For precisely three days in late May, the Miami-based nonprofit (F)empower was internet-famous for being on the receiving end of a comically small donation from fashion designer Virgil Abloh, founder of Off-White and artistic director at Louis Vuitton.
That brief moment in the spotlight was soon to be eclipsed by a hornet's nest of controversy after photos surfaced of the group's founder with Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro.
New Times contacted both (F)empower and its founder Helen Peña several times this past week requesting comment but received no response. In a statement published Sunday on Medium, (F)empower denounced "right-wing attacks" that attempted to delegitimize their movement.
Founded in 2017, (F)empower bills itself as an artist collective focused on fighting systems of oppression. Last year it established the Fempower Community Bail Fund, Inc., whose stated mission is "[t]o challenge the harmful system of money bail and reduce the jail population by bonding and bailing people out of Miami-Dade County jails and providing them with the support needed to re-enter the community…"
The fund gained momentum in recent weeks as protests broke out nationwide after George Floyd, an unarmed black man, was killed while in police custody in Minneapolis. Many of the artists and activists in the Miami community pledged to raise money for the fund. Abloh's backhanded $50 contribution certainly didn't hurt, publicity-wise.
Reports that the Maduro regime and other LatAm dictators are supporting violent instigators at protests in the Miami area.— Rick Scott (@SenRickScott) June 3, 2020
We will NOT allow it. Anyone with ties to these regimes that incites violence will suffer the legal consequences of their actions! https://t.co/xY6PHVOJ1x
The backlash surrounding Abloh had barely faded to buzz last week when (F)empower found its name once again pinging around social media — and this time, the activist art collective was the target.
Videos and images of a meeting between one of the organization's founders, Helen Peña, and Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro went viral on Twitter and Instagram, spurring a tsunami of criticism from South Florida's large Venezuelan community and catching the eye of the Spanish-language news media as well as Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who, without evidence, claimed Peña was a violent instigator bankrolled by Maduro.
On June 1, a video surfaced that showed Peña participating in a protest against police brutality in Miami while wearing a tricolor backpack identical to those the government of Venezuela issues to schoolchildren. In the video, Peña, who is of Dominican descent, declares her admiration for the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and his socialist "Bolivarian revolution" and says she'd recently visited Venezuela.
Within 48 hours, En Vivo TV, a Venezuela-centric pro-democracy media outlet based in Miami, identified her in photos and videos of a February event held in Caracas for an "international brigade" named after Che Guevara.
According to Venezuela's foreign ministry, which posted the images online, the brigade was formed in 2019 as a way to combat false information about Venezuela spread through "international media manipulation." During their stay, Peña and other volunteers were introduced to various socialist projects in the country, heard a lecture about the "origins and consequences" of U.S. sanctions on Venezuela, and met Maduro in person.
In one video, Peña is shown praising Venezuela for offering universal education and healthcare; another video shows her criticizing the high cost of childbirth in the U.S. while claiming that access to childbirth in Venezuela sets an example for the entire world.
A propósito de la aprehensión por parte del FBI de un grupo de manifestantes radicales que residen en la “Pequeña Haití, en Miami. Le informamos a la @MiamiPD que Helen Peña, estuvo en Venezuela en Feb2020 recibiendo inducción comunistas por parte del régimen chavista de Maduro. pic.twitter.com/xAUOyphEcG— Cesar Moya (@zuricht94) June 3, 2020
Once one of South America's wealthiest nations, Venezuela has been reduced to a cauldron of human suffering. The country's ongoing economic crisis, which predates any non-targeted economic sanctions by the U.S. government, has led to a collapse of its educational and healthcare systems. Venezuela has been plagued by widespread food shortages and an epidemic of violence — much of the latter instigated by government police and special forces — that has propelled its murder rate to one of the highest in the world. To date, more than six million Venezuelans have fled Maduro's authoritarian government, and millions more are projected to follow.
To many Venezuelans in South Florida, news of Peña's trip felt like a betrayal, especially to Naya Rosario, who says she went to school with Peña in Doral, dubbed "Doralzuela" for its large Venezuelan population.
