Venezuela's Crisis Leads To Political Witch Hunts In South Florida
On the night of May 12, a group of Venezuelan expats gathered in front of the house of former Venezuelan judge Dayva Soto in Weston. They screamed insults at her in Spanish.
“We’ll force you out of Weston,” they shouted. “You’ll never be able to sleep here again.”
Most Venezuelan expats are bitter foes of Venezuela’s socialist government. Social media had identified Soto as the judge who sent popular Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López to prison three years ago. So the exiles considered Soto fair game for public shame and harassment.
But there was just one, really big problem.
As you can hear Soto say on video of the confrontation posted on YouTube, the expats had información falsa. False information. Soto was a judge. But not the judge who jailed López.
In fact, 13 years ago Soto was the judge who freed another jailed opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, when other judges wouldn’t. Since then Soto, apparently disillusioned with Venezuela's authoritarian regime, has moved to South Florida – and Capriles is now at the head of anti-government protests in Venezuela. After the Weston incident, he went on Twitter to praise Soto’s “courage.”
“Averigua” – verify your information, Soto tries to tell the expats over their hysterical yelling.
But verify is something too few Venezuelan expats are doing these days in their rush to expose so-called enchufados – Venezuelan socialists, known as Chavistas, who are now living wealthy lives in the U.S.
“The situation in Venezuela and here is like a witch hunt,” says Levin de Grazia, co-owner of the Bocas restaurants in Miami and Doral, South Florida’s largest Venezuelan enclave.
The false news began to run around Doral – and it could break us. No Venezuelans here want to go to a Chavista restaurant. –Levin de Grazia
Last month de Grazia was alarmed to see an anonymous post on Instagram calling him an enchufado. It claimed his business was laundering embezzled money for a Chavista official back in Venezuela. But the same day the Instagram accusation posted, de Grazia was actually hosting an event at his Bocas Grill restaurant in Doral condemning the Chavistas – and collecting food and medicine for people struggling in Venezuela.
“There’s no way for me to be an enchufado,” says de Grazia. “But the false news began to run around Doral – and it could break us. No Venezuelans here want to go to a Chavista restaurant.”
De Grazia quickly notified the FBI as well as local Spanish-language media to make sure the slander that hit Dayva Soto didn’t clobber him.
On the one hand, it’s hard to fault expats for being furious at Venezuela’s government. Their homeland’s catastrophic economic misery is due largely to the authoritarian mismanagement of socialist President Nicolas Maduro – and since April, some 60 people have been killed in anti-government demonstrations there.
So de Grazia understands the urge to call out people here who profited from corrupt socialist rule there.
“But not,” he says, “if it hurts innocent people.”
Yet increasingly that’s the case in South Florida. The false if not libelous information is often created by zealous expats and government opponents – but also by Chavistas in Venezuela. The latter want to sow division among exiles, and de Grazia believes that was the case for him. (Authorities here are still investigating.)
Either way, expats too often run, hair-trigger, with whatever they see on Instagram, Twitter and especially WhatsApp to conduct what are called escraches: public humiliation events like the one in Weston.
“But they always please need to identify exactly where this information comes from,” says Benjamin DeYurre, a Venezuelan expat journalist and a leader of the Democratic Party’s Hispanic Caucus in Miami. “For me it’s one of the most important missions.”
DeYurre in fact has made it his mission to trawl social media for dangerously false Venezuela-related posts – and warn expats here about them.
DeYurre, whose columns often run in El Nuevo Herald, says his effort is about more than protecting innocent people. He’s also concerned about the integrity of Venezuela’s opposition – especially the exile community, which wants U.S. politicians to back their anti-Chavista cause.
“If you publish things that are not true, the credibility of the people here is destroyed, you know?” says DeYurre. “And the regime is going to last more.”
There are of course cases where the enchufado information is true – like a recent incident, also posted on YouTube, in which Venezuelan expats hounded Eugenio Vásquez, a former Chavista finance minister now living in Miami, out of a local Don Pan restaurant.
Even so, watchdogs like DeYurre say people should avoid vigilantism and instead tell authorities – who can then determine if enchufados and their money are here legally.
Otherwise, expats risk looking guilty of witch-hunting political opponents. In other words, precisely what they accuse the Chavistas of doing back in Venezuela.