Frustration with Chávez's reforms, inflation, and crime are causing many to leave.
Mervin and Lissette, a middle-aged Venezuelan couple, never imagined they'd leave their hometown in Maracaibo, where virtually their whole family lives. But on a recent day, they sat in a Panama City real estate office and finalized the purchase of an apartment here.
The reason: they feel that under the governance of President Hugo Chávez, Venezuela faces an uncertain future.
Mr. Chávez won the presidential vote by an overwhelming majority last year, but when he was sworn in as president in January, his rhetoric shifted.
Now that he's calling for a referendum to reform the Constitution, including eliminating term limits for heads of state, this country is seeing a migration of middle-class residents who say they are fleeing economic and political instability and persistent crime.
"We never thought of living anywhere else. Venezuela is the most beautiful country in the world, and we have everything there. But if he reforms the Constitution, Venezuela is going to be a very dark place, and there is nothing we can do about it," says Lissette, tearing up. (She and Mervin did not want their family's last name published because they haven't left Venezuela for good yet.) "The truth is we need another option."
They are not alone. According to Luis Vicente Leon, the director of the polling company Datanalisis, 1 in 3 Venezuelans would consider leaving the country if they could. In addition to politics, they're driven by annual inflation of about 16 percent and a weakening national currency. Oil wealth has largely skipped over the middle class while blessing the rich and funding billion-dollar social programs.