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Latin America Report

Young, Escaped Venezuelan Opposition Leader: 'We Have To Organize The Diaspora'

Ariana Cubillos
Then Caracas borough mayor David Smolansky rallying anti-Maduro Venezuelans before his escape from Venezuela last year.

Last month Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro won another six year term in an election widely considered fraudulent. He tightened his authoritarian socialist regime's hold on Venezuela, which has the largest oil reserves on the globe but is suffering the world's worst economic collapse today. As a result,  Venezuela experts say the opposition to Maduro desperately needs new leadership.

Maduro's opponents are divided and look weaker and more ineffective than ever. One emerging prospect, though, is 32-year-old David Smolansky, the former mayor of the Caracas borough of El Hatillo. Last year Smolansky escaped arrest for his opposition activities and made his way to Washington, where he’s now a visiting scholar at Georgetown University.

READ MORE: U.N. Should Recognize Maduro's Deadly Madness. His Opponents Should Engage It.

Smolansky spoke with WLRN’s Tim Padget during his recent visit to Miami. Here are some excerpts of their conversation:

WLRN: First, a report from the Organization of American States, which is like the UN of the Western Hemisphere, has concluded the Venezuelan regime has committed crimes against humanity. How much will this help the cause of restoring democracy in Venezuela?

SMOLANSKY: I think it will help a lot. It is historic for us. Last year more than 150 people were killed in nonviolent protests in Venezuela. There are more than 300 political prisoners. Furthermore, the humanitarian crisis, which is like a silent genocide where there are people that are not living, they are surviving – and many of them have not been able to survive because of shortages of food and medicine.

So this is a very important step from the OAS and we hope there are countries that could go with a referral to the International Criminal Court to advance this process.

Venezuela's most important opposition leaders are in jail, in exile or disqualified from running for office. Our generation needs to be part of the transition to democracy, no doubt about it. –David Smolansky

But getting the international community onboard requires the Venezuelan opposition to be good at reaching out. Why in your opinion is the Venezuelan opposition in such a sad condition today?

Well, because of persecution. The most important leaders right now are in prison, in exile or have been disqualified to run for any public responsibilities. Having said that, I'm not going to deny that some mistakes have been made by the opposition. But the majority of Venezuelans didn't go to vote in the May 20th presidential election – for the first time in 60 years. That's something historic.

But did the election boycott really accomplish anything?

It did because imagine we had participated in that election. We wouldn't have had the European Union saying they're going to expand sanctions against Maduro’s regime. The Trump Administration trauma saying that are going for more sanctions. The sanctions Canada published recently. So I think Maduro is weaker than before. Nobody in the international community is recognizing Maduro.


Why did the Maduro regime threaten to arrest you last year?

Well, I do not repress the nonviolent protests that happened in Venezuela last year, specifically in El Hatillo in Caracas. So I had an arrest warrant out for me. So I went in hiding.

Right. Tell us about your escape through Brazil to the U.S.

I had to travel 1,300 kilometers by land through Venezuela and pass through 35 military checkpoints. Basically, I change my physical aspect; shaved my beard; I used glasses, and I put a flat hat on. Also, I simulated to be a seminarian – that works with priests.

Credit Ariana Cubillos / AP via Miami Herald
AP via Miami Herald
An opposition-led boycott led to sparse Venezuelan voter turnout for last month's presidential election.

So you escaped Venezuela as a priest.

Well, not exactly a priest – a seminarian. (Laughs)

What ideas are you bringing in Washington in terms of how to pressure the Maduro regime to restore democracy?

It’s very important – taking experiences from other countries that had a dictatorship – to organize our diaspora. Three million Venezuelans are now living abroad in more than 90 countries and more than 400 cities. There are so many talented young Venezuelans who are now in Panama and Colombia and the U.S. and in Spain. They need to be outspoken about the crisis we're having in Venezuela, to get people sensitive. That's very important.

But also – how we can help Venezuelans who are in my country get food and medicine because Maduro is blocking any humanitarian aid. We need to work not only to get rid of the regime but also to think about the recovery of Venezuela.

The opposition, though, is often associated with Venezuela’s old guard elite. You were the mayor of a largely affluent Caracas borough. Do you have enough credibility with Venezuela’s poor?

I think so. We had a poor, rural area in my [borough] and we were the first to provide public transport to connect them to the urban areas for better work and study. We also reduced violent crime and kidnappings.

Do you then think it's necessary that someone from your generation be the next leader of Venezuela when democracy does return to the country?

There are important leaders from the generation before us, like Leopoldo López. But I think we need to be part of that transition, no doubt about it.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.