been too embarrassed to tell the kitchen staff that he’d been a well-known doctor. And he’d already been scolded for hoarding a diner’s leftovers.
Perdomo came back to the restaurant that day because he had to. He’d vowed to build a life here, to establish himself and send for his boyfriend, his mother. But now that he was here, that seemed a more distant dream. He had rent to pay – $40 a month for a few feet of space on a concrete floor.
He had $28 left to his name.
“Yes, sir,” he said, turning toward the businessman. “Coming right away, sir.”
Peru is no promised land. Sand-colored shantytowns mar its cities, and rural life can be backbreaking. A fifth of the population lives in poverty.
Yet more than 517,000 Venezuelans have arrived here so far this year, on top of the 100,000 who came in 2017 – making it the region’s second-largest host for Venezuelan migrants after Colombia. As many as 2 million Venezuelans will empty out of their country this year, and more than 1,000 cross the Peruvian border each day.
For them, even Peru is a paradise.
In Venezuela, failed socialist policies, mismanagement, corruption and lower prices for oil — the country’s principal source of cash – have toxically combined, producing a near-total societal implosion. A nation that was once the richest per capita in South America – and one of its best educated — has an estimated poverty rate near 87 percent. Malnutrition and disease are spreading unabated. Hyperinflation has broken supply chains, putting food and medicine out of reach for millions.
When the Venezuelans came knocking, Peru opened its doors, offering, until recently, fast-track work permits. It wasn’t strictly humanitarian. For Venezuela, the loss of highly skilled people
is a crippling brain drain. For Peru, it’s a bonanza.
“This could be good for us,” said Roxana del Águila, Peru’s acting director of migration.
Peruvian authorities are especially thrilled about Venezuelan doctors and are designing a program to bring them to cities and towns facing chronic staff shortages in clinics and hospitals. But for the doctors, it costs nearly $200 to take the national medical equivalency test – a king’s ransom for Venezuelan physicians who in many cases earned about $12 a month at home.
To scrape together the cash, Omar Ghiglione, a Venezuelan heart surgeon, is selling mail-order books in Lima. Heydi Coronel, a noted OB/GYN and fertility expert, is peddling candy from a cart. Manuel Soteldo, an internist, is working as a security guard.
Perdomo, meanwhile, is doing whatever he can to survive.
After his restaurant shift ended on a Saturday night, Perdomo walked home through a Lima suburb, eyeing the homemade ads he had put up offering math tutoring.
He’d been making a few extra pennies selling coffee on the street. Teaching math would be better, more respectable, he figured. But he had yet to get a single bite.
“Coming in! You better be decent!” he yelled, putting the key in the doorknob of a tiny apartment behind a garage. At 10 p.m., his roommates – two women and a man, all of them Venezuelans working 18-hour shifts – were still at work. He entered the sparse room and slumped on the floor, underneath a Venezuelan flag hanging on the wall.
He looked up at it, exhausted. “We love our country,” he said. “Just not what it’s become.”
Perdomo first heard the name Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s late leftist strongman, when he was 7 years old. Chávez would go on to win the presidency at the ballot box, backed by the vast underclass long ignored by Venezuela’s elites.
Perdomo’s father, an electrician, embraced Chávez. His mother, a teacher, hated him. “She saw through his lies. So did I,” Perdomo said.
Chávez died of cancer in 2013, leaving his successor, President Nicolás Maduro, to preside over Venezuela’s crash. Maduro tightened his grip on power through torture and fraud, while the socialist economy burned.
Perdomo had gone into medicine out of shame – to win prestige and redeem himself in the eyes of disappointed parents who looked at him and saw “a gay son.” Now, the hospital work haunted him. Cases had grown more desperate as the crisis deepened. He tended to two children who’d died of malnutrition. “We just never had that before, not in Venezuela, not starvation,” he said. But the case he could not get out of his head was that of Geliana Obregon. Flies had laid eggs in her head. With no medication for treatment and no running water at home – now a constant problem in Venezuela – maggots had infested the little girl’s scalp.
“I picked 123 worms out of her,” he said.
He kept a photo of Obregon, dressed in white-and-blue pajamas, on his phone. He looked at it now through the phone’s broken screen. Then he put it down and covered his face.
“One hundred and twenty-three worms,” he said through tears, “123 worms.”
At the beginning of October, he’d sat down with his mother, a 70-year-old cancer survivor, and his boyfriend, a doctor at the same hospital, and outlined a plan: He’d head to Peru and send for them when he could. He would be the one to go, because he had savings from years of teaching math before and during medical school. A small teacher’s pension, help from two siblings and whatever Perdomo could afford to send back would allow his mother to survive until they were reunited. He figured he would need $1,000 to bring them to Peru, get their own place and support them both while his boyfriend found work there.
On his second day in Lima, he sold his class gold class ring for $70. Most of that went to his first month’s rent.
Now rent was due again, but he had hope: a job interview.
The next morning on a chaotic Lima street strewn with trash, a woman in a tight blue dress creaked open an iron door. “I’m here for the interview,” Perdomo said, smiling and clutching his résumé in a yellow folder. The woman indicated with her chin to go to the stairs behind her, where 40 applicants were patiently waiting in line.
Perdomo entered and sized up the competition. He had worn his good blue pullover, the one with the hole that wasn’t noticeable if he held his arm a certain way. But the Peruvians – and lots of Venezuelans – were looking sharp. They had good reason. This was supposed to be a decent office job, not the work of a custodian. The online ad had asked for “only motivated people,” a description he read as someone willing to work long hours for less pay.
That was him.
Most of the Venezuelans he knew had two or three jobs. He still just had his one weekend job at the Jockey Club. This was his best lead yet. But something seemed off. Instead of one-on-one interviews, a dozen applicants were funneled into a room. A young man in a gray suit greeted them, introducing himself as Ramon Jimenez.
“Good afternoon!” Jimenez shouted, to a muted response. “I can’t hear you!” he said, rousing slightly louder replies. “Who’s got a positive attitude here? Who wants to be a success!”
Two applicants smelled a scam, stood up and left.
“See those people?” he said. “They don’t have a positive attitude. But I bet you do.”
He launched into an infomercial of a speech offering “free sales training” for a week. Better said: You worked for free.
“No,” Perdomo said under his breath, standing up and plunking his application on the chair. “No, no, no. Not this.”
The following morning, his phone dinged just after dawn.
It was a voice mail from Daniel, his boyfriend.
“You’ll get through this. You’ll get through this. There’s no other way,” Daniel said on the choppy recording. “Don’t forget who you are. Don’t forget how much you have already done. You can do this.”
“Give me the list,” Perdomo said, taking a patient sign-in sheet from a nurse. It was 26 hours later, and Perdomo was standing in a pristine lab coat in central Lima’s Solidarity Hospital of Mirones. “Hospital” was a big word for this cluster of freight containers turned into makeshift doctor’s offices, but he wasn’t about to quibble.
He got a break the night before. His roommate’s employer, a dermatologic firm, was looking for a clerk at one of their Lima clinics. He’d rushed over for the interview. After 20 minutes, the owner hired him on the spot. The salary: The equivalent of $267 a month. Minimum wage in Peru. An incalculable fortune in Venezuela.
A doctor brushed past him. He motioned to speak, but she ignored him, moving fast down the hallway.
“Doctors,” he said. “They all think they’re God.”
For the first time in a while, he laughed.
Rachelle Krygier and Andreina Aponte in Caracas contributed to this report.