Venezuela: Why do I feel like a foreigner in my own country?

It is midday, and I’m walking on the sunny streets of Caracas in a busy part of town called ‘Boulevard Sabana Grande.’ Around me, people are rushing in different directions to catch the subway, shop, or eat at one of the many restaurants lining the boulevard. 

As I walk towards El Recreo shopping center, I see giant billboards advertising fast-food chains, such as Burger King, and the price of a burger in dollars; street vendors selling goods for dollars; locals carrying dollar bills to pay for purchases. I feel confused — where are they getting this cash from? 

When my family and I reach the shopping area, we stop to locate a store in a directory. Suddenly, a tall, middle-aged man wearing musty, torn clothes approaches us. My first thought is “We’re going to get robbed or kidnapped.” But then he says, “I need money to buy medicine for my son.”

I’m shocked and confused. He isn’t trying to steal from us. That’s the way I’ve seen it on the news. He’s asking for help. Everything is upside down. I feel like a foreigner in my own country.

I left Venezuela in 2019 when I was 18 and relocated to Miami with the help of my grandmother, a U.S. citizen, and my dad, a legal resident. I left with the idea that I would work hard to reach my goals, things that I could not achieve back in Venezuela. 

After almost five years, I returned to visit my family in January 2024. Going back felt like stepping into an alternate reality where people live with false expectations.

As many know, Venezuela has faced a political and economic crisis for over a decade. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, it has led more than “7.7 million Venezuelans to leave the country, searching for protection and a better quality of life.”

My return trip home had many challenges.

First, the United States of America does not have direct flights to Venezuela because “the political crisis [has] threatened the safety of passengers, aircraft, and crew,” according to the Department of Homeland Security. Therefore, the only way to visit Venezuela is through an intermediary country such as Panama, Colombia, or the Dominican Republic and by purchasing two different tickets. A round-trip ticket with a six-hour wait time in Bogota cost me $985.

Here is a description of my trip home after a long absence:

Upon arriving at the Simon Bolivar International Airport, also known as Maiquetia, I feel anxious. As I travel from the U.S., I’m worried about what might happen at the migration point since the officers are sometimes rude. “Will they let us in the country? Will they take us to a separate room, ask nonsense questions, and open our luggage to confiscate our belongings?” I’m questioning myself while watching my surroundings and walking towards the migration point; then, I hear a man say to his wife, “Don’t be nervous. Just answer the questions straight to the point.”

At the migration checkpoint, there is a 30-minute wait time. Near the front of the line, a migration officer yells at people to hurry to the next cabin, intimidating everyone. Even before my official entrance into the country, I feel unsafe. We are next in line and, to my surprise, the officer seems friendly. I finally breathe normally when she says, “Welcome to Caracas — enjoy your stay.”

After nearly five years, I can hug my family again, and my journey in Caracas begins.

The first thing that surprises me is the taxi driver charging our fare in dollars. I ask my aunt, and she replies, “Everyone uses dollars now; it’s easier to manage than bolivares,” the Venezuelan currency. I think “That’s crazy. How is it more accessible than their own currency?”

Orjuela -Da Silva family celebrating a birthday together after five years , Amelia is fourth from right. (Photo by Amelia Orjuela Da Silva)

The following day, I go with my family to a grocery store where the prices are marked in VES and the USD exchange rate. As we wait in line, I try to count the bills discreetly, but I notice other people in front of me doing the same without discretion. This confuses me.

The dollar’s dominance grew after the bolivar’s 2021 devaluation. According to NBC, “Dollar bills flow into Venezuela through a network of foreign bank account holders who charge commissions or via people traveling home with cash.” 

Venezuela faces a major economic challenge due to one of the world’s highest inflation rates. According to the Caracas Chronicle, the whole country uses “purchasing power parity (PPP), which is a measure that determines a currency’s real value by taking into account the exchange rate –the one you can see in Venezuela’s Central Bank’s Instagram account.” Local businesses display this exchange rate on a board at the entrance of their stores.

Once again, I feel like a foreigner. I don’t understand anything because many things have changed since I left.       

In Caracas, finding food and basic supplies from different brands, including international ones, is much easier now. This would be considered an improvement, as finding these essential items was much harder before I left. However, this progress is only accessible to those with the purchasing power in dollars. Unfortunately, a significant portion of the city’s population still earns minimum wage and cannot afford these basic necessities.

