Why I Left Venezuela

And why I can’t go back.

A family photo split in two. Half is on top of a picture of Caracas. The other half is on top of a solid background.
Photo Courtesy of Gisela Salim-Peyer; Getty / The Atlantic

Migration, I like to tell myself, is the opposite of inertia. I left Venezuela on August 28, 2014. President Hugo Chávez had died the year before, bequeathing power over his dictatorship to his hand-picked successor, Nicolás Maduro. Around this time, supermarket shelves were emptying and resourceful Venezuelans were creating WhatsApp groups to tell one another where to find medicine, toilet paper, flour. Street violence was so common that seemingly everyone knew somebody who had been abducted, if only for a few hours, usually for ransom. (For me, this person was my older sister.) One morning, as I drove to a memorial service for a classmate who had been killed by the police the day before, I realized that I had to leave the country. This student had died in a protest that I had also attended, but it was not fear of death that motivated me. It was the feeling that these protests would subside and accomplish nothing.

Even though my parents struggled greatly to afford my studies abroad, we agreed that my leaving was worth the expense. In the years that followed my departure, daily life in Venezuela only got worse. And uprooting myself became progressively easier as time passed. My mailing address bounced among the Netherlands, Italy, Uganda, Portugal, and now the United States. I’ve developed an unsentimental readiness to leave cities behind, along with my friends and my books and anything too heavy to carry with me on the plane to the next place.

But every year around this time, this pride I feel about my worldliness morphs into bitterness. I returned home for the holidays once, in 2014, but haven’t been back to celebrate since. Year after year, I sit as a guest at someone else’s Christmas dinner. Usually my hosts will ask me about the situation in Venezuela (perhaps regretting it when I answer sincerely) and then reassure me that they are delighted to have me join them. At a certain point in the evening, I will find an empty room, video-call my parents, and cry a bit. Christmas Eve without my family is not Christmas Eve at all; it’s just December 24. On these nights, I don’t feel so cosmopolitan—I feel like an orphan.

A big part of what I miss about Venezuelan Christmas is the food. The staple is the hallaca (pronounced ah-yah-cah), a mixture of corn dough filled with stew, a bit like the Mexican tamale. It’s sprinkled with capers, raisins, and olives, and wrapped, like a Christmas present, in plantain leaves, which are the smell of December.

In 2015, for the first Christmas in my life, I did not eat hallacas. I stayed in Europe because the flights home were too expensive. Airlines wanted only dollars or euros. They had stopped accepting the Venezuelan bolivars everyone knew had become worthless. But I couldn’t blame the air carriers for a crisis more than a decade in the making.

In 2003, inflation was bubbling and Venezuelans coped by changing bolivars into dollars, causing more inflation. Chávez sought to break the cycle by banning currency exchange. Bolivars could not fluctuate in response to supply and demand for dollars if the government just monopolized supply and ignored demand. The exchange rate stayed—officially, artificially—at 4.30 for many years. But on the black market, the price of the dollar soared. And the state printed money so lavishly that, at a certain point, inflation reached 1 million percent. This meant that my family had only whatever savings had been changed to dollars before the rest was pulverized. It was not a lot; they were able to spare enough to cover my living expenses in my first months abroad, but certainly not for an airline ticket home for Christmas.

During my first year abroad, my housemate invited me to join his family’s celebrations in a pastoral village in Germany, near the French border. He told me we would go to Christmas markets and skate on ice. I thought about how so much of the iconography of the season—sweaters, mulled wine, fireplaces—assumes that it’s cold outside. Venezuela never gets cold. Christmas is different, tropical. Santa Claus cannot bring us presents, because our houses don’t have chimneys, and our nonexistent postal service could never carry letters to the North Pole. Also, the man would struggle to parse Venezuelan directions, which must be understood intuitively, given that we don’t believe in numbering roads or buildings. (“It’s the second house after the mango tree in front of the big pothole.”) Instead, we get our presents from El Niño Jesús, the son of God himself and perhaps the only one who can do the job.

When I arrived at my friend’s house in Saarland, Germany, the novelty of the picturesque white Christmas wore off quickly. I missed my parents.

