War on Hugo Chávez

Siomara Alonso flipped through Reader's Digest one humid May night in 2004. The 50-year-old natural beauty with caramel hair sat alone on a suburban back patio.

She couldn't see the stars or sky.

She longed for the space of her mountain farm in Venezuela and the high-ceilinged home she had left behind. Suddenly her cousin Yoli shouted from inside the cramped three-bedroom Kendall house: "Hurry! Come quick!" Siomara bolted to the living room, where she had been crashing on a sofa bed since late February.

The 11:00 news flashed to the South American home where she and her husband had lived for two decades. Dozens of strangers appeared, trashing the couple's handmade shutters with hammers and tearing down the oak blinds inside. The piano clanged off-key as it tumbled down a hill. Books burned in the yard.

A broadcaster explained that neighbors were enraged that Robert Alonso — Siomara's husband — had been training terrorists. A few days before, the government had arrested more than 70 Colombians on and near the property. They were said to be paramilitaries plotting the overthrow or assassination of President Hugo Chávez.

From the couch, Yoli hurled curses at the tiny old TV set. Siomara stood silently. Shocked and numb, they watched as people in ratty clothes, some missing teeth, dumped the silk and cotton contents of Siomara's top dresser drawer onto the brown, sun-dried Spanish tile floor. They stomped on her pink and white underwear. Those were not her neighbors.

She sobbed over what her life had become. Robert was in hiding. How would she support her two sons, ages nine and 11, who were sleeping in a spare room nearby? Home as she knew it was gone.

These days Robert and Siomara live in a secret Kendall location. He is a Venezuelan outlaw accused of urging his countrymen by radio, newspaper, and Internet to hit the streets and cause anarchy.

Robert dubs the plan that caused him to flee his homeland La Guarimba, and says it's nonviolent. But the last time he made his pitch for revolt — in 2004 — at least 13 people were killed and more than 100 were wounded in clashes. "If you don't follow the instructions, it's not my fault.... When you commit yourself to something, you have to quemar los barcos, burn the ships. There's no way out," says the 57-year-old with a shock of white hair and an ample belly. "We're at war."

Robert and Siomara ("my friends call me Siomi") Alonso are both Cuban by birth. She comes from Havana, the only child of an insurance broker and stay-at-home mother. Her family left the island in August 1960, a year after Fidel Castro's forces overthrew President Fulgencio Batista's regime. Her father arranged a job transfer to Caracas, and for Siomi, Cuba became nostalgia flashes — lizards in the back yard, rocking chairs, and the smells of her grandmother's home. She's unlike Robert, who is plagued by the unrelenting gnaw of Cuban politics.

Roberto Alonso Bustillo was born in August 1950 in the tranquil province of Cienfuegos, where, he says, the "smell of the sea filled our lungs every morning, and one car, if even, passed every half-hour." He was a squirrelly, mischievous kid who favored horseback riding, fishing, and playing cowboys and Indians. One time the boy rubbed a piece of candy in some leaves that made it spicy-hot, then rewrapped it, and gave the sweet to a friend.

On January 3, 1959, the eight-year-old reached out to Fidel Castro during a parade. He felt hopeful about the triumph of the revolution. A couple of years later, Robert remembers, he was pedaling up to his family's upper-middle-class home. (They belonged to a yacht club nearby.) There he saw his parents giving away their furniture, clothes, and TV sets to friends. He says his father, Ricardo, took a baseball bat to their chandelier. They didn't want Castro's government to inherit their possessions.

That night Ricardo, his wife Conchita, their three children, and a Pekingese dog named Chato piled into a borrowed car and left the empty home. They headed for Havana. There a veterinarian friend forged documents showing Chato was a mutt. (Castro wouldn't let anything valuable leave the country, including pups, Robert says.) Three days later, on Robert's 11th birthday, the family departed for Caracas with 13 suitcases aboard an old Spanish ship.

People gathered at the docks and shouted, "Gusanos! Imperialistas!" But soon those chants drifted unheard into the wind. During the trip, Conchita knelt before Robert and explained his parents were "counterrevolutionaries." She hugged him and said Fidel was a bad man. "That morning of the 24th of August 1961, I became Cuban," he would later write in an essay.

At the first pensión, or boarding house, in Venezuela, the family shared a bathroom with prostitutes, Robert recalls. (Robert, who has knack for storytelling, claims they drifted to 10 pensiones that year; his brother, Ricardo Jr., and sister, Maria Conchita, now a famous actress, peg it at two or three.) Soon Ricardo found a gig selling used cars. Robert and his brother passed out flyers at a stoplight.

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Janine Zeitlin