This text could start with the account of Leonor and Ricardo, who after 45 years of raising a family in Venezuela, now watch their grandchildren grow up on video calls as their children try to make a living in four countries spread over two. continents.
But that’s not their story. Or at least it’s not just theirs: hundreds of thousands of families are in a similar and sometimes worse situation, as many Venezuelan grandparents do not have access to the technology to make video calls, do have no passports or financial resources to visit their grandchildren from time to time. many years, sometimes not even money to pay for drugs.
Some have managed to stay with their grandchildren, but because their children, when they emigrated, did not have the money to take the little ones with them and had to leave them.
The unprecedented wave of migration of recent years, generated by the economic, social and political crisis that is going through Venezuela, has brought about major demographic changes that have transformed the country. In addition to the particular family dramas, this new scenario has serious implications for the present and the future.
the lost inhabitants
In 2015, the National Institute of Statistics of Venezuela (INE) estimated that by 2020, the country would have 32,605,423 inhabitants.
However, the most recent projections from the United Nations Office for Population (UNPOP) indicate that last year Venezuela had 28,436,000 inhabitants: about four million people less than expected, a population level similar to that recorded in 2010.
According to the UN, Venezuela is the country in the world that has lost the most population in the past five years, even more than Syria, which is plunged into civil war. The country is the only Latin American country to have lost inhabitants in the last decade.
Data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) indicates that more than 5.6 million Venezuelans have emigrated in recent years. It would be easy to attribute this loss of population solely to emigration. The situation is more complex, however.
“We are losing people everywhere,” Anitza Freitez, director of the Institute for Economic and Social Research at the Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas, told BBC Mundo, the BBC’s Spanish-language service.
Freitez, coordinator of the Encovi project, which portrays the living conditions of Venezuelans, explains that the population contraction is mainly due to mass emigration, but also to the drop in birth rates and increase in mortality. .
“The drop in the number of births is not negligible, and contributes to the aging of the population,” he underlines. According to her, the increase in infant mortality means a loss of 30 years of progress, which has also translated into a three-year reduction in life expectancy.
A country of old people and children
All of these changes have imposed a new demographic landscape on Venezuela. According to Encovi data, there are now more single-person households, in addition to more female-headed households.
“Our migration is mainly male. This means that women ended up becoming heads of households – we have a percentage of families headed by women above 50%. region is around 36%, ”says Freitez.
The specialist points out that about 60% of Venezuelan migrants are people aged 15 to 50, which implies a significant decrease in the workforce and an increase in the weight of the elderly population, which generally uses more resources. health system and receives pensions on the public accounts.
According to data compiled by Encovi, Venezuela currently has 65 dependents (under 15 and over 60) for every 100 people of working age, a heavy burden that ended up arriving much sooner than expected. “It is a country of old people and children”, summarizes Freitez.
“According to INE projections, it was predicted that by 2039 the proportion of people aged 60 and over would reach 12%, 13% of the population, but this image has been brought forward to 2020, according to the updates population projections for Venezuela conducted by the United Nations Aging has advanced by almost 20 years due to the selectivity of emigration, which has led to the exodus of young people, ”he explains.
These changes in the composition of the Venezuelan population, brought about by the serious social, economic and political crisis, mean the loss of a unique opportunity for the development of the country.
“If we had continued in the trend we were in and had not gone through this period of general impoverishment, economic contraction, hyperinflation, we would expect that we would live about four decades in which the burden demographic would record its lowest levels, ”he points out.
“This would mean that, for both the infant population and the elderly, the investment needs to meet the basic needs of these population groups would not be so urgent and, therefore, we could focus more resources on training. human capital, ”he said. adds.
The expert explains that countries like South Korea have taken advantage of these periods of demographic transition to strengthen education and promote, with public and private investments, economic growth that has generated enough wealth to develop security programs. social protection to protect the elderly.
In the case of Venezuela, projections indicated that this window of opportunity for development, known as the “demographic bonus”, would run from 2000 to 2040. Demographers like Freitez, however, warn that it is already closed.
The Venezuelan crisis, she says, had an impact similar to that of a traumatic event. “The current situation can be characterized as a complex humanitarian emergency, which amounts to a traumatic event, such as war. We know that the war affects the young and male population more, ”he compares.
The effects of missing out on this opportunity could still weigh heavily on the country for many years to come.
poorer, older, more dependent
Demographic changes are forcing the country to adapt to a new reality. “We have to accept the fact that we now have a different age pyramid than what we imagined we had,” Freitez said.
“We have to be very careful when we think about the measures we need to take to recover human capital, to recover productive sectors which are strategic and which also have multiplier effects on other sectors to help in this process of recovery”, did he declare.
The anticipated aging of the population also brings new adaptation challenges, as, according to her, there are no adequate institutions or social protection system to serve the elderly.
“The risky situation in which the elderly population lives is very high. We do not have a country that has realized that it is necessary to adapt existing infrastructure so that older people can use them. There are people who cannot leave the apartment because they cannot, there are elevators and people who are left alone because their loved ones have left and they have been left on their own. “
Luis Zambrano Sequín, professor of economics and researcher at the Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas, points out that the wave of migration has not only reduced the number of people of working age – those who have jobs are, in general, , less productive.
“The burden is now much heavier because there has been not only a loss of population, but also a loss of capital and productivity,” he says.
Fewer workers means fewer consumers, a reduction in the internal market, one of the elements which determines the capacity of the economy to grow.
“The smaller the market, the less attractive it is for investment, because it makes it difficult to access economies of scale. Many investors prefer to serve these markets from the outside rather than from the inside. This reduces the possibilities and competitiveness of the country ”, guarantees