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Crisis-struck Venezuelans turning to Lebanon

Reverse migration

by Lauren Holtmeier

Venezuela teeters on the brink of further deterioration from years of political and economic instability. With self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guiado on one side standing in opposition to current president Nicolas Maduro, the county’s future is uncertain. As with most modern conflicts, what happens in Venezuela has global implications, and this Latin American crisis may even touch as far as Lebanon.

Hyperinflation, food and medicine shortages, rising crime rates, and a progressively authoritarian government, have caused many to flee Venezuela over the past few years. Most of those who fled have sought refuge in neighboring countries; according to a report by thinktank Council on Foreign Relations, as of last January there were around 3.4 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants—up from just 0.7 million in 2015—with Colombia hosting the most refugees at 1.1 million and Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Argentina, and the US also receiving sizeable numbers. And because of generation-old links between the countries, an increasing number of Venezuelans, as a result of conflict, are choosing to move to Lebanon, reversing the migration patterns of prior decades where Lebanese fled conflict at home and made their new homes in Latin America.

Long-established ties

The initial Lebanese link in Venezuela dates to 1861, when the first recorded migrant from Lebanon arrived in Venezuela. Years of conflict in Lebanon served as the primary driver of emigration, says Colin P. Clarke, an adjunct political scientist at RAND Corporation, an American nonprofit thinktank. During Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, many left Lebanon, settling around the globe. “In Venezuela, a lot of them were connected to the business and merchant community,” Clarke says. “They were making money and sending it home to Lebanon.” Over the last 100 years, scores of Lebanese have gone to join their extended families in different Latin American countries, including Venezuela. And, in parallel, migration flows have come from Latin America to Lebanon as well.

The Venezuelan Embassy in Lebanon says they have around 11,000 Venezuelans currently registered, but the actual number is likely to be much higher. Factor in those with Venezuelan ancestry who have lived in Latin America but do not have the Venezuelan passport—like Riad Abou Iteif, the owner of the popular Hamra restaurant Ferdinand’s—and the number climbs even higher.

Iteif and Amir Richani—a political analyst at ClipperData, a crude oil movement data and analysis firm, and a Venezuelan of Lebanese ancestry now living in Lebanon—share similar family histories. Richani’s mother’s great-great-grandfather was Latin American, but came to Lebanon three generations go, and later generations made the trip back to Venezuela. “I think they chose [Venezuela] because there was a large population of Lebanese there already,” he says.

He says his mother’s family, who moved to Venezuela during the Lebanese Civil War, were merchants, working in the calle, or street, selling furniture. “A lot of Lebanese there were merchants” he says, echoing Clarke. Highlighting the shared migration between the countries, Richani’s grandparents in Valencia, Venezuela, moved to Lebanon in the mid-2000s. As the situation deteriorated in Venezuela, more members of his extended family followed. “It was an extended family decision to come,” Richani, who arrived in Lebanon in 2010 with his brother and mother, says. His father stayed in Venezuela to look after the family construction businesses.

Itief’s family, who works in the automotive industry, had similar concerns about leaving Venezuela. “Some were afraid to come back because of their shops and the situation there,” he says. “They didn’t want to leave everything they had worked for.”

Itief’s family, originally from the Bekaa Valley, moved to Maracaibo, Venezuela in the late 1970s, where family members helped his dad open a spare automotive parts shop. His paternal grandfather’s family moved to Venezuela in 1974 and worked as merchants, selling clothes on the street. But he spent only six years in Latin America as a young child before returning to Beirut, eventually taking over Ferninand’s in 2012, and recently opening Meats and Bread in Gemmayze in 2017.

A growing trend?

The trade of human capital and money between the countries has occurred for generations. Richani explains that remittances, money sent from abroad, were typically sent from Venezuela to Lebanon. Now, that trend has reversed. “Venezuela had strict controls over foreign exchange, meaning you could not buy US dollars, so you had a lot of black market business,” Richani says. “People would buy dollars on the black market and then send them to other countries. Now it’s the opposite. A lot of Venezuelans have left the country, and the currency is devaluating rapidly.”

While the exact economic impact of migration and remittances sent between countries is nearly impossible to estimate, the shift of Lebanon as a sending country to a receiving country potentially has economic impacts, especially if others, like Iteif, open businesses in Lebanon. Media reports cite the number of Lebanese citizens and descendants in Venezuela at 800,000 (the Lebanese Embassy in Caracas did not respond to a request to confirm this number). With Venezuela’s future still uncertain, it is likely that more will follow suit and join their extended families in Lebanon.

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Lauren Holtmeier

Lauren Holtmeier holds a masters of International Affairs from the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M and has worked on refugee issues at the American University of Beirut.

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