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”.
Mr Smolansky’s supposed crime was failing to allow free circulation in his municipality. That was a veiled way of saying he allowed anti-government 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 time-wasting 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.