Venezue­lan politi­cians seek refuge abroad

The Star (St. Lucia) - Business Week - - FRONT PAGE - BY FT COR­RE­SPON­DENTS IN NEW YORK

Af­ter a month in hid­ing and a clan­des­tine three-day road trip through the jun­gle, Venezue­lan politi­cian David Smolan­sky ar­rived in New York last week — one more ex­ile from the op­pres­sive regime of pres­i­dent Ni­colás Maduro.

Af­ter a month in hid­ing and a clan­des­tine three-day road trip through the jun­gle, Venezue­lan politi­cian David Smolan­sky ar­rived in New York last week — one more ex­ile from the op­pres­sive regime of pres­i­dent Ni­colás Maduro.

“I had to pass through 30 road checks to get out,” says Mr Smolan­sky, re­count­ing his epic es­cape across the Orinoco Basin, through the wilder­ness of south­ern Venezuela and across the border into Brazil. “I had to dis­guise my­self. I cut my hair, shaved off my beard and I wore a cap.”

In Venezuela, Mr Smolan­sky was mayor of El Hatillo, a well-to-do Cara­cas district. Elected in 2013 as Venezuela’s youngest mayor, he is still only 32. But in Au­gust the govern­ment-stacked Supreme Court sen­tenced him to 15 months in jail in sum­mary hear­ings that New York-based Hu­man Rights Watch said “lacked all due process and guar­an­tees”.

As part of Mr Maduro’s clam­p­down, 11 other may­ors have been re­moved from their posts on trumped-up charges.

Mr Smolan­sky’s sup­posed crime was fail­ing to al­low free cir­cu­la­tion in his mu­nic­i­pal­ity. That was a veiled way of say­ing he al­lowed antigov­ern­ment street protests this year, when a four-month long se­ries of na­tion­wide con­fronta­tions left more than 125 dead and drew in­ter­na­tional con­dem­na­tion of govern­ment abuses.

“Venezuela is mov­ing from an au­thor­i­tar­ian state to­wards a to­tal­i­tar­ian one,” says Mr Smolan­sky, look­ing shell-shocked and dis­ori­en­tated amid the sky­scrapers of New York. “I have no idea where I will set­tle. Ex­ile is not easy.”

Mr Smolan­sky is not alone. As part of Mr Maduro’s clam­p­down, 11 other may­ors have been re­moved from their posts on trumped-up charges. Five are al­ready in jail, says Mr Smolan­sky, while seven are on the run or in ex­ile.

Mag­is­trates have gone un­der­ground, too. In July, just be­fore the opposition-con­trolled par­lia­ment was usurped by a “con­stituent as­sem­bly”, it nom­i­nated 33 in­de­pen­dent judges to the Supreme Court. Mr Maduro vowed to ar­rest them “one by one”. Within days, the secret po­lice had picked up the first, Án­gel Zerpa.

The rest went into hid­ing. Seven turned up in Colom­bia last month and have re­quested asy­lum. Six more are holed up in the Chilean am­bas­sador’s res­i­dence in Cara­cas. The Chileans have of­fered asy­lum but the Venezue­lan govern­ment re­fuses to let them leave.

It is the stuff of old-fash­ioned Latin Amer­i­can dic­ta­tor­ships. “Ju­di­cial per­se­cu­tion is be­ing used as a weapon to si­lence dis­sent,” says Luisa Ortega, the for­mer at­tor­ney-gen­eral. A govern­ment in­sider who was stripped of her post in Au­gust af­ter she broke with Mr Maduro, she too is now on the run.

Af­ter a slow start, the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity has be­gun to re­spond. Big Latin Amer­i­can na­tions such as Brazil and Mex­ico, his­tor­i­cally re­luc­tant to crit­i­cise their neigh­bours, have taken a tough, united stance. The US has sanc­tioned of­fi­cials sus­pected of abuses and has said it is pre­pared to raise the pres­sure. Europe has said it would fol­low suit un­less Cara­cas moves to re­store Venezuela’s sub­verted con­sti­tu­tional or­der.

“The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity is fi­nally wak­ing up,” said Ta­mara Taraciuk, a se­nior HRW re­searcher with a spe­cial fo­cus on Venezuela.

For Mr Smolan­sky’s fam­ily, though, ex­ile in the face of left­wing per­se­cu­tion is a de­press­ingly fa­mil­iar theme. His grand­par­ents fled the Soviet Union in the 1920s and set­tled in Cuba, only to leave half a cen­tury later to es­cape Fidel Cas­tro for the ap­par­ent safety of Venezuela, then a rich and demo­cratic coun­try.

When Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999 and set Venezuela on its “revo­lu­tion­ary so­cial­ist” course, it was Mr Smolan­sky’s fa­ther who saw the writ­ing on the wall.

“I was only a teenager but I re­mem­ber his words,” Mr Smolan­sky re­calls. “He said, ‘When some­one like that gets into power and is sym­pa­thetic to Fidel Cas­tro and com­mu­nism and prone to dem­a­goguery it will be dif­fi­cult to get rid of him.’”

So it has proved. Al­though iso­lated, Mr Maduro’s govern­ment has sur­vived this year’s protests, leav­ing the opposition on the back foot. The econ­omy is mired in re­ces­sion, but the “con­stituent as­sem­bly” seems se­curely in­stalled as a pup­pet par­lia­ment.

To begin to find a way through the im­passe, the opposition and the govern­ment will sup­pos­edly begin a se­ries of me­di­ated talks in the Do­mini­can Repub­lic this week.

“Maduro is get­ting a strong mes­sage from the world,” Pana­ma­nian pres­i­dent Juan Car­los Varela told re­porters in New York last week. “This time he can­not only use them [the talks] to buy time.”

But few Venezue­lans have much hope of sig­nif­i­cant progress. The opposition’s de­mand for free and fair pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, due by the end of 2018, seems in­com­pat­i­ble with the dic­ta­to­rial govern­ment. Mr Maduro has used pre­vi­ous ne­go­ti­a­tions to present a façade of di­a­logue but no more. In­deed, last week the opposition coali­tion said it would not at­tend the talks for fear of a time­wast­ing show.

“It’s tough to be sep­a­rated from your coun­try and see how the world con­tin­ues to turn even as your coun­try suf­fers,” re­flects Mr Smolan­sky as the pos­si­bil­ity of his pro­tracted ex­ile dawns.

David Smolan­sky: “I had to pass through 30 road checks to get out.”

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