Latin America faces a ‘brain drain’ as many professionals head overseas

Aug 30, 2015 | 0 comments

By Christopher Woody

Several of Latin America’s key economies are sputtering.

And now, partly because of these economic doldrums, countries in the region are losing some of their brightest and most capable minds.

Mexicans moving to the US (illegally or not) to work menial jobs have long been lighting rods for political and social controversy. But another group has ventured north as well: academics and intellectuals.

Mexico's president, Enrique Pena Nieto takes a selfie with with Mexican medical students, many of whom may seek work out of the country after the graduate.

Mexico’s president, Enrique Pena Nieto takes a selfie with with Mexican medical students, many of whom may seek work out of the country after the graduate.

A 2014 report from Americas Quarterly noted that one of every 19 Mexicans with a bachelor’s degree or higher was living in the US.

The report cited data from Mexico’s National Council of Science and Technology indicating that 1,271 of the 4,559 Mexicans (28%) working on master’s degrees or Ph.D.s abroad in 2012 were doing so in the US.

More recently, estimates have shown that 27% of Mexicans with doctorates work in the US.

The reasons for their departures are not surprising: money, politics, and safety.

The pay gap between Mexican and American universities is drastic. In 2012, the average entry salaries for some professors at the University of Texas at Austin were nearly four times that of their counterparts teaching the same subjects at prestigious Mexican institutions. Funds for study are also scarce. In 2014, scholarships for master’s and Ph.D. programs made up less than one-quarter of the national budget for science technology and innovation.

Whatever funding and resources do arrive are subject to the demands of unions, government pressure on research initiatives, and the whims of political appointees at universities.

Before any of those hurdles can be overcome, though, academics in Mexico must secure a job.

Often, working professors avoid retiring, and the lack of new or increased funding means professors and researchers cannot be hired or continue working.

“The year I went on the job market, very few positions became available,” Gabriela Sánchez, a demographer at the University of Texas at San Antonio, told Americas Quarterly in 2014.

“I was only able to apply to two jobs in Mexico, compared to almost 50 in the United States and Canada.”

In some institutions in Mexico, the most important criterion is who, not what, you know.

“If something has had a negative effect on Mexico’s science, it is nepotism,” Carlos Martínez, a professor in the University of Wyoming’s Department of Zoology and Physiology, said to Americas Quarterly.

“Nepotism has created a horrible intellectual endogamy.”

Other Mexican academics, while not necessarily desirous of jobs abroad, pursue them to avoid their country’s enduring insecurity. Jesús Velasco, a political scientist at Tarleton State University in Texas, is one.

Kidnappers attempted to take his former wife; she escaped, and they pursued her with a pistol, he told McClatchy.

“The next day, I started looking for a job in the United States,” he added.

According to a study from Mexico’s National Autonomous University, cited last year, 76% of highly skilled Mexican workers surveyed said violence was a direct or indirect reason for their move abroad.

“Young scholars spend years abroad listening to stories about violence in Mexico. They are happy to start their families out of this environment,” said Xavier Soberón, the general director of the National Institute of Genomic Medicine. “They are not nostalgic about their country.”

Venezuela’s withering economy has slowed hiring and diminished earnings, which, coupled with widespread violence, has driven many skilled professionals out of the country.

“I couldn’t raise a child there. Venezuela was bad, and it’s only got worse,” said Veronika Leniz, who works in marketing and left the country for Miami after becoming pregnant.

“It’s an incredible difference, living here. I miss Venezuela so much, but I wouldn’t go back,” Leniz, 26, told Reuters.

About 5% of Venezuela’s roughly 30 million people have already left the country, according to Tomas Paez, a sociologist at the Central University of Venezuela. Many of those who have left are medical professionals, IT experts, and oil and gas engineers.

“These are educated people. People who want to invest, build businesses, create jobs,” Paez told Reuters late last year.

Global headhunter firms have drawn many of those professionals to more lucrative positions outside of Venezuela.

“If we’re looking to fill a special position, such as geologist or a specialization in oil or gas, Venezuela is a strong option for us,” Claudio Fernaud, a managing director for recruiter Stanton Chase, told Reuters.

