It is time to start the final arc of a journey that began almost three years ago: Escaping from Venezuela alongside my brother.
An entire year was lost to the lockdowns, we all lost a whole year. What’s done is done, and there’s nothing I can do to get that year back. What I can do is to keep going forward. Things have begun to slowly set in motion so I can get back on track with this, most crucial journey of mine.
As I mentioned in the prelude to this series of posts, the first order of business was to fix that which was lost during these ongoing COVID-19 lockdowns: our passports.
Getting a new Venezuelan passport is quite the uphill battle, they’re quite expensive ($200 per), and bureaucratically harder and more time consuming than the path of least resistance: a passport extension ($100 per).
I got an extension in 2019 already, which will be expiring on the 03rd of April this year. Half of its duration was basically wasted waiting for the lockdowns to end, or at least for air traffic to resume operations and/or borders to be reopened. In the case of my brother, his passport is set to expire in June, so he needed one as well.
SAIME, Venezuela’s Administrative Service of Identification, Migration and Foreigners, is the office in charge of providing Venezuelans with identity cards, passports, and other types of identification documents. They closed their doors on March of 2020 following the start of the COVID-19 lockdowns. All passport applications were put on hold because, according to them, “it makes no sense to print them until we return to a relative normality.”
Now, the corruption in Venezuela goes hand in hand with the collapse of our country and the so-called Viveza Criolla. While SAIME’s operations were indeed suspended for the majority of 2020, you always had the possibility to bribe your way towards getting your application slipped into their allegedly dormant systems so that you’d be first in line whenever they’d reopened their doors.
You may be wondering how much for such an ‘exclusive’ service? Well, $1,400 per extension was the amount I was told. I may be desperate, but there is no scenario where I’d pay that exorbitant amount, I don’t even have that much, let alone twice for my brother’s.
Furthermore, this behind the table deal could only guarantee that the extension was going to be back-issued by the system on the very week before the lockdowns began (early March 2020).
Imagine being one of those poor desperate souls that ended up paying that much for it, only to finally receive it during January at the earliest. $1,400 for a 2-year extension, out of which 1 year is lost to the back-date shady shenanigans is just the prime example of how corrupt this whole country has become.
As such, I had no choice but to wait, not like air traffic was reopened anyways (it currently is but only to a handful of destinations), and once SAIME resumed operations I started the whole process.
It took us two months, but we finally got that much sought sticker slapped on the pages of our passports, and with it, our passports now have a brief, albeit important breath of new life instilled upon them.
Since this is Venezuela, and nothing is straightforward, I ran into a few obstacles here and there. What follows is an account of my experiences getting this, much needed first step towards a new life.
I. Getting my SAIME account ready for a new application
This was a problem that I had no idea I had up until November of 2020.
SAIME handles all applications through their headache-inducing website, but the way it works is that you can only have ONE open application at a time, be it a passport, an ID card, or something else. You cannot have two or more open applications at any given time, even if they’re unrelated to one another.
For example, if you’re in the process of renewing your Venezuelan ID card you have to absolutely finish that whole process before you can request a new passport or an extension—and viceversa.
Now, my ID card is all fine and dandy, but when I got my first passport extension in 2019 I was not aware that their system still had that process marked as ‘unfinished’ even though I received the extension in April of 2019 without issue.
The offices simply forgot to flag it as delivered.
This got me a little worried, as I had no idea how to fix this, and I was effectively locked from submitting a new application. Someone told me that I had to go to their main offices to solve this, and knowing just how convoluted their offices are, I was starting to mentally prepare for their bullshit.
Luckily, this problem is very common, so very common that SAIME basically said ‘fuck it, you fix it yourself,’ and true to their word, they opened a separate website where you can login to fix the damn problem yourself.
Now I was ready to begin a new extension application as soon as they’d resume operations.
II. Getting access to my brother’s SAIME account
The second slight obstacle that I encountered, but one that wasn’t hard to overcome.
With all the stuff going through my mind, it completely flew over my head that I needed to retrieve my brother’s SAIME account credentials so that I could make a new application for him. I signed him up on SAIME’s website back in 2016 when he got a new passport along with my mom — the thing is, that he did not remembered his password.
A simple password recovery process would easily take care of that, but here’s the other thing, he forgot the password of his old gmail account (I made a new one for him in 2018). He does have trouble remembering these sorts of things, I always assist him with this regard, it’s just that this was a glaring oversight on my part.
Fortunately for him, I had a rare moment of hindsight in 2016—I had forwarded the email that had his SAIME account credentials to one of my mother’s emails, which I still have access to. I eventually was able to change the password on his old gmail account as well.
Now he too was ready for a passport extension application.
III. Paying for the Extension applications
With our accounts ready, it was time to tackle the next obstacle: Paying for the extensions.
Always keep in mind that this is Venezuela, here, nothing is the way it should and everything is obtuse, it’s like a goddamned curse. You’d think that paying for the extensions would be as easy as making a deposit, wire transfer, or cash payment, well, nope, think again.
Paying through a bank deposit used to be how things worked, but as everything collapsed SAIME switched to credit card payments only, most of the country’s credit cards are useless and their limits are not even a fraction of the cost of SAIME’s services.
