The PIE News: When did things in Venezuela start getting difficult?
Christina Vareschi: It has been a long process. It started with Hugo Chavez who started getting close to Cuba.
In the beginning, we didn’t notice really that [the economy] was sliding. A lot of income came from the oil industry, and oil prices were very high. Suddenly they started to destroy the industry. The government destroyed the national industry, and we started importing everything, and we started depending on imports for everything. And now we have no production in Venezuela and we can’t afford to import any more.
“Venezuelans have difficulties in getting visas now for the US”
The PIE: Why did they think it was a good idea to start importing?
CV: [The government made] money because they imported and they had a parallel currency. For example, we had to pay so many more times for foreign currency, while the government had a special currency and they could import for very little. They were millionaires and took all the money out of the country. Now my country is absolutely destroyed. No investments have been made in infrastructure, and everything is breaking down. All the basic services are just collapsing. Electricity, water supplies, everything. The internet and phone companies are a disaster. Everything is collapsing.
The PIE: How can you run a business in that situation?
CV: That’s a very big challenge nowadays. The other problem is that Venezuelans are fleeing the country because they just can’t afford to buy food or medicine. Thousands of people are fleeing the country now.
The first thing you ask at every place you go is [whether] someone is still in Venezuela. Universities have big problems because they’re missing students and teachers, and so are schools. Inflation is the highest in the world now – you’ll get a price for one day and the next day it will be doubled. It’s just so difficult.
They changed the name of the currency, the Bolívar. They first decided to take three zeros off. And now they took five zeros off. So we have eight zeros less. The money is not worth anything anymore.
The PIE: Can anybody study abroad?
CV: There are still some high-class people who have a lot of money…
The PIE: Where would Venezuelans genuinely choose to go? Is it the US because of proximity?
CV: This is very difficult now because the policies have changed a lot. Venezuelans have difficulties in getting visas now for the US. They’re going everywhere – wherever they can go. Most of them go to neighbouring countries: Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Panama, Mexico. Obviously, if they can come, also the US.
I’m staying in Miami for a couple of months because I have good connections and I’m changing the whole structure of the company. I don’t have fixed employees anymore, only four administrators. One for administration and all the other ones are freelance. They are very good people.
It’s not a good idea to depend on salaries and fixed people. [Permanent employees] can’t concentrate anymore, because no salary is enough in Bolívars anymore. Everything is now in dollars.
The PIE: Does it mean there are some students who still want to study abroad? Have you had partners reaching out offering you scholarships?
CV: Well this is very interesting. If you have a student fair in Venezuela, a lot of students show up because everybody wants to leave [the country]. But only a small percentage can afford it. I still have some students, who can afford it.
I’m looking for other alternative programs. On one side I have fantastic partners who I’ve been working with for many many years and they give me very special prices.
I’m not so much into university courses but I’m starting to look a little bit into it. I have some summer camps in the US which are absolutely unbelievable. In order to get some Venezuelans, they [almost] give their courses away. I’m looking for special programs and scholarships. I have to look into [community colleges] – maybe it’s an alternative. There are always ways.
The PIE: Your business income has obviously been severely shattered…
CV: Absolutely. The office is also smaller, but thank God it’s my own office so I don’t have to pay rent. It’s like reinventing yourself and all you have to be doing things differently. And I hope I can survive.
I’m known as a student organisation in Venezuela and I just don’t want to lose it completely. I do whatever I can. And I have good people. Few, but very good ones.
“This is the first year in all these years I am going to conferences saying ‘sorry but I need help now'”
The PIE: Is there any optimism or do you think it’s going to be very difficult for a good couple of years?
CV: It is a very difficult question. We always said it can’t be long because it’s not possible anymore. But it is going on and on and on. The problem now is that the people who are in power can’t leave the country because they will be jailed in other countries. They are like trapped in Venezuela and they don’t want to lose their power. I personally still have hope, but it will take a long time to recover I think.
There is so much hatred now because the government really followed the Cuban system by the book. If you read the history of Cuba, you have to divide people, and then you win. Now you have rich and poor and so on. We never had this hatred in Venezuela.
The PIE: Was it incredible to you that it got this bad?
CV: Awful, because I really love Venezuela. That’s my home there. You can’t sell anything because so many people are fleeing the country and they sell properties for nothing, or they just leave it. Insecurity is very high as well.
I need support. This is the first year in all these years I am going to ICEF or other conferences that I say, “Sorry but I need help now”. I need special programs; I need help. The nice thing in my business is that I always combine commercial interests always with the [mission] of helping students.
This time I approach the organisations differently, explain the Venezuelan situation and ask schools to help me with whatever they can do.
If they help us now, I’m confident that everything will be over after a certain time. We will come up again because the country is rich and has good possibilities.