The departure of energy specialists is troubling, as the oil and gas industry is the backbone of Venezuela’s economy: The oil and gas sector is about 25% of GDP, and oil sales bring in about 95% of the country’s export earnings.

Moreover, petrodollars have buoyed the socialist government of late President Hugo Chavez and his successor, Nicolas Maduro.

Perhaps more worrying: Shrinking salaries and a lack of funds for equipment and training has put pressure on Venezuela’s medical workers, many of whom leave the country to finish their schooling.

At Venezuela’s School of Chemistry (UCV), a highly rated institution in Caracas, 63% of instructors earn less than minimum wage. Students at the dentistry school often have to work outside jobs in order to afford basic supplies like gauze and gloves.

According to Ivan de la Vega, a sociologist and expert on Venezuelan migration, 60% to 80% of students surveyed at four universities in the capital said they wanted to leave the country and wouldn’t return to the present conditions.

“Venezuela is on the road to the total underdevelopment of the country,” he told Buzzfeed. More than half of the Venezuelans who have settled in the US have bachelor’s degrees or higher, De la Vega added, and their median age is just 32.

The exit of trained professionals in their prime working years drains Venezuela of important members of its work force; it is a cohort that the country, and its socialist policies, can ill afford to lose.

Moreover, the pressure on and scarcity confronting the medical community has had life-threatening consequences for many of the country’s most vulnerable people.

Cuban doctors have long shored up Venezuela’s medical system.

The Barrio Adentro program, established in 2003, set up free clinics throughout underserved portions of the country. Cubans staff the clinics, and in exchange for their work Venezuela sends oil and cash back to Cuba.

Now, those Cuban medical workers are fleeing Venezuela to neighboring Colombia, looking to take advantage of the U.S. – Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, which allows them passage to the U.S.

(Observers have criticized the program for subverting Cuba’s efforts to address international health crises; the U.S. government has said it doesn’t recruit Cuba’s doctors.)

Some planned to escape Cuba by way of a medical post in Venezuela; others say they are fleeing abuses they suffered in Venezuela.

Discel Rodriguez, a nurse, said he was forced to live in confined lodging with five other doctors. “At least in Cuba you could live in a house with the people that you cared about,” Rodriguez, 42, said. “But Venezuela was punishment — it was a prison.”

The number of Cuban medical workers in Bogota, Colombia, awaiting permission to enter the US ranges from 250 to 1,500.

“I personally know more than 30 doctors, but I know that there are more than a hundred of us waiting for visas,” Iraida, a 25-year-old Cuban dentist, told the Havana Times.

“Specialists, dentists, anesthesiologists, nurses, laboratory technicians, occupational therapists … there’s a little of everything,” she added.

Many of the Cubans traveled great distances to reach the Colombian capital. Along the way, they endured robberies, assaults, and shakedowns by corrupt Venezuelan officials. Most financed their trips with their meager savings and by selling goods that are scarce in Venezuela, such as condoms.

After that hardship, the goal of settling in the US has not come to fruition for many. The visa-issuance process previously took between one and two months. But, as of this summer, many of the Cubans have been waiting for five months or longer.

According to the Miami Herald, the US State Department has not been forthcoming about the delays, despite inquiries from officials, including Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida).

Some of the Cubans suspect the recent thaw in US-Cuban relations is part of the holdup. Cuba reportedly sees the visa program as a source of brain drain, and, during bilateral talks with the US, Cuban representatives asserted that it was an obstacle to the normalization of relations.

The visa delay and Colombian restrictions on immigration have left the Cuban doctors in a “migratory limbo” that could see them turned away from the US to return to Cuba and likely face punishment for their attempts to flee.

Unable to work, many of the Cuban medical professionals hoping to reach the U.S. can only contemplate their fates.

“It’s an exhausting situation; no one gives us an answer,” said Iraida. “At this stage, my greatest fear is that they won’t give me a visa. I wouldn’t know what to do next.”


Credit: The Business Insider,



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