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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Madrid rivals Miami as a haven for Latin Americans and their money

A cafe overlooking the Plaza de Cibeles in Madrid. For wealthy Latin Americans, one businessman noted, the Spanish capital offers attractive investment opportunities.

By Raphael Minder

Antonio Ledezma, a former mayor of Caracas, jokes that he sometimes forgets that Madrid is not the capital of Venezuela, from where he escaped five years ago.

“Whenever I walk around or take a bus, I probably bump into two or three other Venezuelans,” he said of the Spanish capital. “It’s a bit strange, but this sometimes feels to me just like Sabana Grande,” he added, referring to one of the main boulevards of Caracas.

While people from Latin America have long sought work in Spain — often in low-wage jobs as cleaners, waiters or on construction sites — turmoil in the region in recent years has brought an influx of prominent and affluent exiles. Now, the Spanish capital is rivaling Miami as a haven for Latin Americans — and often for their money, too, according to the new arrivals and others catering to them.

Ledezma and several other high-profile opposition politicians from Venezuela have landed in Madrid after fleeing the repressive government of President Nicolás Maduro. Other wealthy Latin Americans have also begun shifting their money out of countries where voters have recently elected left-wing presidents, including Mexico in 2018, Peru last year and most recently Chile, where Gabriel Boric took office in March as the country’s youngest president. Boric has pledged to make Chilean society more egalitarian.

The response in Spain seems to have been to roll out the red carpet. When Ledezma arrived in Madrid in November 2017, he was welcomed by the prime minister of Spain at the time, Mariano Rajoy, who immediately offered him Spanish citizenship. Ledezma turned down the offer, but many other Latin Americans, particularly the rich, are applying for or have received Spanish citizenship. Some received a so-called golden visa that Spain has been granting in return for spending at least 500,000 euros, or about $550,000, on a property.

Spain allows Latin Americans to apply for citizenship after two years of legal residency, which is shorter than the normal 10-year residency requirement for other nationalities, or the five years for refugees.

“Spain has really been very generous with Venezuelans, opening its doors wide open and giving them plenty of ways to get a legal residency here,” said Jorge Neri, a Venezuelan who has a media company in Madrid.

For wealthy Latin Americans, he noted, Madrid has also recently offered better investment opportunities than Miami. “I think Madrid has been consolidating itself above Miami, also because the prices in Miami have just been skyrocketing,” he said.

Gilberto Carrasquero, a Venezuelan business consultant, is one of many Latin Americans who have sold a property in Miami and bought one in Madrid — in his case, an apartment in the Salamanca neighborhood, where Venezuelan and Mexican property developers have snapped up and refurbished entire buildings.

“When Venezuela plunged into crisis and we started to leave, it seemed that the natural place to flock to was Miami, which is exactly what I did, but in truth Madrid now feels a lot more like home to me,” said Carrasquero, who is applying for Spanish citizenship.

There are now about 200,000 Venezuelans officially registered in Spain, but experts say that the real number is significantly higher because Spain’s national statistics do not include those who are not officially domiciled or who entered the country illegally. About a quarter of Latin American migration to Spain is illegal, according to a study published in 2020.

Venezuelans have become the main new settlers in Spain, with their number again rising more than 50% in 2020, despite a tight pandemic travel lockdown, according to the Spanish government.

But Neri said that he was also now seeing more people from other Latin American countries, many worried about “leftist politics” sweeping the region. Colombia could become the latest to swing in that direction, with a presidential election in May in which the front-runner is Gustavo Petro, a leftist former mayor of the capital, Bogotá. Petro has a clear message for the rich: Pay more tax.

Bruna Denegri Iglesias, a Peruvian real estate agent who has lived in Madrid for 18 years, said that her Peruvian clientele had increased more than fivefold since July, when the left-winger Pedro Castillo was elected president.

“There are people who see Madrid as an emergency landing, so they want to buy a 1 million euro apartment immediately, get residency and then possibly move into something better and bigger if they end up really spending most of their time here,” she said. Peruvians now account for at least 80% of her customers, she said, while in the past, “there were months when I would not get a single call from Peru.”

The pandemic significantly limited mobility, but the recent removal of travel restrictions has allowed many privileged Latin Americans to return to a multiple-home lifestyle, with Madrid among their staging posts.

Dani Levinas, an Argentine who chairs the board of the Phillips Collection, a Washington art museum, splits his time between the American capital, Miami and Madrid, where he bought an apartment six years ago.

Levinas said that he first considered living in Madrid after attending Arco, an art fair that gathers many Latin American artists and collectors. “Personally, the lifestyle and culture of Madrid make me now feel a lot more comfortable than in Miami,” he said. “In Madrid, I live near eight theaters, so I can see a different performance every week without taking a single taxi — and this kind of opportunity just doesn’t exist in Miami.”

Latin Americans have also quickly expanded their business footprint in Madrid. They have bought commercial real estate and hotels, including the five-star Rosewood Villa Magna, which reopened last October after an overhaul financed by its Mexican owners. Some entrepreneurs are also bringing their own Latin American staff to Madrid.

Even though Spain has struggled with high joblessness, its government has also acknowledged that hundreds of thousands of new migrants are needed every year to offset the country’s aging population and avoid labor shortages in some key sectors.

Ledezma, the former Caracas mayor, said that he was still determined to help oust Maduro, the Venezuelan president, but that he was also now eager to help less-privileged Venezuelans settle in Madrid.

“Of course, I’ve felt very welcomed in Madrid, but the issue is whether the Venezuelans who ride bikes to deliver food here are also doing just fine,” he said. “As long as I’m here, I also want to show solidarity toward those for whom this migration has really been a huge struggle.”

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