I tried to feel at home by cooking Venezuelan food. Hallacas take many days and hands to prepare, so I settled on cachapas, our version of pancakes, waking up early on Christmas morning to make them as a sign of gratitude to my hosts. The problem is that I can cook with great enthusiasm but not skill. The mixture got stuck in the pans and burned. My friend later told me that his mother had to throw away those pans. I felt furious at myself. Why had I never cared about being Venezuelan, never gone out of my way to cook Venezuelan food, until the day I was invited to spend Christmas with a German family?

In the years that followed, flights did not get cheaper. (I last went home in the summer of 2018 to undergo a medical procedure, and the ticket cost more than 1,500 euros.) When the prices did start falling, another impediment arose: a global pandemic. So I continued observing Christmas from afar. I did not care that the cities I visited had traditional cuisines of their own to offer—such as the soul-warming tortellini in broth of Bologna, Italy—I craved only hallacas. I became stubbornly oblivious to a truth my mother kept reminding me of every time I called her during the holidays. She insisted that I should not be sad, or think so much of flying back, because the feasts of my childhood were no longer realizable anyway. Much of the extended family had left the country. The ingredients of hallacas were easier to find in Europe. And the Christmas I so missed existed not in another place, but in another time.

In the fall of 2021, when I had just moved to New York City, my boyfriend sat me down on the couch. “How about I get you a plane ticket to Venezuela for Christmas so that you can see your parents?” he asked. His face held a mixture of seriousness and excitement. I gratefully accepted the proposal.

But his gift went unused. The obstacles that had prevented me from traveling—thrift and pandemic closures—had disappeared, but a new one had taken their place. My passport had expired in 2020, and I had no way of renewing it.

Venezuelans have had no access to consular services in the United States since 2019, owing to a saga that, at first, made me hopeful that Maduro’s dictatorship might end. In January of that year, Juan Guaidó emerged in Venezuelan politics seemingly out of nowhere. He held a seat in the legislature and proclaimed himself interim president until free and fair elections could be held. The Trump administration supported him, as did Denmark, Haiti, Japan, and dozens of other countries. Despite Guaidó’s momentum, Maduro never stopped governing, and the idea of a democratic resurgence faded.

One can find tangible evidence of Guaidó’s brief rise in the form of a vacant townhouse in Midtown Manhattan—the consulate. Because Trump supported Guaidó, a vengeful Maduro closed all of Venezuela’s diplomatic buildings in the United States. In retaliation, the U.S. shut down its embassy in Caracas. To this day, Venezuelans living in the United States cannot renew their passports to travel to Venezuela, and Venezuelans in Venezuela cannot get a visa to come to the United States.

My boyfriend thought I could circumvent this problem using my Spanish passport. (I have dual citizenship through my mother, also a Spanish national.) But Venezuelan citizens must use their Venezuelan passport to travel to the country. My boyfriend, who is Italian, could enter the country without so much as a visa. But I could not.

I often wonder if anyone is paying attention to an issue that, after all, affects not just me, but 500,000 other Venezuelans in the United States. Last month, the Biden administration met delegations representing both Maduro and Guaidó in Mexico City and negotiated a deal so that Chevron could extract oil from Venezuela. Neither the spokespeople nor the press that covered it mentioned anything about discussions to reopen diplomatic offices. A State Department spokesperson told me in an email there are no plans to resume operations at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, and that the department currently has a “Travel Advisory Level 4: Do Not Travel to Venezuela” in place.

Next Christmas, I am determined to go home and eat hallacas with my parents. I already have a plan. First, I’ll save a lot of money. Second, I’ll go to the nearest open Venezuelan consulate, in Mexico City, to renew my passport. Direct flights between the United States and Venezuela are still forbidden, so I’ll fly to the Dominican Republic for a long layover, but eventually, I’ll be home.

In 2014, the last time I was home for the holidays, I squandered the chance to spend Christmas with my parents. The guy I was dating asked me to have dinner with him and his family, and I accepted, maybe just because I felt I owed it to him for picking me up from the airport.

My thoughtlessness that night has degenerated into a guilt that weighs on me every Christmas Eve when I call my parents. When I say “I miss you,” I worry that the phrase has lost its meaning. When I say “Thank you for all the sacrifices you have made so that I could study abroad,” I remember that, in 2014, I asked my father to pick me up after midnight from somebody else’s Christmas dinner instead of staying home with him. This year will be different because I have a plan. I won’t just say “I miss you” or recite the usual platitudes. I’ll say: “Mom, Dad, I am coming home next year and spending Christmas in Caracas with you.”