Why wealthy Venezuelans are flocking to Spain

Entrepreneurs and well-to-do families are fleeing a hostile climate back home and putting down roots in Spain

J. A. Aunión
Sandra Araujo left Venezuela in 2014 for Miami but has recently settled in the Salamanca area of Madrid.
Sandra Araujo left Venezuela in 2014 for Miami but has recently settled in the Salamanca area of Madrid.VICTOR SAINZ

Sandra Araujo, 51, says Madrid reminds her a lot of Caracas “before the disaster.” Although born  inland, she had lived in the Venezuelan capital almost all her life. Then in 2014, her nephews were kidnapped and she decided to join the exodus.

3,500 Venezuelans live in Salamanca, the third-most expensive neighborhood in Madrid

She headed to Miami, where her daughter was already studying and where she invested in three properties to provide her with an income to replace the one she lost when her family’s private clinic went into decline. Last October, however, she decided to leave Miami for Madrid. Not only is the United States making it increasingly difficult for people like Sandra to get a green card, she found the cost of living very expensive – four times as costly as Spain, she says.

While most Venezuelan exiles have settled in other Latin American countries or the US, Venezuelan migration to Spain has shot up by 58% since 2014. Last January, there were 244,671 Venezuelans living in Spain, according to the National Institute of Statistics (INE). And Madrid, home to 42,000 of them – is their main destination.

Part of the reason the numbers have risen sharply is that family members already here facilitate legal entry for those back home. More than 60% of residents born in Venezuela have Spanish nationality. Spain is seen as a less hostile option that Donald Trump’s United States, with a lower cost of living, business friendly environment and less obstacles to achieving residency.

Alexander Rangel, a US lawyer specializing in immigration, says that apart from the so-called ‘golden visa’ that awards automatic residency to foreigners who buy property over half a million euros, Spain also offers the more accessible non-lucrative residence visa. This allows a non-EU resident to live legally in Spain for a year without working as long as they open a bank account with a deposit of at least €26,000 and take out medical insurance which is, according to Rangel, far cheaper than in the US.

Pedro Ontiveros, a retired Venezuelan at home in Tres Cantos.
Pedro Ontiveros, a retired Venezuelan at home in Tres Cantos.SANTI BURGOS

The year can subsequently be extended to three years, and during the second year of residency, all expats from Ibero-American countries can apply for Spanish nationality. In 2013, Rangel set up a business that has helped more than 500 Venezuelan families move here from the US and Panama, including Araujo.

While Araujo’s daughter has remained in Miami, three of her sisters have settled abroad and two have remained in Venezuela with her mother managing what is left of the clinic, which now deals only with emergencies. A lawyer herself, Sandra’s plan is to extend her one-year non-lucrative residence permit and apply for Spanish nationality while moving to a property she has bought in the Salamanca neighborhood.

The third-most expensive area in Madrid, Salamanca has attracted the biggest concentration of Venezuelan ex-pats so far – 3,500 – indicating that the Madrid-based community is far from impecunious. But in the less salubrious neighborhoods of Tetuan and Puente de Vallecas, there are also 2,456 and 2,300 Venezuelans, respectively. In short, not all are in the super-wealthy income bracket, though the journey alone requires a certain level of affluence.

“I would need to save for 20 years for the flights on my university lecturer’s salary,” says sociologist Tomás Páez, one of the people behind the Venezuelan Diaspora Observatory. Some manage it with money sent to them by those who have moved to Spain and others spend their last dime on the trip.

I would need to save for 20 years for the flights on my university lecturer’s salary Venezuelan sociologist Tomás Páez

“There are those who come with their passport in their mouth, as they say,” explains Venezuelan-born lawyer José Antonio Carrero, who moved to Spain in 2010. “They arrive with nothing, or at the most €300, and take it from there.”

According to Carrero, applications for asylum and refugee status are systematically rejected. In 2016, 4,196 Venezuelans applied and, in 2017, the figure rose to 10,000. So far this year, there have been 12,000 applications, according to the Madrid-based Cadena SER radio station. Carreras adds that thousands of educated and professional Venezuelans have been forced to work as babysitters, cleaners and waiters.

Like A.E.D.F, a 38-year-old journalist who prefers to remain anonymous because she is in Spain without a proper visa. The journalist arrived in Spain several months ago because her father – who gained Spanish nationality when he married a Spaniard – sent them money for the flight. She is now working illegally, doing the accounts for several restaurants. Carrero, whose Tenerife-based law firm deals with migration issues for many of his compatriots, believes that around 20% of Venezuelans are working illegally while 30% have residence status and 50% dual nationality

Pedro Ontiveros, 73, is among the 50%, thanks to his wife whose grandparents were Spanish. A retired career guidance officer, he is one of 9,000 Venezuelans with Spanish nationality who have not been paid their pension since 2015. “It’s a terrible situation,” he says.

Andrea, a Venezuelan student residing in Madrid, on holiday in A Coruña.
Andrea, a Venezuelan student residing in Madrid, on holiday in A Coruña.OSCAR CORRAL

With his savings gone, he and his wife have to survive on the little money their children send them from England. This might sound dire, but there are those worse off. “Some of our friends have had to resort to soup kitchens,” he says. Together, they have set up an association to lobby the Spanish government for a non-contributory pension.

Despite their current situation, Pedro does not regret the move to Spain which was made after his wife was mugged in Venezuela. Neither does A.E.D.F., despite the fact she was forced – hopefully temporarily – to leave her 10-year-old daughter behind. Sandra Araujo is also happy about her decision, despite having to sell her house in Caracas where she once dreamed of growing old. All were weary of the violence and misery that has taken their country hostage and none believe they will ever return.

On the last stretch of his degree in political science at Madrid’s Complutense University, Andrea Urizarbarrena, 25, came to Spain three years ago to be with her parents and two siblings – her mother works in a communications agency and her father in a restaurant. The catalyst for their migration came when Andrea narrowly escaped an attempted kidnapping and her sister an assault during a demonstration.

“I don’t know what I will do, but I am certain that my parents will stay in Spain,” says Andrea.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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