Latin America has historically played an important role in Spain’s migratory cycles—both as a sender and as a recipient.
Spanish political immigration to the hemisphere surged following the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) and again after World War II, when Spaniards flocked to Latin America for economic reasons. The flow reversed with the late-1980s economic crises in Latin America. Between 1996 and 2010, Latin Americans in Spain—measured by those who obtained Spanish citizenship—grew nearly tenfold, from 263,190 to 2,459,089.
Now Europe’s economic crisis, which has acutely affected Spain, is causing the flows to shift again. According to data from Spain’s National Institute of Statistics (INE), for the first time in this century, more people are now leaving Spain than moving to it. Net migration in 2011 was reported at negative 50,090 people, with 507,740 leaving Spain and 457,650 arriving.
According to the population register of Spanish residents abroad (Padrón de Españoles Residentes en el Extranjero), 1,816,835 Spanish citizens were living overseas on January 1, 2012—a 6.7 percent increase (114,057 people) from 2011. Among them, 36.0 percent were born in Spain, 58.2 percent were born in their country of residence, and 5.1 percent were born elsewhere.
Nearly 57 percent of these overseas Spaniards (1,034,202 people) chose Latin America as their destination, evoking the “make it in the Americas” (“hacer las Américas”) phenomenon of the turn of the twentieth century. The top destinations—Argentina, Venezuela and Brazil—each count over 100,000 Spaniards. More than 50,000 Spaniards live in Mexico, Cuba, Uruguay, Chile, Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador.
At the same time, according to INE statistics, 14,795 Latin American citizens who were residing in Spain in 2011 returned to their home countries. Bolivia, followed by Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile, saw the largest drop in the number of its nationals residing in Spain between 2008 and 2012. As an incentive to encourage migration of unemployed immigrants (unemployment was 39.1 percent in 2011), the Spanish government enacted the Voluntary Return Program (Plan de Retorno Voluntario) in September 2008. Under the program, unemployed non-European Union residents who want to return home have the right to receive half their unemployment benefit upon departure and half upon arrival in their home country. From 2008 to 2011, an estimated 15,000 people returned home under this program.
Migratory return to Latin America does not yet constitute a massive demographic movement. It is in large part directly related to the economic crisis in Spain, but also to improved economic and sociopolitical conditions in some Latin American countries. Although reports by the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean show that economic growth has slowed from 6.2 percent in 2010 to a projected 3.7 percent in 2012, the region’s outlook is positive.
That optimistic perception appears to be luring those who migrated to Spain and now wish to return, as well as Spaniards themselves. Figures compiled by the INE show that 15,764 Spaniards left their country to establish residence in Latin America in 2011. Ecuador, followed by Argentina, Venezuela and Brazil, are the top-four destinations.
Spanish-speaking America offers more than a strong economy to would-be Spanish immigrants, many of whom tend to have relatively high levels of education and professional qualifications. The additional attractions include: a common language, historical and cultural ties, and the continued presence of family and friends who emigrated in past generations and stayed as permanent residents.
With the crisis, Spain seems to be facing a new phase of migratory patterns. It is once again becoming a sending country, albeit still quite moderately, and Latin America is once again becoming a destination—both for those who left in search of greener pastures elsewhere, and for those seeking new opportunities commensurate with their education and training. Still, in today’s global economy, current migratory patterns are bound to change. This is especially true for Spanish–Latin American migration, where linguistic and cultural similarities allow people to more easily move back and forth based on the current economic, political and social situations.