It all got more convoluted from 2019 onwards. Most public offices now use the Petro cryptocurrency as their reference point for the cost of their services, be it passports, apostilles, or whatever, all of their costs are arbitrary anchored to the constantly updating value of this scam cryptocurrency.
By anchoring the costs of passports to the regime’s crypto, they made them exponentially far more expensive than ever before, to the point that a Venezuelan passport is now among the most expensive in the world — while being one of the most tarnished and ‘ewww’ inducing ones when it comes to visa applications. Our reputation has been severely tarnished by the migrant crisis wrought upon by socialism, as well as the regime’s shady antics, such as giving Venezuelan passports to Hezbollah. Also, keep in mind that our minimum wage is currently a little over $0.50 per month, a new passport costs $200.
Anyways, let’s not get sidetracked here, let’s say you got the $100 for an extension (or $200 in my case, mine and my brother’s), there are three main ways to pay for the extension:
a) Paying with Petros
Lmao no thanks. Too much of a hassle for the average user, setting up a wallet, buying the Petros, and going through all that nonsensical bureaucracy that’s antithetical to what a cryptocurrency should be. The whole platform is prone to errors, just don’t even bother with this scam, really.
b) Paying with a credit card
When I got my first extension in 2019 I had to borrow the card of a friend of a friend of my mother to pay for it. At the time I paid about 30,000 bolivars, aproximadamente $8-10 if I recall correctly.
Nowadays, there’s barely any cards in this country that have such high credit limits ($100). Credit is something that in practice, does not longer exist in this country. There’s a few options that you can use if you go through this route, such as a specific bank that offers visa debit cards, but, like with the Petros, it honestly isn’t worth the effort.
c) Through the Banco de Venezuela’s biopago (biopayment) system
This is by far, the best course of action, and the one I went with.
Banco de Venezuela is the regime’s ‘flagship’ bank, one that was nationalized and bought off the Spanish Santander Group back in 2009. SAIME lists two other banks: BANFANB and Banesco. I have a bank account with the latter, but neither SAIME nor Banesco’s website let me pay for it.
I slowly saved the $200 over the course of 2020 for the extensions, and when the time came to pay I converted them to Bolivars in January of 2021. I never had that much money in my bank account at once — funny, cause I almost got arrested back in 2017 for having the equivalent to $75 at the time, but that’s a story for another time.
Since I was not able to pay through Banesco, I had to think fast, because Bolivars devalue by the hour, and the cost of the passport extensions updates weekly.
I don’t have an account with Banco de Venezuela though, thankfully, you do not need to have an account with Banco de Venezuela to pay through it, you can use another person’s. An absolute King helped me with this regard. I transferred the money from my account to his, and he took care of the payment.
Because of course, hoping that the bank would let him pay for both on the same day was asking too much out of the bank and SAIME’s clunky infrastructure, my friend had to wait an additional day to pay for my brother’s.
I paid approximately 144,000,000 Bolivars per extension, $100 at the time. Two weeks later they were going for 177,000,000, so that’s why you need to act fast and pay for them as soon as you’re able to have the full amount in your bank account — the Bolivar evaporates faster than alcohol.
Everything else went smooth. Since you can choose what office you want to receive the extension, I picked the one closest to my house, one that, if needed, I can walk my way to and from.
And then came the waiting game.
IV. The Waiting Game
I found it curious that neither my brother nor I received any confirmation email or sms text message after the applications were submitted and paid for, not even a receipt (back in 2019 I got the emails and everything).
I attributed this to whatever part of their platform that handles this being down due to the lockdowns or whatever. It’s not a problem, since you can track the status of your application through their site, which is more important than a confirmation email anyways.
Both extensions were marked as printed and ready to be sent for pickup on the 25th of January on SAIME’s website.
That really got me pumped up, I just needed to wait a little longer, the next green checkmark on that list meant that it was ready to be picked up. The country is still undergoing a permanent lockdown, it’s just that we go one week of ‘radical’ quarantine that’s followed by a more ‘flexible’ week where more stuff is allowed to open.
SAIME’s offices are only opening their doors to the public during the ‘flexible’ weeks. Additionally, I was informed that they were alternating the flexible weeks between issuing ID cards and passport stuff. This further dilated the wait, and if that wasn’t enough, I got sick towards the end of January/first days of February. It wasn’t anything serious, just a stomach bug or prolly food poisoning, I had a fever for a day or two, then stomach woes and felt extremely weak for days.
Whatever it was, it knocked me down for 10 days or so.
By February 10th the site still had no updates for me. I was informed that there was a chance that they could actually be there and that the site simply hadn’t updated, this got me thinking.
I had planned to go check on the 12th, but I had to take care of some house repair stuff and other things, Carnival got in the way, and they do not open their doors during the ‘radical’ weeks.
Empanada Man decreed the two days of Carnival as ‘flexible,’ which was then extended to cover that whole week. That was it, time to finally go and check if they were ready.
I went with my brother on the 17th of February, the Wednesday right after Carnival. Lo and behold, while it was indeed a ‘flexible’ week and SAIME’s staff was inside the office, they told me that they were not authorized to hand out documents during that week.
