They're a familiar sight and sound in South Florida’s Venezuelan community: videos of exiles defending themselves against accusations that they’re “Chavistas," or sympathizers of Venezuela’s authoritarian socialist regime, a government despised by almost every expat here.
But the “yo no soy Chavista” Facebook video Carmen Jaqueline Gimenez recently posted was of particular interest because she’s running for office in November – for mayor of Hallandale Beach.
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"It's an insult to call me a Chavista," Gimenez insists in the video. "It's worse – it's cyber-persecution."
Still, as word of Gimenez’s candidacy spreads, her accusers are storming social media to denounce her as an estafadora, or con artist, and a Venezuelan government spy. One Venezuelan expat in Miami with the Twitter handle @Arrested_Word called her basura, Spanish for “garbage”:
“This woman worked hand in hand with the dictatorship. This is the kind of Venezuelan garbage that’s allowed to live in Florida.”
Meanwhile Gimenez’s defenders, including another South Florida Venezuelan expat with the Twitter handle @maridevillar, cast her as a reliable, rehabilitated anti-Chavista:
“Carmen Gimenez is one of the Venezuelans in Florida fighting for Temporary Protected Status for Venezuelan refugees. She denounces Chavistas.”
WLRN reached out to these South Florida Venezuelan Twitter users for comment, but they declined to talk. We also reached out to Gimenez; she also declined to be interviewed.
But Gimenez was once a devoted official in the Venezuelan regime. Today she lives in Hallandale Beach and says she’s now devoted to fighting that regime and aiding Venezuelan refugees.
Whatever the truth of her opaque story really is, it's a reminder that while South Florida’s fastest-growing immigrant community does have Chavistas and ill-gotten Chavista wealth hiding in plain sight, it's also just as unfortunately notorious for escraches, public shamings of people branded as Chavistas that are often little more than witch hunts. And so the question becomes:
Who gets to decide who is a politically correct Venezuelan exile?
“It is a difficult question,” concedes Luisandra Tadino, a Venezuelan expat who lives in Doral and studied public finance with Gimenez two decades ago at the National School of Business Administration and Public Finance (ENAHP) in Caracas.
“In the beginning,” says Tadino, referring to the years just after the left-wing Chavista revolution came to power in Venezuela in 1999, “even middle-class Venezuelans supported the revolution.
And Gimenez, adds Tadino, who watched Gimenez start her Chavista government career in Venezuela, “was very Chavista. She even wrote her [public finance] thesis on ALBA.”
ALBA, or the Bolivarian Alliance, was a Venezuela-led effort to create an economic bloc of mostly leftist governments in Latin America. Gimenez parlayed her Chavista connections into a post at the Caracas-based ALBA bank in the early 2000s – and that’s where her story gets strange.
In her video, Gimenez admits Venezuela issued an arrest warrant for her in the late 2000s. She claims she angered the regime when she refused to illegally divert ALBA funds to Chavista political campaigns. But Venezuelan authorities claim she falsified documents to pass herself off as a top ALBA director as part of a corruption scheme to enrich herself. (Interestingly, Gimenez continues to list that disputed high-ranking ALBA post – a position Venezuelan prosecutors insist never even existed inside ALBA – on her LinkedIn profile.)
Either way, Gimenez fled to the U.S. and has spent the past decade building her image as an enemy of the Venezuelan regime. She founded an organization, USA Refugees and Immigrants, which claims to help Venezuelan migrants gain asylum. She denounces Venezuela’s human rights record. (Three years ago she received a master's in human rights law from the St. Thomas University Law School.) And she likes to get her picture taken with conservative Florida politicians – especially now that she’s running for mayor of Hallandale Beach.
“If her conversion is sincere then, yes, it seems unfair to still brand her as a Chavista,” says Tadino – who herself fled Venezuela almost a decade ago when, she says, Chavista officials tried to force her to follow corrupt practices at the customs agency where she worked.
“But because corruption is so rampant inside the regime,” Tadino notes, “many Venezuelan exiles will ask questions like, ‘Did she enrich herself before she left Venezuela and is now just playing the anti-Chavista role because she’s in the U.S.? Trust is hard, unfortunately.’”
Joel Jose Alvarez, another Venezuelan exile who studied with Gimenez, admits he wrestles with those uncertainties. Alvarez came to live in Tampa three years ago for much the same reason Tadino left Venezuela – and as a result he says he understands why many expats aren’t willing to accept Gimenez’s political makeover.
“She offered me her asylum services when I arrived here, but I turned it down,” Alvarez says. “It was hard to imagine this change in her wasn’t the same political opportunism I’d seen from her back in Venezuela.”
Juan Tryone Medina, another Venezuelan exile and classmate of Gimenez’s, recalls her having close ties to particularly high-ranking Chavistas – who, he says, urged Gimenez’s professor to accept her ALBA thesis even though he originally rejected it because it didn’t correspond to the particular graduate degree she was earning at ENAHP. (Gimenez did not answer WLRN’s request for a response to that claim.)
Which is why Medina says he and so many other exiles are skeptical about her claim that she was hounded out of Venezuela because she refused to take part in Chavista malfeasance.
“Communist and socialist revolutions destroy their own people all the time on the slightest pretexts,” says Medina, who recently moved from Miami to Houston. “She may well have just displeased a political rival and they drummed up charges against her. But that doesn’t automatically mean she rejects Chavismo and that everyone should just accept her now as a suitable candidate for elected office in the U.S.”
None of this surprises Guillermo Grenier, a sociologist at Florida International University and an expert on South Florida’s immigrant communities.
"You can’t really change the direction of the Titanic that easily,” says Grenier. Starting with Miami’s Cuban exiles, Grenier notes, it has never been easy for expats here to embrace other expats who were once players in the regime back home. In South Florida’s exile hothouse, he stresses, past politics always trumps present postures.
“What we have developed here in Miami I would call an ideological enclave” of exiles rather than national or ethnic groups, Grenier says. Because most exiles here have escaped left-wing regimes, “we are an incubator for right-wing ideologies. Miami is shaped by U.S. foreign policy with our Latin American neighbors.
“So Carmen Gimenez – she’s got a tough row to hoe as a political candidate in this milieu. It takes a lot of effort to make people here see the nuances in a story like hers.”
Grenier suggests the best exiles in her situation can do is continue demonstrating their break with regimes like the Chavistas. But Gimenez’s critics argue that’s also one of her biggest liabilities. They say Gimenez, an admittedly tireless self-promoter on social media, has made her situation worse by trying too hard – too opportunistically, many charge – to be a model anti-Chavista. She herself, for example, has led escraches.
But one bizarre case in point seems to stand out:
Two years ago a popular anti-chavista militant in Venezuela, Oscar Pérez, was killed by regime security forces. Shortly after, for reasons she’s never really explained, Gimenez declared she’d been told Pérez was still alive – and she actually advertised his imminent appearance at a Doral restaurant, giving herself a billing in the event.
Gimenez was wrong. In a Twitter message to WLRN, Pérez's widow, Dana Vivas, called Gimenez "part of the [Venezuelan] dictatorship who used my family and our tragedy for her own political gain."
Controversies like that one here – at least among Venezuelan voters who live in Hallandale Beach – may affect Gimenez's mayoral candidacy more than anything she did back in Venezuela.