With an inflation rate estimated at more than 1,000,000% in 2018, currency shortages left Venezuelan retirees waiting in long bank lines to get partial payments of their pensions.
Today, life in Venezuela is bleak, but entrepreneurship will be key when it comes time to rebuild.
In a generation, Venezuela has fallen from the richest country in South America to a country in crisis. Today it seems only a matter of time when the country’s threadbare economic, political, and civic fabric gives way completely.
This week, the United States government announced sweeping sanctions on Venezuela, putting it in the same category as Cuba, Iran, and North Korea. The measures, designed to pressure socialist president Nicolás Maduro to give way to Juan Guaido, will further isolate a country smothered by an economic collapse and political upheaval. The high stakes geopolitics compound the hardships and misery of everyday life for Venezuelans.
Angelo Burgazzi and his oldest son, Gabriel, are living that generation of decline. They are trying to find their way to solid ground in a land that seems poised any day now to fall apart beneath them. For Angleo in his mid-fifties, and Gabriel, who is not yet 30, the portraits of the Venezuela they have known are drawn in starkly different colors.
Angelo Burgazzi talks about the impact of entrepreneurship in Venezuela at Global Entrepreneurship Congress convening in Bahrain. "With entrepreneurship, we have progress, and we have a society that can move forward," he says.
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Gabriel Burgazzi: "The entrepreneurial culture... is a way of creating a frame of reference that will give us meaning, that will push us forward, and there is a way of creating communities that can create value together."
Watch | 2:29
Angelo learned computer programming in Venezuela and started a successful company. Gabriel left as a teenager to study abroad and watched his country cascade into chaos. They share a homeland and the view that entrepreneurship will be key to healing their country’s deep wounds. Their unflagging optimism stems from their entrepreneurial natures, and is nourished by their connection to a global entrepreneurial ecosystem that inspires hope. They maneuver uncertain territory with conviction and courage.
The Burgazzi story in Venezuela began with Angelo’s parents, Gabriel’s grandparents, who came to the country from Italy after the Second World War, years after oil was discovered in the Maracaibo basin of western Venezuela. The country became the second largest oil exporter in the world. In the 1970s, when the OPEC Embargo quadruped the price of oil, billions flowed to the country and the government moved to nationalize the oil industry.
When Angelo graduated from college in 1988, cracks in Venezuela’s economic foundation were forming. Plunging oil prices threw the country into debt. A bailout from the International Monetary Fund came with forced austerity measures, which sparked violent demonstrations that were met with a suspension of civil liberties.
After leading an unsuccessful coup attempt to gain power, Hugo Chavez ran a populist campaign to win the Venezuelan presidential election. During his 14 years in office, Chavez would promote changes to the constitution that extended his term in office and power, use oil revenues to fund unsustainable social programs, nationalize more than 1,000 companies, and censor media critics.
Angelo and his partners ran a software development company. "I started as an entrepreneur right out of college," he recalled. The business struggled until the dot-com boom exploded. The company rode the wave of the digital age and covered much of the Latin American region with its software. His business thriving, Angelo launched a startup accelerator in Caracas in 2008, the same year he helped organize the world’s first Global Entrepreneurship Week.
As Angelo’s business grew, his country’s downturn was steady and painful. "Without a war or an invasion, we became a closed economy where entrepreneurship was the enemy of a centralized government that wanted to control everything," he said.
When Chavez died, his political protegee, Nicolás Maduro, came to power. Opposition political leaders were arrested, news outlets were shut down and journalists were detained. Currency was devalued, businesses were confiscated, and citizens went missing. Venezuelans began leaving the country.
"It's quite difficult to make it understandable for somebody not in the country," Angelo said. "This is excruciating. The means of keeping control is a low level of psychological terror. You don’t get used to it. Every Venezuelan now has a friend, or a brother or sister, outside of the country. The ones that stay in Venezuela understand that this is crazy. This is not normal."
Eventually, the chaos and violence around Angelo came home. "I was trying to prove to myself that I could stay, until I was with my family, and we had an ugly incident of assault with a gun pointed at us in our house. My brother was kidnapped. I have friends that are in jail. I had to leave my country."
Gabriel decided to remain in Venezuela to live among the uncertainty and turmoil. A social entrepreneur, he sees opportunity shining through oppression. "I studied public policy, but I realize the way that I'm doing politics in my country is through entrepreneurship," he said. "If your purpose is to have economic sustainability, staying in Venezuela is a terrible decision. But if your purpose is to have an impact, then there isn't a better place to be."
Gabriel will tell you he believes moments of crisis afford the biggest opportunities for innovation, but he is aware of the risks. "By far, the biggest challenge is having to be cautious in your activity; to not be a target," he said.
Venezuelan citizens ask, "Donde están las medicinas? (Where are the medicines?)"
Today, life in Venezuela is bleak. Massive blackouts throw the country into darkness and freeze public transportation. Hyperinflation rages at a staggering 10,000,000%. Families live in extreme poverty, waiting in line for hours to purchase food, precious fuel oil, and scarce cooking gas. Hospitals and treatment facilities are unsanitary and run short on medications. The United Nations’ refugee agency estimates the massive exodus has reached 4 million people. Protests met with state security forces turn violent and bloody, and the "patterns of violations of all human rights" at the hands of the Venezuelan state have been denounced by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Angelo, who now lives in Italy where he holds dual citizenship, continues to run his startup accelerator and travel throughout South America, including spending time in Venezuela. "I have to check, before I travel, if they are looking for me. Let's say, I have to be aware that the best strategy for me is to keep a low profile when I am in the country," he said.
For now, father and son are waiting for a day of reckoning when their homeland hits bottom. When it does, they will be ready to help rebuild. "People are in a desperate situation," Angelo said, "but let me tell you something. We are ready for the reconstruction. Life will prevail."
The hope Angelo sees is with the promise of the next generation. He serves as the acting managing director of the Global Entrepreneurship Network in Venezuela, and he and Gabriel have attended the last two gatherings of the Global Entrepreneurship Congress together to stay connected to a worldwide network of entrepreneurs.
"We see entrepreneurship as somehow the antidote for populism," Angelo said. "If you teach people to stand up on their feet and create value, then those guys will be less prone to give away their vote for a loaf of bread."
"In one sense, it's frustrating. It's infuriating," adds Gabriel. "There are times when you lose hope. But I think one of the main keys to reawakening that flame is realizing that you are not the only crazy person fighting for this. There are actually many others that are fighting for the same cause."