So yeah, it had been over a month since the extensions were printed according to the website. Our extensions were most likely inside the office along with God knows how many, but they would not give them out to us on that week because they did not receive the authorization. Bureaucracy, lol.
First week of March, that was what I was told on that day.
V. Finally getting them
March 02nd, 2021. I went with my brother to SAIME’s offices in Los Proceres. We arrived quite early, and the lines were already massive — it was time to once again partake in Venezuela’s new favorite pastime in these times of socialist collapse: waiting in line.
I asked around and was pointed towards the line dedicated to handing over your passport and/or request information. As lengthy as it was, it was flowing at a decent rate.
“When did you receive the confirmation email?” The guy asked me when it was our turn. We didn’t received any email, not even the very first one you’re supposed to receive when you submit and pay for the application.
That’s what I told the guy, I also told him that since its been more than a month that the extensions were printed without any further updates then we were there to see if they were ready.
He reluctantly received our passports, and told me that it would take 30 to 45 minutes for a response — which of course, in Venezuelan bureaucracy time, means a couple hours off your life waiting.
You cannot stay right outside the offices due to their social distancing mandates, but their jurisdiction only goes as far as the front of the offices themselves. They can’t stop you from simply standing outside the adjoining and adjacent locales, most of which were closed due to the ongoing quarantine lockdowns.
After more than one hour they began to call people by name in batches, one by one.
That’s the moment of truth, because when your name gets called and you approach the person, two things can happen: either they inform you that you may proceed to the waiting line to receive the extension, or they tell you that your extension is not ready and that you must come at a later date.
Every time names were called, people’s hearts skipped a beat, mine sure did. The time between callouts was varied, sometimes it was quick, sometimes it took longer.
After some more time my brother’s name was called along with others. I felt relieved when the guy told him that he could proceed towards the line to receive his extension — but then I began to worry because my name was not called on that batch and on a few more, even though I handed over both passports together at the same time.
A few more minutes passed and my brother went inside the office, after some more minutes he came out with his extended passport in his pockets.
Time slowed down as we kept waiting for my name to be called, and finally, after a very tortuous wait, my name was called and I got the good news: I got to stand at the cool guys’s line.
Once I went in I finally got to sit after so many hours standing. My legs felt like jelly, I’ve grown soft, can’t let all that bread line training go to waste. There were 5 benches inside with 3 seats, 15 seats total, but since you have to keep one seat empty in between each person due to social distancing only 10 were available at any given time.
My name was eventually called again, I walked further in, got my passport back, signed where I was told to sign along with some other personal information, and placed my right thumb on an ink pad to leave my fingerprint next to my signature, sealing the deal.
The first victory in this new escape journey, at last.
The expressions of joys that you see from the people exiting SAIME’s offices with their extensions in hands are so genuine that not even the mandatory masks can obfuscate them. I personally did the Sign of the Cross and thanked God as soon as I walked out of the office, and I was not the only one that did so. I really felt relieved.
To feel so jubilant after obtaining something that, by all means, should be a painless and effortless thing to get but isn’t here—exercising your right to identity as a Venezuelan citizen—is another proof of how this corrupt and socialist regime has warped our collective psyche.
VI. What's next?
Our extensions were printed on the 25th of January, but we only got to receive them on the 02nd of March. That means that out of the 24 months granted by the extension, one was already burned by the process. If you factor the international six month rule and subtract that time, then that means we have 17 months to get our visas and get our asses on a plane.
We have to leave this country no later than Monday, July 25, 2022, that doesn’t mean that we’re that far from our inexorable start of a new life. I am doing everything in my power so that we leave within the next few months. I don’t have an exact date, but it’d be awesome if it’s before my brother’s next birthday this July, wishful thinking and all that.
We’re able to board a plane with these extensions, however, as of this date, we still do not have any visa that would allow us to migrate legally to another country. Furthermore, due to the coronavirus lockdowns, the only available flights out of this country are: Mexico, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Iran, and Turkey.
That means I will most definitely have to travel to one of the first three countries I listed, and apply at the corresponding embassy over there, which will definitely gouge some of the small savings I’ve able to accrue over the past three years for our escape, but what else can one do when almost every embassy here has been closed down.
In two years our passports will expire once again, and we’ll have to do this rodeo once more—except we’ll be abroad when that happens. Certain countries, such as the US and Canada, have agreed to recognize expired Venezuelan passports for up to five years after their expiry date (some countries have additional special considerations of their own when it comes to this).
While this is all good for visa and travel/entry purposes, most private companies, banks, etc, do not adhere to these extensions of validity for Venezuelan passports. This will definitely create problems in our lives once we’re outta here, but those are problems for another time, not for now. Right now, getting our visas is the next and most important goal.
This was but the first step out of many that we still need to take. It’s all an uphill battle aight, but I’m resolute that we’ll end up triumphant, and not a day goes by when I don’t pray for our success, after all, that’s all I can do.
The first victory in this final journey has been achieved. Perhaps I should celebrate, regardless of the long road that still remains to be walked.
Until the next one.