Venezuelans in Calgary desperate after tuition money cut off

Venezuelan students at the University of Calgary say they are desperate after their country's state-run currency exchange stopped transferring their tuition payments.

Venezuelans abroad must transfer money through state-run currency exchange

A woman looks at oversized versions of the Venezuelan currency, coined the 'Strong Bolivar,' in this 2007 photo in Caracas, Venezuela. Venezuelan students in Calgary say the country's state-run currency exchange is not transferring their tuition payments to the University of Calgary. (Howard Yanes/Associated Press)

Venezuelan students at the University of Calgary say they are desperate after their country's state-run currency exchange stopped transferring their tuition payments.

The students recently received notice from the university that the registrar had not been paid by the Commission for the Administration of Currency Exchange (CADIVI), which handles all transfers of money heading out of Venezuela. 

After repeated attempts to figure out what has happened, the students say they have not been given answers and worry about what will happen next.

"Sometimes I would like to cry because we can't do anything," said one student, a 44-year-old woman, who — like the others — agreed to speak on condition of anonymity because she fears retribution against her family. "It's not in our hands ... we have our money there and they don't allow us to buy our dollars."

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      Caracas and other Venezuelan cities have been rocked by weeks of violent anti-government protests, which have been fuelled by inflation that reached an annualized rate of 57 per cent last month, soaring violent crime and shortages of basic items such as cooking oil and toilet paper.

      Despite working in the financial services industry around the world, the student says there was no work for her in Venezuela and she chose to come to Calgary for the opportunity to build a new life.

      "It was not possible to live there and I wanted to have a new, a better life," she said. "Since I have worked a lot in the financial system, I was looking for a country and, of course, a city that gave me some security. Why Calgary? Because it's ... the only city that I saw while I was doing my research that was growing."

      State-run exchange problems

      CADIVI was created after the 2003 Venezuelan general strike in order to stop citizens from moving their money outside of the country.

      Because of the volatile exchange rates during the three-month strike, government officials feared the national economy would be affected by residents trying to buy more stable foreign currency.

      Venezuelans looking to buy foreign currency must now purchase it through the state-run exchange, which takes their money and issues a limited amount of the desired foreign currency at a rate tied to that of the bolivar fuerte — the country's currency.

      At current exchange rates, one Venezuelan bolivar is equal to roughly $0.18 CAD. 

      The government had tied the exchange rate for airline tickets and cash at a rate of 6.3 bolivars per U.S. dollar.

      That rate was scrapped in January in favour of a rate established in a weekly auction and Venezuelans must now pay roughly 11 bolivars to get one U.S. dollar.

      Students pay their tuition money directly to CADIVI, which then approves, converts and transfers the payment directly to the University of Calgary. 

      University working with students

      "It wasn't easy," said one of the students, a 23-year-old woman, about the process of saving up to come to Canada. 

      "I don't have parents so I have to do it by myself.... It's a lot of money because minimum salary is like $20 a month. I sold everything I had."

      CADIVI also holds and transfers a limited living allowance of the student's own money — about $1,300 per month for food, rent and all other personal expenses — but those have also not been coming through to the students.

      CBC News has contacted the Venezuelan embassy in Ottawa, but has not yet received a response. 

      Officials at the University of Calgary issued a statement Monday about the situation.

      "The University of Calgary is aware of the fee challenges some Venezuelan students are having and is working with them to explore options so they may continue their studies uninterrupted," said David Johnston, associate vice-provost of enrolment and registrar with the school. 

      So far, the students say there has been no word from CADIVI about when — or if — it intends to approve their payments.