Birds of Feather Flock Together: Part 1

Opposition demonstrators take part in a protest against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas. Carlos participated in this protest in February 2014 (photo courtesy:http://www.slate.com/articles/news)

By Jessica Knutzon, Co-editor

Part I: The Venezuelan Crisis Hits Home

Carlos Melendez, M.S. '15
Carlos Melendez, M.S. ’15

It is 1999, you are ten years old and there is a new president in your country. The government shifts to socialism and by the mid-2000s, your country takes a turn for the worst. Today, the repercussions of these changes make your life unimaginably difficult, stressful and at times lonely. This is the story for many Venezuelans and one of our own, Carlos Melendez, Master of Science ’15. Carlos is directly and deeply impacted by the governmental distress of his home country, Venezuela. His Thunderbird family pulled through in his time of need and touched his life in a way he never imagined possible.

What Goes Up Must Come Down

Opposition demonstrators take part in a protest against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas. Carlos participated in this protest in February 2014 (photo courtesy:http://www.slate.com/articles/news)
Opposition demonstrators take part in a protest against Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro’s government in Caracas. Carlos participated in this protest in February 2014 (photo courtesy:http://www.slate.com/articles/news)

Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world and since oil prices were high for several years the country had seemingly unlimited funds. As a result, the economy depends almost completely on oil. When the price of oil began to crash, so did Venezuela’s financial situation. In the midst of the drop in oil prices, President Chavez passed away in 2013 and many Venezuelans were prepared for a change. “We lost the election by one percent and Maduro came into power,” Carlos explains, “and it’s just been out of control since then.”

“My family has always been very politically active. I did get to see democracy first hand,” he begins to tell the story of how his country changed in the last 16 years and the turmoil he experienced in the past 12 months as a result, “There is now an entire generation in Venezuela that only knows socialism.” Oil-funded government programs help give the Venezuelan people basic needs, which has been guaranteed to them for years.

Signed, Sealed, Delivered

Using United States dollars (USD) is heavily restricted in Venezuela and makes it difficult to access U.S. currency on the free market. “We only get an allowance of USD 3,000 a year depending on where we are traveling. It’s only for travel. You can only spend about USD 300 on the internet, per year, and those USD 300 come out of your USD 3,000 allowance.”

When he came to Thunderbird, Carlos had to ask the Venezuelan government for permission to study in the United States. He was told to choose from a list of different topics he could study. This list is restrictive, however, and even as a lawyer in Venezuela, he was not allowed to study anything law-related outside of the country. “They would accept international business, though. I looked for the best international business school, found Thunderbird and applied.” Because this is one of the only ways the Venezuelan government allows its citizens to buy USD, Carlos was ready to come to Thunderbird and begin his master’s degree.  After going through the permission process in Venezuela, the United States government allowed him to study in the country.

Before traveling to the United States in August 2014 to attend Thunderbird, Carlos had a budgeted amount needed to pay tuition, fees and living expenses, which the Venezuelan government approved to exchange to USD. Carlos had funds to cover double what he needed to attend his graduate program in the United States. With the Venezuelan government approval to exchange USD and come to the United States as well as the United States government approval for him to study here, Carlos packed his bags and moved to Arizona.

Essential To The Revolution

About one month into his program, the Venezuelan government wrote Carlos a letter that the central bank was having issues, lacked funds and could not sell him USD anymore. “My career is not essential to the revolution – that’s exactly what the letter said. I will never forget that phrase,” Carlos explained. Carlos went to the black market to buy dollars at a rate of 70 Venezuelan Bolivares (VEF) per USD instead of the official exchange rate of 6.30 VEF. Paying over ten times the value of the VEF, Carlos knew he could pay his first trimester and winterim fees, but after that he was unsure how to pay for his schooling.

Still looking for loans, cosigners and any means to pay his tuition throughout his second trimester at school, Carlos continued to study and apply for internships.

Home Run?

Out of a pool of approximately 1,000 applicants, Carlos was one of two selected for an internship with the Cincinnati Reds. As a baseball enthusiast, Carlos was thrilled to get this work experience and continue to work on methods to finance his education. Carlos received his Curricular Practical Training (CPT) permission and went to Cincinnati. Unable to pay the fees from the previous trimester, the CPT permission was revoked after nine weeks and Carlos could not complete his internship. With no income, Carlos had to figure out what to do for the rest of the summer, “…it was tricky but I counted on the help of several T-birds,” meanwhile, back home in Venezuela his mom was appealing the government decision not to sell dollars to Carlos and his family.

Carlos’s mom temporarily moved from Maracaibo to Caracas, the capital of Venezuela. “She delivered 26 letters to different government entities. She has talked to the President of Congress, the Defender of the People, the Minister of Education, who originally said my career was essential the revolution, and all the way up the Vice President of CENCOEX [Centro Nacional de Comercio Exterior, translated: National Foreign Trade Center]. CENCOEX handles dollars in Venezuela, that’s where the process is and that’s who isn’t willing to sell me dollars at this moment,” Carlos explained. Despite her efforts, she was unable to convince the government to sell U.S. currency to her family.

When Carlos came back to Thunderbird to begin his third and final trimester, he had to enroll as soon as possible or he was going to lose his visa and three weeks later he would have to leave the country.

“Since being at Thunderbird I have run into really tough times. My friends always helped me. If I asked them for help there was not one time ever that they said no…but it’s hard to ask for help sometimes,” Carlos describes the difficulty of his situation, “…I hit rock bottom and I wouldn’t talk to anyone about things…like how I managed to eat sometimes. I had people who are really close to me who were really worried about me and wanted to know everything, but at the same time it is so hard sharing it with your friends who are living the life you were living just a year ago. How do you share that with someone and not seem weak? Just getting to the point of putting together a GoFundMe account was extremely hard. It was my dead last final resort.”

This is the first part of a two-part series. The second part of this article was published on September 17, 2015.

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