By Michael E. Miller
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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.
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.)
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.
"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."
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.
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."