As a parade of Venezuelan opposition figures took the stage in a Peruvian suburb this week, more than a thousand of their exiled countrymen burst into chants of “We want to go home,” waved tricolor flags and vowed to topple the “tyrant” who’s taken over their homeland.
Venezuela’s opposition is in disarray at home — weakened by setbacks, arrests and electoral defeats — as President Nicolás Maduro moves to clinch a new six-year term in a controversial May 20 election.
But the opposition-in-exile is feeling energized by growing international sanctions against Venezuela and the belief that Maduro’s time is running short.
And nowhere is that sentiment more powerful than in Peru, which has emerged as a stronghold for Venezuelan dissent just at a time when the country is playing host to the region’s leaders for the eighth Summit of the Americas.
Antonio Ledezma, the former opposition mayor of Caracas who escaped house arrest last year and now lives in exile, told the cheering crowd to “start packing your bags, because I have hope that we’re heading back to our country.”
More than a million Venezuelans have fled the nation in recent years amid hyperinflation, hunger and a broad economic collapse that has created a global diaspora of the disillusioned.
And while countries like Colombia and Brazil have received more Venezuelans than anywhere else in the region, Peru has earned a reputation as a place where exiles can thrive.
Oscar Perez Torres, a Venezuelan political activist, came here eight years ago to escape an arrest warrant issued after he organized anti-government protests.
He said Peru’s decisions to recognize Venezuelan college degrees, provide work permits and allow people to bring family members have made it a safe haven where the opposition can regroup and strengthen.
“I am convinced that whatever transition eventually takes place in Venezuela will, one way or another, come from Peru,” he said. “Peru is playing a starring role in the defense of Venezuelan democracy and, obviously, we’ll never be able to live long enough to thank this country.”
While Peru’s immigration authorities say about 20,000 Venezuelans were living here in 2017, Torres, who runs programs to assist the exiles, estimated the real number might be 10 times higher.
International condemnation of Venezuela is growing, as Maduro clings to power and refuses to acknowledge that there’s a humanitarian crisis. But Peru is among the few nations that have taken concrete steps against Venezuela.
In particular, former Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski rescinded Maduro’s invitation to the Summit of the Americas being held this week in Lima — an unprecedented move in the history of the meetings, which began in Miami in 1994.
Even when Kuczynski stepped down last month amid corruption allegations, his successor, Martín Vizcarra, congress and the foreign ministry held the line.
On Wednesday, after receiving the red-carpet treatment in Peru’s ornate legislative building, Ledezma said the decision to exclude Maduro from such an important event was a watershed moment.
“The decision to close Peru’s borders and airspace to the dictator of Venezuela is a concrete action that shuts the door on that chapter of rhetorical diplomacy, of diplomatic courtesy,” he said.
“This is a wake up call to Venezuela’s armed forces,” he added. “You have a commander in chief who is repudiated by the international community for his ties to terrorism and drug trafficking, for his human rights abuses and involvement in scandalous corruption.”
While the official theme of this year’s summit is anti-corruption, Venezuela’s opposition is hoping to turn the event, which runs Friday and Saturday, into an indictment of Maduro and to argue for more action.
Already, the United States, the European Union, Switzerland and Canada have slapped sanctions on high-ranking Venezuelan officials. And Washington has also hit Caracas with financial sanctions — barring U.S. institutions from dealing in Venezuelan debt.
But Ledezma said it was time to do more to rescue a country he claims is being controlled by Cuban military and political advisers.
“I support a humanitarian intervention with all that that implies,” he said. “We’re asking the international community to oust the Cuban army that has invaded our territory.”
It’s just that sort of heated rhetoric that got Ledezma thrown into jail in Venezuela in 2014. And the Maduro administration has long argued that Ledezma and other opposition hard-liners are breaking the law by calling for coups and uprisings.
But Ledezma has been an effective advocate internationally. On Wednesday, more than 20 former presidents, who are part of the Spanish and American Democratic Initiative (IDEA), signed a declaration asking summit leaders to consider breaking diplomatic ties with Venezuela, to reject the May 20 presidential election and to expand sanctions, among other measures.
It's not clear if any of that will happen, but Ledezma said Venezuela’s neighbors need to follow in the footsteps of Europe and the United States and seize bank accounts and pull visas from Maduro officials.
“It’s Latin America’s turn at bat,” he said.
Peru’s embrace of the Venezuelan opposition is something of a karmic payback. During the years when Alberto Fujimori led Peru, from 1990 to 2000, he dissolved congress, suspended the constitution, co-opted the media, and jailed and killed opponents. And thousands of Peruvians sought asylum in Venezuela during those years.
“The reason we absolutely support Venezuelans is because we’ve also lived through a dictatorship,” said Jorge Villacourt, the secretary of the ruling PPK party in Peru.
Odsilmar Mendez, a 41-year-old physical therapist, fled Venezuela a year ago with her children, as the economy collapsed and her salary could no longer put food on the table.
After trying to start over in Colombia, she moved to Peru because the country accepted her academic degrees and she could get a work permit.
As she joined the rally with the other homesick expats, she said that Peru has given her faith that things can change.
“We will go back,” she said. “I am sure of that.”