Venezuela’s best and brightest camp on sidewalks

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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — 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.”

That disillusionment can be felt outside the Honorary Consulate in Caracas, where for the past six months, and more intensely since the economy took a turn for the worst in November, students gather every day before dawn.

Sometimes the lines are 200 deep, drawing complaints from passing office workers and forcing a rotating cadre of self-appointed leaders to maintain a 24-hour vigil so that nobody jumps the line when the consulate, which operates out of a law office, opens between 10 a.m. and noon.

They’re all there to cross the same Rubicon: obtaining a stamp certifying their enrollment letter sent from Ireland.

With that paper in hand, they can navigate the bureaucratic labyrinth created by a decade of rigid currency controls and buy hard currency at the official exchange rate of 6.3 bolivars per dollar — 12 times cheaper than on the black market.

That presents the opportunity for a financial killing. The government lets students abroad buy 16,440 euros a year on top of tuition. Selling just a small portion of those on the black market in theory lets fraudsters transform 140,000 bolivars into more than 1.5 million bolivars overnight. That’s roughly 500 times the monthly minimum wage of 3,270 bolivars.

And officials say they suspect some don’t actually go to school at all.

Trade Minister Alejandro Fleming, who tightly administers the selling of hard currency, said this month that Ireland and Miami are places where currency crooks posing as students are fleecing the nation’s coffers.

Ireland’s foreign ministry told the AP that it has also detected a small number of fraudulent applications but wouldn’t provide details. The talk among the students and hired fixers on the sidewalk is that the consul’s stamp was recently counterfeited.

Unlike other foreign students, Venezuelans also face obstacles opening bank accounts in Ireland because of fear they could be used to illegally transfer money, said Tiago Mascarenhas, Seda’s marketing director.

Some students, while acknowledging that the system lends itself to fraud, say the real abuses are being carried out by President Nicolas Maduro’s government, which has allowed supermarket shelves go bare and inflation to skyrocket even as it sits atop the world’s largest oil reserves.

“If the government is suspicious then they should present proof,” said Rodriguez, who says that a third of her close friends have already left Venezuela. “It’s not our fault the country isn’t progressing.”

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Follow Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APjoshgoodman

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