The targets on the backs of Venezuelans like Gustavo Marcano grow larger by the day.
Marcano is the mayor of the eastern Venezuelan city of Lechería. Like most places in Venezuela this year, Lechería has been the site of angry anti-government protests as the country’s economy collapses – and as its socialist regime morphs into what critics call a dictatorship.
But because Marcano is an opposition mayor, that regime recently ordered his arrest for not stopping the protests in his city. In fact, it summarily convicted Marcano and sentenced him to 15 months in prison. And it got worse.
“My family and I received death threats by phone and text,” Marcano says. “Pro-government thugs even picketed my house and harassed my kids.”
So he, his wife and two young boys took a clandestine route out of Venezuela by land, water and air. (He won’t give details because he’s certain other opposition politicians will need to make similar hidden escapes.) They arrived this month in South Florida, in Doral.
“Venezuela’s regime is a bona fide dictatorship now,” Marcano told me. “And it will commit any abuse to make sure it stays in power forever.”
More than 100 people have been killed in the anti-government protests this year. Polls show less than 20 percent of Venezuelans now support President Nicolás Maduro. But he consolidated power recently by creating a new, illegal and virtually omnipotent national assembly filled only with his socialist supporters.
It’s backed by the military – and now it wants to jail Maduro’s political opponents. So far it has 20 opposition mayors and other officials on its list. Human rights watchdog Amnesty International says the regime “is taking repression to a frightening new level.”
Venezuelan exiles agree.
“There is no law in Venezuela anymore,” says Janet Gonzalez, spokeswoman for the expat group Politically Persecuted Venezuelans in Exile, or VEPPEX.
“The only law is 20 people that form this regime – and their shock troops.”
Gonzalez left Venezuela 15 years ago when those socialist shock troops – street gangs called colectivos – bullied her family for opposing Maduro’s late predecessor Hugo Chávez. In 2008, after settling in Doral, she co-founded VEPPEX.
Most Venezuelan immigrants to South Florida in recent years came to flee the economic and violent crime crises. But Gonzalez says VEPPEX is now bracing for a wave of political exiles.
“Right now the persecution is really heavy,” says Gonzalez. “It’s growing day by day. They removed the mask.”
Meaning, she says, Venezuela’s regime has removed any pretense of tolerating dissent . Critics say that also means it has cast away any qualms about ratcheting up brutality.
A DISFIGURED FACE
One egregious case they point to is Wuilly Arteaga, a 23-year-old musician who’s become famous this year for playing his violin amid Caracas street demonstrations – even amid tear gas.
Arteaga visited Miami earlier this summer as an ambassador for Venezuela’s opposition. But late last month Venezuela’s National Guard arrested him and – according to those who’ve visited him in jail – severely beat him.
“His face is disfigured and his stitches are infected,” said Gabriela Ramírez, a Venezuelan human rights attorney involved in Arteaga’s case.
Speaking by phone from Caracas, Ramírez also said Arteaga reflects the Maduro regime’s increased attacks on peaceful activists.
“Wuilly symbolizes peaceful protest, and the regime wants to eradicate that,” Ramírez said. “They want the world to think the opposition is only violent terrorists.”
Venezuelan expats note the country is simply following a script that was “written in the last century by the Castros in Cuba and has been transposed to Venezuela,” says Millie Herrera, a Cuban-born Venezuelan-American.
For expats with that kind of dual perspective, “It’s almost like you have X-ray vision,” says Herrera, who owns a Coral Gables business consulting firm. “It’s like, Oh my goodness – again.”
Herrera, who was part of an expat group that met this month with Florida Sen. Bill Nelson to discuss the Venezuelan emergency, says she watched her late, democracy-activist father oppose both the Castro regime in Cuba and Venezuela’s socialists. He taught her when to know a country has become a police state – and when opposition leaders will be hunted down and flee into exile.
In Venezuela, she says, that’s now.
“It always happens in these quote-unquote revolutions,” she says. “They choose who they persecute and who they jail, because that is strategic to set an example and fear.”
As a result, Miami-Dade County commissioners last week urged President Trump to grant Venezuelan immigrants Temporary Protected Status. Last Friday Trump may have made that even more necessary when he said the U.S. was considering “a military option” against Venezuela.
Critics say his remark simply gave the Maduro regime an excuse to intensify the persecution of its opponents at home – and made the targets on the backs of Venezuelan opposition figures like Gustavo Marcano even bigger.