Haven and Hell

As Chávez grabs more power, three Venezuelans who fled death threats find their struggles don't end with asylum.

Roger Vivas peels off his headphones after reading the 5 p.m. news on La Poderosa (670 AM) from the station's offices on SW 27th Avenue. The dark-eyed 56-year-old Venezuelan, who has a Clark Gable voice and a balding head that shines under a studio light, reports on Latin America.

These days his native country has monopolized his newscast: Student protests leave more than 20 injured. Calls for a "march with no return." Discontent among military brass. The headlines are related to this Sunday's vote on President Hugo Chávez's proposed constitutional overhaul. It would scrap presidential term limits — possibly making him leader for life — while also broadening the leader's hold over the military, currency reserves, and state and local governments. What's more, the wide-ranging revamp would define the government as socialist, weaken private property rights, shorten the work week to 36 hours, and allow the president to ban freedom of expression in declared emergencies.

Even many Venezuelans reject Chávez's proposal. A poll released November 24 showed 49 percent of likely voters oppose the reforms, while 39 percent favor them.

Roger Vivas, a former Venezuelan politician, fled his country after death threats and was granted asylum in 2005.
Janine Zeitlin
Roger Vivas, a former Venezuelan politician, fled his country after death threats and was granted asylum in 2005.

Vivas is among many Venezuelans in Miami opposed to the power grab. A formerly vocal anti-Chávez state politician and radio executive, Vivas settled in Miami after gaining asylum in June 2005. He fled his home after years of threats from Chávez supporters and two military investigations that charged him with vilipendio, or insulting the armed forces, when in the late Nineties he accused a pair of generals of corruption. A pro-Chávez group posted flyers with calls to execute him on sight.

Like many exiled Venezuelans, Vivas thinks the vote will be fixed in Chávez's favor. "I hope I'm wrong, because it would be a betrayal to the faith and the hope of the community," Vivas says. "We're going down the same road as Cuba."

In swelling numbers, Venezuelans who oppose Chávez are fleeing persecution in their country and gaining asylum in South Florida. They have joined a crescendo of voices predicting the December proposal will pass. They say they're engaged in la lucha from afar.

"The work of an exile, the only work of an exile, is to be a spokesperson," says Ricardo Guanipa, a 44-year-old former Radio Martí journalist who was granted asylum in August 2005 after being threatened with a gun in a busy Caracas street. "The exile can serve as an echo for the people of Venezuela before international organizations and the governments of other countries."

Statistics show a recent spike in Venezuelan asylum cases, from 168 approved in 2003 to 611 in 2004. In 2006 nearly 500 Venezuelans were granted asylum; only 41 were turned down. Numbers show the Venezuelan population in Miami-Dade has almost doubled in the past six years, to nearly 41,000. Asylum-seekers from other countries fared far worse, according to Syracuse University records: Over the past five years, nearly 95 percent of claims from Colombians and 87 percent from China were denied.

"They're accused of crimes as a pretext to punish them politically and chase them out of the country," says Roger Bernstein, a North Miami immigration attorney. "This is happening more and more frequently." Venezuelans have been called "balseros by air," a reference to Cuban rafters who fled the rule of Fidel Castro.

"Chávez learned his lesson very well with Castro. Don't bother with the whole firing squad if you don't have to," says Thor Halvorssen, president of the Human Rights Foundation in New York. "Just make them leave."

Leave they did.

Vivas, Guanipa, and Victor Silva, a 41-year-old career army officer (who asked not to be identified by his real name because of an active case in Venezuela against him), all have struggled to start new lives in the safe but often lonely haven that is South Florida.

At an early age, Roger Vivas clearly had a natural voice for radio. The priest at his Catholic school in Mérida chose the 11-year-old Vivas to read to the 200-some students in the cafeteria as lunch was distributed. When he was about 18 years old, his mother paid for a course in radio announcing. His first gig came at age 20.

By the time he was in his late thirties, Vivas had founded Radio Sensacional, which broadcast a mix of news and music, and went on to become general manager of a pair of popular stations in Mérida. He often voiced political opinions, denouncing state and country corruption on the airwaves. In the early Nineties, his listeners encouraged him to run for office; he became a Mérida state representative from 1995 to 1998.

The next year, Vivas denounced an administration-friendly general for misusing public funds. He was informed by the state government that a military court had opened a case against him, and was pushed out of his radio program, La Entrevista Viva con Roger Vivas. He was elected a second time to a state seat in 2000.

His criticisms didn't stop. He went to the press with accusations against the Chávez government that included election fraud, kidnappings, and the training of Colombian and Cuban paramilitaries on the outskirts of Mérida.

Vivas was photographed at the state palace after Chávez was ousted for two days in April 2002, and the president's supporters accused him of leading the overthrow in Mérida. (Vivas claims he was called in by the military to calm the people.)

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