Haven and Hell

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

At his office, the location of which he requested be kept secret, he proudly displays in a glass case 15 medals and ribbons commending his military service. Nearby is a picture bearing the phrase "Evil is the soldier that turns his weapons against his own people." This sentiment caused him problems.

On April 11, 2002, he disobeyed an order to move tanks against anti-Chávez marchers during protests. The tanks left. He stayed behind. "You shouldn't attack an unarmed public with tanks," says Silva, who was opposed to Chávez.

The protest erupted in violence and left 19 Venezuelans dead. Chávez was ousted April 12 and returned to power two days later. Soon after, Silva, who was once entrusted with providing security for Pope John Paul II, was assigned to desk duty. "The events of that April really opened my eyes. It was a violation of human rights," he says.

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.

In October 2002, 14 generals and admirals occupied Plaza Altamira in Caracas, calling it a liberated territory and demanding Chávez's resignation. Silva was one of the estimated 140 military officers to join them. His public defection brought consequences, including this December 2002 e-mail from "Chavistas en la calle": "We have you and your family located....We are aware every time you move (on motorcycle and in car). Even though you use different phones, we know where you are. Be careful and dedicate yourself to something else."

Months of threats later and fearing for his life, Silva left the plaza, his three children, and wife and took a private plane to the States in May 2003. He was quickly granted asylum. His family joined him a year later. "I realized I was worth more alive than dead," he says.

Silva, who supported himself working six-dollar-an-hour security gigs, still appears on a Most Wanted list on the Venezuelan government's military intelligence website, which charges him with conspiracy, civil rebellion, and instigating an uprising.

In South Florida, Silva keeps a low profile and builds his business training security guards. He tries to ignore what Chávez says and does, including the news surrounding the proposed reforms. It infuriates him.

"He made us lose our nationality," Silva says. "It's a long and sad story but, honestly, I feel right about what I did. The history books say we were horrible, because history is written by the winners. But we have to remake our lives here because the country I knew no longer exists."

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