Editor’s Note (4/30/19): This article was originally published on February 15, 2019. It is being republished today amid the escalating political crisis in Venezuela.
Empty labs, nonexistent funding, deteriorating equipment and an unsympathetic government: Many Venezuelan scientists say the country’s worsening political turmoil has made research virtually impossible.
In the capital, Caracas, they struggle to find food and maintain personal security—their experiments a distant afterthought. Abroad, self-exiled biochemists and physicists clean houses, wash tables and give private language lessons to make ends meet. But many still cling to hope the situation will improve and they will be able to return to science.
Hugo Chavez was elected president of Venezuela in 1998, and brought sweeping social and political changes to the country in a series of initiatives dubbed the Bolivarian Revolution. During a 2003 general strike protesting his policies, Chavez fired thousands of employees of its national oil company, Petroleum of Venezuela (PDVSA). This was the first wave of Venezuelan “brain drain,” says geologist Lorena Moscardelli, who was dismissed from the PDVSA in 2003 and resettled in the U.S. “Thousands of engineers and geoscientists ended up in the U.S.A., Norway, the Middle East and wherever we could find work or opportunities,” she says.
Chavez died in office in 2013, and his handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, was elected president. Under his leadership the Venezuelan economy has continued a steep decline, and funding for scientific research has virtually disappeared. Rolling blackouts are commonplace and food shortages are routine. Protests that began in 2014 developed into sporadic scenes of civil unrest. Maduro was reelected late last year with 67 percent of the vote; his opponents disputed the results, sparking a new wave of protests. In January Juan Guaidó—president of Venezuela’s National Assembly and a leader of the opposition—declared himself interim president of Venezuela and called for new elections, and the country’s political situation remains extremely tense and chaotic.
Over the past few years a growing exodus has emptied many of the nation’s classrooms and laboratories of the students and professors necessary to conduct research. Ismardo Bonalde, a physicist at the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research (IVIC), estimates 50 to 60 percent of researchers have left the country. Bonalde says he has not had any funding for 10 years—and in the last two years has not run a single experiment. “It’s really tough,” he says. “We need time to think about science. In Venezuela that’s not possible. It’s kind of difficult to think about science when you need to find food to eat.”
At IVIC—which Maduro praised on Twitter on February 9, the research institution’s 60th anniversary—conditions are dire. Last October the IVIC Inter-Union Commission issued a press release describing a “state of abandonment” that included buildings falling into disrepair and a library that has not subscribed to any international scientific journals since 2016. According to the release, 83 students entered IVIC’s postgraduate programs in 2014; in 2018, there were two.
“The level of deterioration at IVIC is really impossible to imagine,” says microbiologist Flor Pujol, president of the IVIC Researchers’ Association. In past economic crises Venezuelan scientists could make do with creative solutions, she says. “But now there is no money for anything. Sometimes we even don’t have water for our labs. We sometimes don’t have electricity. Internet [access] is really bad.” An IVIC professor’s salary was $2,000 or $3,000 per month 20 years ago—but it is now less than $15, and scientists are living off their savings and taking small side jobs, Pujol says. Even more distressing, she adds, is that “there is a negation of scientific excellence.” Before the Maduro regime came to power she felt IVIC had very strict standards. “This has been questioned by the new authorities,” she says. “I think this is even more dramatic than the financial crisis.”
Claudio Mendoza lost his position as head of a computational physics lab at IVIC as a result of an article he wrote in 2007 that poked fun at the government’s inability to develop nuclear technology. He emigrated from Venezuela to the U.S. in 2017 and now works at Western Michigan University. Mendoza says the Venezuelan Ministry of Popular Power for University Education, Science and Technology (MPPEUCT) has long demonstrated an “unsatisfactory” attitude toward scientific research. “They thought it was a bourgeois activity,” he says. “Rather than having scientists doing science, they wanted people to become familiar with science—which in a way is important. But the scientific activity was given a secondary role, so scientific investment was a mess.” And under Maduro scientific investment “got wiped out,” he says.
“At all levels of the national scientific establishment, inexperienced professionals with little scientific or technical knowledge or background have been assigned to positions of authority,” says Ruth Castillo Ochoa, a philosopher of physics who left Venezuela in 2017 after she says the lack of food and basic services—combined with military repression—made life unbearable. She contends authorities at the MPPEUCT are appointed based on loyalty to the regime. “This approach excludes a constructive dialogue with the research and development community and reduces academic performance freedom,” she says.
Nuris Orihuela Guevara was the minister in charge of the MPPEUCT from 2008 to 2009; she says she left the position after a disagreement with Chavez, and has since left the country. She says, “The creation of the ministry gave the [science] sector the necessary importance. The policies implemented allowed a real growth of the sector.” However, she adds, “the lack of understanding of some involved actors deflected attention and resources, diluted the original policies and we arrived at the current situation.” Early last month Guevara published an article on the Web site of the American Popular Revolutionary Assembly—a pro-Chavez organization—in which she denounced the Maduro government and called for free elections. “The Bolivarian project, led by Pres. Chavez and inherited by Nicolas Maduro, completely lost its original course,” she says. “Venezuela must reinvent itself, [and] this is only possible if we count [on] a solid scientific technological sector.” The office of Hugbel Roa, the current Cabinet Minister of the MPPEUCT, did not respond to repeated e-mails and phone calls seeking comment.
Science in Exile
A number of Venezuelan scientists are also scattered across Europe and the Americas. Many have been struggling to find employment and often take work that does not correspond with their expertise. Ochoa lives in Italy, where she earns money by giving private Spanish lessons. Her sister, biochemist Annie Castillo Ochoa, was part of a team that won Venezuela’s National Science Prize in 2018. Her partner fell ill that same year, and unable to find medicine in Venezuela they moved to Italy where his condition stabilized for a time—but four months later he died. “Nothing went as expected,” Annie Ochoa says. “I had to ask for asylum,” after which she found work as a barista and performed other “humble work in order to pay the rent.” She now cleans houses and works as a home health caregiver. “It’s ironic,” she says. Astrophysicist Alexis Chechelev emigrated in January 2019. “Here in Spain we are trying to develop our lives with anything that we can do,” he says. “Washing tables, washing floors, as a cook or anything that doesn’t have any link with the things that I have studied.” Chechelev hopes that once he establishes legal residence he will be able to rejoin academic life.
Still, hope for their future—in exile and back in Venezuela—was a common thread expressed by the researchers. “I am convinced, after 14 months of arriving in Italy, that Venezuelans will be able to move forward where we are and that [as] scientists, will know how to reach our rightful place and make our [training] value in the era known,” Annie Ochoa says. Several expatriate scientists also voiced frustration about how they say the international news media have oversimplified the situation on the ground in their homeland. Émigrés repeatedly asserted their desire to return when the situation improves. In Venezuela and abroad many of the scientists described aspirations of being able to help rebuild their nation.
“If we manage to get out of the dictatorship and if there is investment for the reconstruction of the country, I am sure that many of us—scientists and other professionals—would return to help recover our country,” says Katherine Briceño, a biologist who left Venezuela in 2016 and currently resides in Spain. “We understand that although we have international support to overcome the crisis, the recovery of our country depends solely on us, the people of Venezuela.”