Miami has Little Havana and New York, Little Italy. But in Madrid Venezuelan migrants are leaving their mark throughout the city, and Venezuelan politics are spilling over into a bitter regional election campaign.
“In the 40s and 50s there was large-scale immigration of Spaniards to Venezuela and now their children and grandchildren are coming back,” said Carleth Morales, head of an association of Venezuelan journalists in Spain.
I first lived in Spain 30 years ago, an era when, for some small towns, the arrival of foreign visitors — let alone foreign-born residents — caused a genuine stir. Since then the country has changed profoundly, due in no small part to the mass influx of Latin Americans. The Venezuelans are the latest cohort, many coming in response to economic disaster and political repression at home.
Overall, the number of Venezuelan-born people in Spain has doubled in four years, to over 400,000. In the city of Madrid they are set to become the most numerous group of overseas immigrants. While questions surround some of the newcomers’ wealth, and ties to the regime of Nicolás Maduro, there are large Venezuelan communities in the working-class districts of Vallecas and Carabanchel. Venezuelans also work at hundreds of humble establishments across the city, whether barbers, convenience stores or cafés.
“Madrid is the place that most feels like home,” says Vanesa, a former nurse from Caracas, who now works in a fast-food restaurant that serves arepas, Venezuelan corn cakes, near the Financial Times’s Madrid office. “Back home we can’t make ends meet.”
New arrivals have slowed during the pandemic. Three years ago, Venezuelans accounted for around half the market for apartments in the €1m plus bracket in the plush Salamanca district, according to the real estate group Engel & Völkers; today, the proportion is just a tenth.
Still, Venezuela’s travails are a hot political issue in Madrid. Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the conservative politician seeking re-election next week as the region’s head of government, is running on a ticket of “communism or liberty” (she favours the latter).
It is a familiar choice, she says, for the region’s 120,000-odd Venezuelan-born people, of whom around a third have the right to vote. “That’s why these elections are so important for them . . . They have lost one country and they don’t want to lose another,” she remarked this month. As she kicked off her campaign, she declared that “Madrid cannot become Caracas.”
Not everyone sees the May 4 election in quite such apocalyptic terms. Díaz Ayuso’s opponents on the left dismiss her as an ideologue who has presided over a region with one of Europe’s worst coronavirus records.
But deep aversion to Venezuela’s authoritarian socialist government goes beyond the immigrant community and Díaz Ayuso is far ahead in the polls. I’ve lost count of the number of times Hugo Chávez, the late Venezuelan leader, has cropped up in conversations that hitherto were purely about Spanish politics.
In an ugly campaign that has featured death threats against politicians, Diaz Ayuso’s most high profile opponent is Pablo Iglesias, the leader of the radical-left Podemos grouping. He previously advised the Venezuelan government and attended gatherings celebrating Chávez’s life and thought in Caracas. Those past links to Venezuela, as well as his domestic politics, have made him a figure of hate for many conservative Spaniards.
Many Venezuelans make clear the leftist is not their candidate of choice. One person in the real estate sector linked the fall in expensive Venezuelan purchases to Iglesias’s entry into the national government 15 months ago. (He resigned to run in the Madrid race.) Vanesa in the arepa restaurant adds that after what she experienced at home, “socialism is not an ideology I follow”.
Morales, who now advises the Venezuelan opposition’s “ambassador” to Spain, is philosophical about her country’s role in the Madrid campaign. “When they make these comparisons depicting us as a failed state, we can’t really be angry,” she says. “The fact that Venezuela is that sort of reference isn’t Spanish politicians’ fault; it’s ours.”