Clara, 65, tightly clutches the keys to the house where she's worked for nearly a third of her life. She says it's a matter of honor, a promise she made to the owners when they left Venezuela and could not sell their home in La Trinidad, an affluent Caracas neighborhood.
The world's highest rate of inflation, shortages of food and medicine, high crime rates and other problems have forced many families to flee Venezuela and leave their homes at the mercy of trusted relatives or friends.
The house that Clara looks after has been an empty shell for five years. Its six bedrooms, occupied for 30 years by the Fernández family – they asked that their real name be changed – today gathers dust and stands in silence. The owners said it was neither rented nor sold for financial reasons. Renting a home in Venezuela is a risky bet because the laws have favored renters since 2011. And the weak Venezuelan currency, the bolívar, has made it difficult to sell property.
The Fernández family made the choice choice to leave their home in the care of a trusted person, Clara. Her job is to be cautious, accept the fact that there is no legally binding contract to let her stay and respect the handshake agreement she made with the family.
The job of caretaker can vary. The woman who takes care of the Vieira family home in the Vista Alegre neighborhood in southeastern Caracas not only handles the property but cared for the family pet for four months, until it was shipped to Spain. Her payment was 50,000 bolivars, about $97 at the official exchange rate, or 30 percent more than the minimum wage.
Emigration, a family affair
In the Caracas complex of Prados del Este, the exodus of families hasn't stopped since 2001. Rafael Landaeta Matheus, 77 and a resident for the past 40 years, intimately knows the changes in the street. “In five years, this block has said goodbye to at least four families,” he said.
Emigration from Venezuela is now a family affair. The exodus of the Fernández family began when the father left for Panama in 2007. A well-known Caracas lawyer, he started a new career as a businessman in his adopted country. He was followed by his wife and two children, both university graduates who had initially hoped to have careers in Venezuela. But in time they abandoned those dreams.
Their story was confirmed by friends in the neighborhood. "Insecurity was the main reason for their departure,” said family friend Carlos Avellaneda, adding that one of the daughters had been kidnapped at one point. That has happened “to many neighbors,” he said.
Sociologist Tomás Páez, who wrote the book The Venezuelan Diaspora, has been studying the emigration phenomenon in recent years. The unprecedented exodus, in a country that was a net receiver of migrants until 1980, led him to create a profile of those who leave.
“The majority are professionals. Many came from humble families but had the opportunity to raise their standards of living as they graduated from university,” Páez said. His research also shows that a good part of the migrants were part of the working class, and moved abroad because they saw opportunities unavailable at home due to Venezuela's many troubles.
For now, it's impossible to know how many homes have been abandoned in Venezuela. There are not even official figures on the number of Venezuelans who migrated in the last decade. Ivan de la Vega, sociologist at Simon Bolivar University, estimates more than 1.4 million left the country with a popualtion of about 30 million.
An estimated 600,000 Venezuelans arrived in the United States from 1990 to 2015 – a small number compared to 33 million Mexicans or even 1.5 million Colombians. But they tend to be different: 48 percent of them are professionals, and their unemployment rate is just 8 percent – among the best for Latin American migrants.
Another 256,334 Venezuelans went to Europe, including 155,034 to Spain. “Five percent of the Venezuelan population has emigrated in the last twenty years. That is the highest in Latin America,” said De la Vega.
Although De la Vega's research showed that 96 percent of the migrants have no plans to return to Venezuela, some refuse to get rid of their homes by selling or renting them. It is a paradox without data, just anecdotes from around the capital.
The Vieira family took the leap, deciding to leave Caracas and move to the Spanish city of Barcelona without looking back. They left behind everything they had built, including a big house in the Vista Alegre development, adding to the city's empty dwellings.
Gillermo Barrios, former dean of the School of Architecture and Development at the Universidad Central, said the abandonment of homes pains him. Now living in Madrid, he said it is an unprecedented phenomenon in the history of Venezuela.
“It can't even be compared to the exodus that took place in Cuba when the Fidel Castro regime began (1959), because in Venezuela many families left their homes up in the air, at the mercy of friends, with the hope of returning – although there are increasingly fewer people who want to return to the country,” he added. About 500,000 Cubans left the island in the first decade after Castro took power, and their homes were taken over by the state.
The architect compared the family homes to the veins of a city. “When these homes are abandoned because of migration, when the first families leave, there is a rupture in the communities,” he said. “Things aren't the same."