The minimum wage is 130 bolivars, which equals $3.60 as of December 2023. According to Statista, the average monthly salary for Venezuelan employees is $145.30. Still, it seems impossible to live with those wages when the monthly rent for an apartment can cost up to $400, and two pounds of apples can cost $4.71. 

Paulina Castillo, 23, is an economics student at the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV) who works four part-time jobs to survive in Venezuela.

“It is impossible to live or survive in Venezuela as a young adult and have to pay rent,” she says. “The cheapest rent [for a room without a bathroom] is $80 monthly, and you must pay at least three months in advance for the security deposit; basic necessities add up to $60, and transportation fees can bring the total to $140.”

Another factor that impacts me is water scarcity in Caracas, which has always been a constant issue in the city. Now, the situation is worse. The building where I resided for 18 years is located in a middle-class neighborhood called “Nuevo Circo.” Water is only available Sunday through Wednesday before being shut off for the rest of the week. Even when water is available, sometimes there is not enough pressure to fill the building’s water tank, making it impossible to take a regular shower. Those days, I would find myself boiling the reserved water and bathing myself with a bucket.

A memory of 18-year-old Amelia doing the same thing in 2019 reminds me of why I left.

Nuevo Circo, Caracas, where my family and I lived for 18 years and returned to in 2024.
(Photo courtesy of © Stella Salander/Adobe Stock)

As the days go by, I feel happy to be back in my hometown, but I also feel weird and insecure when I go out. I notice people staring at me as if the word “tourist” was tattooed on my face. Even though I’m wearing casual clothes with no visible brands or fancy jewelry, I still feel insecure. However, things have changed from 2019 to 2024. Nowadays, residents walk around with their phones in hand, sporting Nike and Adidas apparel and carrying more cash than I could ever fit in my purse. On the other hand, there are also homeless people on the streets asking for help and a few unfriendly faces that promise nothing good if you are walking late at night. Still, Caracas is considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world. 

I notice people with iPhone 15s around me, chatting as if they weren’t in Caracas. I’m shocked because how do they have the latest iPhone model when I’m living in Miami and do not have it yet? It makes me wonder if I should feel safe using mine. But, I retract myself and only take my phone out in secure locations where the chances of getting robbed are low. As a Venezuelan immigrant, that’s my perspective: just visit my family and try to stay safe.

Many Venezuelans share the same perspective due to the insecurity and the country’s situation, as exemplified by Dennys L. Escalona, a 52-year-old woman who left Venezuela in 2018 and returned to visit her family in 2023.

“I felt immense joy, which quickly transformed into sadness and impotence when I realized that adapting to the country’s situation was impossible due to a lack of work, insecurity, poor public services, and an outrageously low minimum wage,” said Escalona. 

The trip is almost over, and I’m unsure how to feel. I’m sad because I have to leave my family again and don’t know when I will return. However, I’m looking forward to returning to Miami and feeling free to go out at night without fearing being kidnapped or robbed. I’m also excited to take a regular shower. Don’t get me wrong, Venezuela is a country that has beautiful landscapes, beaches, and mountains; it’s simply something from another world. Unfortunately, the country’s social, political, and economic situation overshadows all the beauty it has to offer.

It’s my last day in Caracas, and I am spending the whole day with my grandmother and the rest of my family. My suitcases are packed and I think, “You have to be strong when it’s time to say goodbye.” I try, but I fail because it feels and hurts just like the first time, leaving everything behind to continue pursuing my dreams. 

At Maiquetia Airport, I’m finally seated by the window and find myself lost in thought about my recent visit to Caracas, recalling both the pleasant and unpleasant experiences. While reuniting with my family after five years was heartwarming, the grim reality of the country’s situation hit me hard, reminding me that leaving in 2019 was the best decision I have ever made.

I’m proud of being Venezuelan, and I love my nation, but it isn’t my home anymore.

By 9 a.m.  the next day, we are in Miami. The exhaustion of the 12-hour trip hits me, but I’m glad that we are safe, I think to myself before getting into the car and driving back home.

Amelia Orjuela Da Silva is a senior majoring in digital journalism with a minor in social media and E-marketing analytics. After graduation, she wishes to pursue a career in the entertainment field as a writer/reporter to shine a light on stories that need to be discovered.