US tech worker helps fellow Venezuelans flee economic mayhem
By TERRY CHEA and JOSHUA GOODMAN
Mar. 29, 2018
SAN MATEO, California (AP) — At his stand-up desk in a Silicon Valley office complex, Guido Nunez-Mujica's phone buzzes nonstop as he tries in vain to concentrate on his work. The text messages are from 6,000 miles away in Santiago, Chile, where he's helping resettle a group of young Venezuelans trying to retrace his own immigrant's journey to a better future.
Between deciphering data and writing code, he fields questions that come flying fast: What's the fastest bus line downtown? How do you apply for an immigrant ID card? Any leads on a job?
"Sometimes I'm rude and tell them to look on Google, or I have to just turn off my phone because I get five messages all at once," says the 34-year-old.
The demands on Nunez-Mujica's time and energy are part of his solitary battle to give those trapped by his homeland's economic crisis a fresh start abroad. Since the end of last year, he has shelled out around $40,000 of his own money helping some 40 Venezuelans — most of them complete strangers — migrate to other South America nations.
The acts of generosity range from a few months of free rent at an apartment he manages in Santiago to bus fare for a surgeon so he could move to Peru with his wife and daughter.
Nunez-Mujica has now launched the crowd-funded Salto Project — based on the Spanish word for leap — to scale up the assistance effort, convinced that the only immediate solution to Venezuela's mess is helping those who can escape. So far he has raised $5,250 but the goal is more than $40,000.
"There's no way someone like me can do anything about the situation in Venezuela, but if I can do a little bit to help people leave that helps me to sleep at night," he said in an interview from the offices of Slice Technologies, where he earns a modest tech worker's salary coming up with solutions to improve the e-shopping experience. "I know it's a drop in the ocean, but it's something within my reach to do."
It's a homespun solution to an ever more desperate situation.
Mounting hunger, hyperinflation and an authoritarian government are increasingly driving Venezuelans abroad in one of the largest exoduses in Latin America's history. Independent groups estimate as many as 3 million to 4 million Venezuelans have abandoned their home country in recent years, with several hundred thousand fleeing in 2017 alone.
Daniel Klie, 25, is one of the recipients of Nunez-Mujica's "micro-sponsorships," in his case $200 for a plane ticket to Santiago.
With almost no savings to his name, Klie's first two months in Chile were torment. A college graduate with two degrees, in journalism and library sciences, he worked under the table at a butcher shop, toiling long hours seven days a week for less than the minimum wage.
Then, buoyed by Nunez-Mujica's coaching and moral support, Klie won an internship at an advertising agency and now has a full-time gig earning about $550 a month — five times as much as he made in an entire year holding down three jobs back home.
"In Venezuela, trying to save money is a titanic undertaking," said Klie. "It's all about trying to eat and survive each day. Planning ahead is impossible."
Nunez-Mujica, who abandoned Venezuela in 2011, first for Chile and then three years ago the U.S., said the idea of helping others was born from the frustration he felt hearing stories and seeing pictures of friends who had lost weight struggling to feed themselves.
Born into a working class family in the Andean city of Merida, Nunez-Mujica recalls going days without eating as a struggling college student in Caracas during the early days of President Hugo Chavez's socialist revolution. He said it was only thanks to the bag of groceries provided each month by his thesis adviser that he was able not only to survive but eventually thrive while working toward a PhD in biology.
Now it's his turn to pay it forward.
The goal isn't just to rescue Venezuelans from a collapsing economy. While Nunez-Mujica has a fatalist view of Venezuela's ability to regain its economic footing, his own experience has taught him how immigration can jumpstart one's career and creativity.
"Everyone in Venezuela lives in a state of dependency — either on the government or remittances from abroad," he said. "But if they move abroad they have the chance at social mobility denied to them in Venezuela. There's a multiplier effect."
Many of those Nunez-Mujica has helped came through friends of friends. Most he has never met but developed a connection with based more on intuition than any deliberate screening process. To avoid becoming too vested in what are frequently heartbreaking tales of exile, he tries his best to keep communications to a minimum, preferring text messages instead of internet video calls.
The current group he is helping plans to stay in Chile, unable to obtain U.S. visas and with little in the way of savings to relocate to the U.S. or Europe, the preferred destination for earlier, wealthier waves of Venezuelan migrants.
Recently, with his American husband, Nunez-Mujica traveled to Santiago to meet in the flesh those he has helped evacuate. At an emotion-filled meeting in a downtown bar, the bond with people meeting for the first time was immediately apparent as Nunez-Mujica greeted Klie and three others he has helped with big hugs.
Over rounds of beer, the emigres laughed at their common clumsiness adapting to life outside Venezuela. For example, the experience of going to a supermarket at night without fear of being robbed or running into a military patrol.
"Our country is going through hell right now," said Nunez-Mujica. "But you've got to move on. You can't be a victim forever."
Associated Press writer Terry Chea reported this story in San Mateo and AP writer Joshua Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia. AP photographer Esteban Felix in Santiago, Chile, contributed to this report.
Joshua Goodman on Twitter: https://twitter.com/APjoshgoodman