CARACAS (Reuters) - After three weeks trapped inside their home, Natalie Pereira and her family made a final decision: they must leave Venezuela.
“I could see clashes from my apartment window, tear gas, every day,” Pereira said, recounting violent confrontations between anti-government protesters and security forces earlier this year.
Forty-three people died and hundreds were hurt in three months of confrontations in major urban centers.
“The protests confirmed it - we had to go.”
Pereira, a 33-year-old dentist now living in Texas, is not alone in making that decision.
As political strife drags on and an economic crisis brings soaring prices, tight currency controls and shortages of even basic goods, Venezuela’s middle classes are increasingly seeing a future abroad.
Having largely but unsuccessfully voted against socialist leader Hugo Chavez during his 14-year presidency, they hoped for a change after his death in March 2013.
Instead, Chavez’s hand-picked successor Nicolas Maduro won election, survived extended opposition protests and has consolidated his position in power for a six-year term.
Furthermore, violent crime, which for years has been Venezuelans’ No. 1 worry - only recently overtaken by the shortages - continues unabated. Upper-class areas often resemble ghost towns at night, with residents scared to venture out.
“I only have one friend left in Venezuela,” Pereira added in a telephone interview from Houston, where she moved five months ago with her husband and daughter. “Everyone has left.”
Official data on the number of Venezuelans living abroad is hard to come by but academics and businesses leaders say at least 1 million have emigrated since Chavez took power in 1999 and that the pace has picked up in the last five years, especially under Maduro.
Chavez’s socialist reforms were popular among the poor but alienated the middle- and upper-classes and many now believe the economy will continue to get worse. They are also scared of rampant crime and new explosions of political violence.
Tomas Paez, a Central University of Venezuela sociologist publishing a study about the diaspora, said up to 1.6 million people, or about 6 percent of the population, are living abroad.
Almost 90 percent of them have left since 1999 and the exodus has been fastest in the last six years, toward the end of the Chavez era and into Maduro’s term, he said.
As much as 90 percent of emigrants have at least a bachelor’s degree, Paez said, and their flight is a brain-drain affecting sectors from the oil industry to hospital care.
“These are educated people, people who want to invest, build businesses, create jobs,” said Paez, who used official figures from destination countries as well as surveys to compile his data. His team spoke to nearly 1,000 emigrants in 33 countries.
Though the figures are small compared to South American countries like Colombia and Peru, with diasporas of 4.7 million and 3.5 million respectively, it is unfamiliar in Venezuela, which drew in migrants from Europe and the Middle East during the 20th century. And many recent exiles are middle-class.
When Veronika Leniz, who works in marketing, became pregnant, she felt her only option was to leave - especially considering intermittent shortages of basic goods like diapers, powdered milk and toilet paper.
“I couldn’t raise a child there. Venezuela was bad, and it’s only got worse,” she said by phone from Miami where she set up a new home and now runs her own small business.
The number of Venezuelans granted permanent U.S. residency varies year to year, but has steadily increased since 2011. Last year, more than 9,500 Venezuelans got green cards.
Permanent resident figures may not illustrate the full extent of the phenomenon, since some migrants apply for entry as students or with other visas, then submit applications for residency. The number of Venezuelans granted U.S. student visas has more than doubled since 2009, to 21,725 last year.
“It’s an incredible difference, living here. I miss Venezuela so much, but I wouldn’t go back,” said Leniz, 26, whose daughter is now 18 months old.
Like Pereira and Leniz, many migrants head to “el norte” or the United States, but plenty of others choose Europe or fellow Latin American nations like Colombia, Mexico or Panama.
In Colombia, Venezuelans hold more official identification cards than citizens of any other nationality - there were over 10,000 Venezuelans with valid cards as of August this year, according to the foreign ministry.
In the first five months of 2014, Mexico granted 975 permanent identification cards to Venezuelans, almost double the number it issued in the same period last year.
“There are more and more Venezuelans in the land of the Aztecs all the time,” said Jorge Udelman, a chef who moved to Mexico City four years ago and now runs a restaurant and food truck.
“The majority of my clients are Venezuelans,” said Udelman, who serves his home country’s staple - the “arepa”, a grilled cornmeal pancake.
Repeated requests to speak to Venezuelan government officials about the migration phenomenon went unanswered.
Businesses catering to potential migrants say enquiries about their services have spiked in the last year.
“Everyone is profoundly afraid for their future if they stay in Venezuela,” said Esther Bermudez, who runs the immigration information website “Me Quiero Ir”, or “I Want to Leave”.
Visits to the 13-year-old site doubled in the first nine months of 2014 to over 3.5 million each month, she said.
“Emigrants are looking for personal security and a quality of life they don’t have in Venezuela,” added Bermudez, now a resident of Canada.
Interest in English-language courses abroad has increased 70 percent in the last year, the manager of a language school in Caracas said.
The manager, who did not want to be named for fear the government might curtail his students’ access to currency exchanges, said calls pour in from people anxious for visa information.
“It’s very difficult to find middle-class people who don’t have a story about a child going, a sibling,” said Oscar Hernandez, a former career diplomat who runs an emigration consultancy in Caracas.
Government supporters scoff at the middle-class exodus as a selfish and anti-patriotic turning of backs by those resentful the government is redistributing wealth.
“We’re making socialism in Venezuela and if they don’t want to participate, it’s better they get out,” said Elizabeth Gutierrez, 33, a community leader in the Petare slum of Caracas.
“The rich were never interested in us, the people. Chavez was, and they don’t like that - that’s why they go to Miami and wherever, instead of helping to reconstruct our country.”
Even some opposed to Maduro’s government are concerned about the exodus, believing Venezuelans should stay and work for change rather than upping sticks.
“The way out for the country is not Maiquetia,” Jesus Torrealba, the new leader of the opposition Democratic Unity coalition told Reuters in a recent interview, referring to the airport outside Caracas.
Once they arrive in their adopted countries, Venezuelans face the same challenges as any immigrant - learning a new language, finding a job and missing home.
Pereira, in Houston, says she struggles with the transition to life in the United States. “I’ve had hard days, when I sit and cry,” she said. “Then I think of my daughter and the future that I’m going to give her - we did this for her.”
Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb and Carlos Garcia Rawlins; Additional reporting by Jorge Silva and Diego Ore, and Gabriel Stargardter in Mexico City; Editing by Helen Murphy, Andrew Cawthorne and Kieran Murray