CARACAS – Venezuela’s socialist regime has made it nearly impossible for citizens to renew or obtain new passports – a violation of international human rights law that could leave millions stranded and deprived of identity in the middle of Latin America’s worst-ever migrant crisis.
Since late dictator Hugo Chávez seized power and handed it over to successor Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela has forced its citizens to go through an insurmountable amount of bureaucracy and endure rampant corruption to obtain legal documents of any kind, especially Venezuelan passports. Ironically, it is much easier for Middle Eastern members of Hezbollah who have never been to Venezuela to obtain a Venezuelan passport than it is for someone actually born here. Venezuela’s own citizens have to wait years.
Not having access to paperwork sounds superficially minor compared to the other challenges that socialism has entrenched in modern Venezuelan life: extreme shortages of food, medicine, water, fuel, and nearly every basic good needed to live; rampant violence by roving socialist gangs with ties to the state; a Chinese-created surveillance system that monitors everything you say, everywhere you go, and everything you purchase. But the near impossibility to renew or obtain a new passport has left millions of Venezuelans unable to make proper exercise of their identity, thwarting professional careers, and leaving both the growing number of Venezuelan migrants and those still living within these borders stranded. It drives a stake through the heart of Venezuelan communities at home and in the diaspora.
In a country where the minimum wage is now less than $1 per month, Venezuelan passports are way out of reach for the sheer majority. Our passports are among the most expensive in the world: $200 for a new one, and $100 for an extension. These prices do not take into account the bribery that most Venezuelans have to practice to even get the attention of government bureaucrats enough to actually submit an application.
At the crux of this corruption lies SAIME, Venezuela’s Administrative Service of Identification, Migration and Foreigners. SAIME is currently led by Gustavo Vizcaino, former right hand of Nicolás Maduro when Maduro acted as Chavez’s Chancellor from 2006 to 2012. Vizcaino is among those sanctioned by the Trump Administration for selling passports for cash.
SAIME is a living hell for Venezuelans and their offices have remained shut since March under the pretense of Chinese coronavirus lockdowns, effectively halting any and all passport applications. Its official stance is that “it makes no sense to print them until we return to a relative normality.” Parallel to this infuriating statement, SAIME reopened its offices only to issue Venezuelan identification cards for those that need it to participate in our upcoming rigged elections, which will take place on December 6.
Most don’t bother with SAIME. It only takes a quick search through any social media – such as Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram – to find dozens of accounts allegedly offering services to expedite your passport. These accounts range from obvious scams to possible honeypots so, in a very Venezuelan twist of Occam’s Razor, the best course of action is to contact one with ties to someone you know, or someone who knows someone that you know, be it a family member or friend.
Like everything else under socialism, you can brute-force your way out of the regime’s nonsense and the country’s shortcomings if you throw enough money at whatever problem they have created for you. Realistically, the least painful and time-consuming way for a Venezuelan citizen to obtain a passport is to bribe his or her way through it. The disreputable men and women that carry on this sort of shady, behind-the-table work are known as gestores (“managers”). Recently, a man and a woman were arrested for charging upwards of $1200 for a passport extension.
Currently, Venezuela’s minimum wage is $0.59 per month, and with the Bolivar slowly plummeting more and more with each passing day, this amount may be lower by the time you read this.
For what it’s worth, having to pay a gestor for a passport isn’t a new problem. I still vividly remember how my mother had no choice but to pay someone in 2006 to expedite our passports and to be able to obtain my then 11-year-old brother’s first passport. We had to make a quick trip to the city of Los Teques and wait all day in line. Everything has collapsed to such a degree that those once outrageous steps seem like nothing when weighed against the SAIME of today.
My passport expired in early 2019. By sheer luck, I was able to get a two-year extension on it without having to pay a single cent in bribes. It is now set to expire in April of 2021 – but with our borders closed, regular air traffic still suspended, and embassies locked down, I find myself stranded here with my brother, unable to travel to another country nor apply for a visa. Most countries adhere to a six-month rule that states passports must have a minimum validity of at least six months left to be granted entry or to even board a plane, and now, courtesy of all these months of coronavirus lockdowns, mine has less than five months left.
The passport trainwreck haunts those who have managed to flee the country, as well. They first must endure the intangible yet justifiable stigma when a Venezuelan citizen tries to apply for a visa of any kind, our reputation obliterated by decades of socialist rule. I can only imagine (and sympathize) with citizens of other nations currently subjugated by authoritarian regimes, for we end up paying for the sins of our respective regimes.
Even those that overcome this stigma to begin rebuilding their lives are held hostage to their passports’ expirations dates. The expiration dates on our passports wait for no one, and the consequences of being unable to renew or extend them have left Venezuelans in places like Ireland who were otherwise functional members of that society at risk of losing their legal residence and facing impending deportation, as they’re unable to renew their residence permits with an expired passport.
Our political crisis has left us with two presidents that nobody really likes: Nicolás Maduro, a false president with real power; and Juan Guaidó, the legitimate president with no power. Neither has done much to solve this growing problem. The opposition-controlled National Assembly, led by Guaidó, did publish a decree in 2019 that grants us an extra five years on our current passports, but this is, by itself, a palliative measure at best.
A handful of countries have collaborated and agreed to acknowledge this decree. The Trump Administration was the first to do so. Other countries, such as Canada, Peru, Colombia, and the United Kingdom, have also agreed to collaborate in this regard to a varied extent and at the discretion of each country and its own laws.
This is a much needed and appreciated help, and quite frankly, my only hope at applying for a visa right now. However, it is not a permanent solution. I know several Venezuelans currently living in the United States that now have an expired passport and, as such, are unable to open a bank account or engage in other legal transactions as they, for all intents and purposes, do not legally exist.
Venezuela is a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council and will be, unless more morally upstanding members oust it, until 2022. Its treatment of the passport processing system is a gross violation of one of the U.N.’s core legal documents. Article Six of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone shall have the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.” Without a valid passport, most Venezuelans have no usable identification to find work or use basic services like banks.
Movements such as “Save my Identity” have been created in light of this growing problem so that Venezuelan migrants can carry out legal procedures with their expired passports. I would personally never ask any country to bend its laws, but I simply ask for understanding, as it’s not like we can easily get new documents out of this socialist regime. What may appear easy for socialist “opposition” politicians like Leopoldo López, welcomed with open arms in socialist Spain after using a fake identity to leave Venezuela, is not doable for us mere mortals.
In the end, this growing passport problem leaves us Venezuelans with another reminder that you may reject socialism, denounce it, and flee from it but, if you do not defeat it, sooner or later it’ll throw a wrench into the works of your life.
Christian K. Caruzo is a Venezuelan writer and documents life under socialism. You can follow him on Twitter here.