Haven and Hell

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

He gained other enemies. Around the capital, graffiti appeared exhorting "Muerte Roger Vivas." A flyer from a pro-Chávez group circulated, reading "Wanted: Roger Vivas, No. 1 Enemy of the Revolution! The people have the power! Execute him!"

During the summer of 2003, Mérida's governor announced that a list of people implicated in the April 2002 overthrow had been filed with the attorney general. Vivas reportedly topped it, and local newspaper cartoons depicted him as number one, wearing jailhouse stripes.

A month before his term ended, Vivas went into hiding. He bought fake sideburns at a costume store and donned thick glasses and broad-brim hats. He came to the United States by way of Colombia in December 2004, leaving behind a 17-month-old son, Juan Antonio. He has not seen him since. Vivas was granted political asylum in June 2005.

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.

"I lost everything," says Vivas, adding that his $550 efficiency apartment in downtown Miami sometimes feels like jail. "But I feel proud to be here on asylum because of Hugo Chávez. It means that at least I tried to do something. I couldn't return to Venezuela. I needed help from someone, and that someone is named the United States."

The text messages that popped up on Ricardo Guanipa's cell phones had ceased to bother him: Rata. Traitors will be shot. We'll send you to Satan. On a steamy Caracas morning in September 2004, the sidewalks bustled with the workday rush, and the wide avenues crammed with honking taxis and stalled traffic.

Among the suited executives and Venezuelans in a lockstep trance was 40-year-old Guanipa, a thin, bespectacled radio journalist in blue jeans. He had just left the bank and was heading toward a taxi waiting to shuttle him to his next assignment. As a correspondent for Radio Martí, the U.S. government-financed news agency that broadcasts in Cuba, he often covered anti-Chávez protests. In the Nineties, he had worked for the respected newspaper El Nacional, including a stint as its Miami correspondent covering Venezuelans in trouble for narcotrafficking and money laundering. But his Radio Martí job gave him the most satisfaction. He proudly carried the Martí microphone to press conferences, well aware Chávez supporters saw it as an instrument of the imperio, the United States. "I am a defender of democracy," he says now.

Later that September morning, a man in his midtwenties rushed up behind Guanipa on the busy sidewalk and locked a forearm around his neck. Guanipa felt a forceful jab in his back; it was a pistol. "You better keep quiet or we'll destroy you. This is no game," the man whispered in Guanipa's ear before fleeing. Soon afterward, a pair of city police arrived and said, "Get on. We'll catch them." Guanipa waved off the officers who came to his aid, and later discovered no report had been taken. He wasn't surprised: "There's no doubt in my mind that this was a threat from the government."

Four days later, Guanipa fled Caracas to finish a reporting project. He kept a low profile before heading to the United States in November 2004. The following August, he was granted asylum.

During the past three years, Guanipa has been working for various Spanish-language media outlets in Miami and Venezuela. Sometimes he finds paid freelance work. Often he works for free. He still regularly posts stories to online Venezuelan news forums.

In September he posted an essay he had written in Spain claiming Chávez is gay. A response followed: "This post ... has been taken as an attack against the President of the Republic. Let it be known that from this moment forward, the Bolivarian Circles in the United States are watching your activities and could take pertinent actions."

Two months ago, he left his cramped efficiency apartment near Doral, where his kitchen consisted of a hot plate. Inside was a small altar with a red candle depicting the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and dried palms on a cardboard pita box. This was where he prayed, but he didn't burn the candle for fear his tiny apartment would catch fire.

Jobless, homeless, and without a car, Guanipa smoked a Marlboro and surveyed his three packed suitcases the day he left to stay at a friend's place. He hadn't seen his two sons in Weston in almost a year. He hadn't paid child support.

He questioned whether fighting Chávez from afar was worth what he lost — or never gained: "This fight has caused me a lot of personal damage. But when you're in this fight, sometimes one has to sacrifice up to their own family for the sake of the families of other people."

Life has been a series of unexpected events for Victor Silva, a 41-year-old father of three. Standing six feet three inches tall and wearing black army boots, he still looks the part of the Venezuelan army major he was. Following the lead of his father, a general, he entered the army at age 17 and went on to study military arts in college. He never thought he'd be anything but an army man.

"I lived the military," he says. "I always liked the discipline and the mission."

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