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Wednesday, 24 July, 2002, 11:21 GMT 12:21 UK
Site profits from Venezuelan exodus

A few years ago Esther Bermúdez was one of innumerable Venezuelans who wanted to leave their wealthy but troubled nation in search of opportunities to work or study overseas.

However, Ms Bermúdez discovered that very little information was available about how to emigrate legally and she recognised an opportunity.

Two years later, Ms Bermúdez is still in Venezuela and instead of participating in the exodus, she has made it into an industry by providing to others the information she lacked.

'I want to leave'

"Once we were looking for information about how to leave," Ms Bermúdez said of herself and a business partner. "Now we have work, and we're staying."

Where others saw only a phenomenon draining Venezuela of many promising individuals, Ms Bermúdez saw a market - an educated, highly motivated group in need of specific goods and services.

In late 2000, with an investment of $130,000, she and several partners launched the web site, Spanish for "want to leave".

Want to study in Australia? Buy a business in the United States? Return to the madre patria of Spain, Portugal or Italy?
Caracas skyline
Those who want to leave Caracas can turn to the web

Mequieroir offers useful information and advice - for free.

In an internet industry known recently for spectacular business collapses, Mequieroir is exceptional for succeeding by giving away its product.

The company survives by renting ads to the attorneys, moving companies and others who sell services to prospective émigrés.

The right kind of advertisers

Ms Bermúdez said Mequieroir learned from the experience of failed internet start-ups, which often accumulated huge debts and then collapsed when ad revenues didn't meet expectations.

Mequieroir's business model works because émigrés tend to be high-income people with very specific needs, explained Bermúdez.

One Mequieroir advertiser, for example, specialises in moving pets.

Because Australia has tight quarantine laws for Venezuelan animals, the company first 'nationalises' the creatures in the US before moving them down under.

"In an era in which people have lost faith in internet publicity, we're showing that when you have a captive market, a specific market, it can work," Esther Bermúdez said.

Queues for visas

It is certainly a large market.

During recent years, emigration has become a sad drama for many troubled Latin American nations, Argentina and Venezuela in particular.

In the first decades of the last century, Argentina was one of the world's wealthiest nations and attracted millions of Europeans hopeful of building new lives.

But military dictatorships and economic disarray have sent many of those immigrants' grandchildren back to the old countries.

For its part, Venezuela's petroleum-driven boom attracted Italians, Spaniards and Portuguese.

But persistent poverty and political instability have made many of those immigrants and their children look back across the ocean.

The April turmoil here, which saw President Hugo Chávez deposed by a short-lived military coup, only accelerated the trend, producing long lines of visa seekers at foreign embassies.

Homesick for Venezuela

Antonio Soares, 52, whose parents immigrated from Portugal when he was 13, lost the stock of his small grocery store to looting which followed the failed coup.

Portugal beckons for some emigrants
Although he also owns a small internet cafe, he is now thinking of returning to the relative peace and prosperity of Portugal.

"The economic situation (in Venezuela) is difficult," he said.

"One has to achieve miracles to maintain the little bit which one has. I'm thinking of returning to Portugal despite loving Venezuela as if I had been born here."

In addition to the southern European nations of origin, the US, Canada, Australia and Great Britain are other popular destinations for Mequieroir clients.

For nationalistic Venezuelans, emigration can be a dirty word because it drains the nation of some of its most capable, motivated citizens.

Esther Bermúdez responds that Mequieroir does not advocate emigration, but only helps people do it legally.

"We see migration as something natural, a human right, " she says.

"A Venezuelan never ceases being Venezuelan when he leaves," she said.

"He misses his country, he yearns for his country."

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