"Honestly, I was heartbroken when I heard about Helen. These girls [Helen and other (F)empower members] grew up with Venezuelans," Rosario tells New Times. "They know why we're here, why our families were forced to leave Venezuela in the first place."
Rosario says she tried reaching out to the group on social media to get answers but never heard back. She left comments on (F)empower's Instagram page and then noticed they were being deleted. Other Venezuelans who say they saw their comments disappear began preserving them with screenshots and posting them on their own Instagram pages instead. Still others claimed Peña and (F)empower blocked them.
DO NOT DONATE TO FEMPOWERMIA: A THREAD— melanie (@okaymelanie) June 4, 2020
so i found out today that someone from fempowermia named helen peña supports maduro, and i found out thru this video pic.twitter.com/5F9iVe3MXe— gaby ???? (@666lilg) June 5, 2020
Not long after EVTV's tweet went viral, (F)empower made its Twitter and Instagram accounts private and Peña herself deleted various social-media profiles. (The organization does not host a website of its own.)
But it took four days for the group to publish a response to the revelations about Peña in the statement published on Medium.
"(F)empower is an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, Black feminist organization. We believe that ALL people deserve to be free from the violence of cages, poverty, environmental destruction, and war; no one is free until we all are," the statement reads in part. "We have no official ties with any government. We have not taken government funding. We are an entirely volunteer run organization."
The statement also invoked Fempower's bail fund: "[W]e've been bailing people out of Miami jails since May of 2019, and have bailed out 23 people in response to COVID-19 breakout and Floyd protests. Bailouts, a long tradition of Black radical abolitionists in the South, is just one way (F)empower builds community. We also build community with oppressed people around the world."
And (F)empower called out "fascist U.S. Senator Rick Scott" for tweeting out Peña's name and photo, claiming that doing so endangered her safety as well the safety of other (F)empower members.
Notably, the organization didn't raise similar concerns about tweets from the Venezuelan foreign ministry that also included Peña's name and photo. In fact, the statement, which was signed in solidarity by various South Florida-based organizations such Dream Defenders, BYP100, and the Miami chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, made no mention of Venezuela or Maduro.
The statement didn't play well on social media, where some demanded further accountability, including calls for (F)empower to provide further transparency regarding its handling of donations.
"Yupppp we really need some transparency and a statement that directly addresses what is going down within leadership," one commenter responded. "OPPRESSION IS OPPRESSION. Please don't be hypocrites!!!!"
Another response read, "You just ignored a shit ton of Black and Brown lives that supported you. Guess your fight for ALL lives is restricted to geo boundaries."
Someone even set up a fake Fempower account on Instagram.
Many Venezuelans responding to the news about Peña appeared conflicted, either because they admired (F)empower's work in the community or because they felt her relationship with the Venezuelan government might delegitimize protests against police brutality and racism.
Politicians like Scott were quick to make hay of the Maduro connection, albeit without offering any evidence. Pressed by the Miami Herald, a Scott spokesperson was unable to provide evidence to back his claims that Peña was violent or received funds from Maduro. Yet even the White House got in on the action, claiming — again, without evidence — that individuals linked to Maduro have disrupted recent protests.
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Still, for Venezuelans in Miami, it appears that voicing support for a dictator like Maduro is a bridge too far.
"I HATE that this went viral because now they are categorizing all leftists at the Miami protests as radical infiltrators from foreign governments... But you can thank only ONE person for that," a Venezuelan named Alexandra posted on her Instagram story, in reference to Peña. "She should have known better and that people would use that to tarnish the same movement we all are fighting for right now."
Naya Rosario, meanwhile, says her former classmate's lack of silence on Venezuelan suffering speaks volumes.
"It's completely hypocritical for [(F)empower] to demand police reform here and then turn around and support a literal police state in Venezuela," Rosario says. "They're pretty much saying that Venezuelans don't matter — our suffering and struggle doesn't matter. According to them, it's all a fairy tale."