Javier Fungairino was eating breakfast with his son at a bakery one recent morning when he noticed a familiar face at a nearby table: a former minister of Venezuela’s socialist government whose presence reminded him of the pain he suffered when he left his homeland for Miami three years ago.
“I knew it was him,” the 43-year-old Venezuelan businessman said of the encounter this month. “But the first thing I asked was, ‘Are you Eugenio Vasquez?’, and he said, ‘Yes.’”
Immediately, an angry mob of scolding Venezuelan exiles surrounded the former head of state-run Banco de Venezuela, shouting “Rat!” and “Get out, thief!” until Vasquez and another man with him fled.
“I never laid a finger on him. I simply raised my voice,” Fungairino said. “They hate when people complain. They think they’re so powerful that they’re not used to that kind of treatment.”
The confrontation was captured on a cellphone video that went viral on social media back in Venezuela among opposition members who for two months have been protesting what they say is President Nicolas Maduro’s “dictatorship.”
Public shamings are becoming more frequent. Whether it’s attending the opera in New York or strolling along a beach in Australia, current and former Venezuelan government officials — even their children — are finding it harder to enjoy the good life abroad while an increasingly violent power struggle plays out back home
But the aggressive form of protesting has been met with some hostility of its own.
Maduro has denounced the aggressive attacks on former and current officials abroad as violent and undemocratic, comparing them with the anti-Semitism faced by Jews in Nazi Germany. Even some of Maduro’s detractors oppose attacks on officials’ families.
“If you find a figure in public, I am all for recording the encounter and showing your disgust,” said Mari Montes, a former sports journalist who moved from Venezuela to Miami with her family in 2014. “But going to houses where there could be children, I don’t like that because it can get out of hand. It’s a risk we don’t have to take.”
The in-your-face heckling of top officials from Venezuela is similar to how in the 1990s victims of Argentina’s military dictatorship staked out their former torturers in confrontations called “escraches.”
The same practice has been employed against officials in Spain in recent years by people evicted from their homes during the country’s financial crisis. In communist Cuba, loyalist groups have long carried out similar public attacks known as “acts of repudiation,” but there it is dissidents, not officials, who are the ones targeted.
In Venezuela, social media has multiplied the political impact of the confrontations with representatives of the socialist system installed by the late President Hugo Chavez.
Pop-up protests against “Chavistas,” for instance, are organized with the WhatsApp messaging application among small groups of exiles. One in Miami calls itself “Outing the Enchufado,” or the “plugged in,” and announces its events just hours before they occur. Activists speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation say they get information from hackers in Caracas about where people with government links are living.
One recent week day, activists unfurled a giant, anti-government banner outside a gated community in a Miami suburb known as Little Venezuela where a purported front man for a prominent Chavista governor, Jose Gregorio Vielma Mora, is believed to live with his beauty queen wife.
“He’s killed a lot of young men in Tachira state, and he doesn’t care. And his buddies live here in Doral Isles,” Jani Mendez, an accountant from Venezuela, shouted from a megaphone as passing cars honked in support. “Just so you know who your neighbors are.”
In Bern, Switzerland, a woman recently confronted Venezuelan Ambassador Cesar Mendez at a grocery store, yelling “corrupt” and “thieves” in German as stunned shoppers looked on. Venezuela’s ambassador to the United Nations, Rafael Ramirez, was surprised attending the opera in New York. In Madrid, a businessman linked to Maduro’s government was harassed at a bakery counter.
“Your time is running up, buddy,” a man is heard yelling at the businessman on a video taken with a cellphone. “You’re all going to wind up face down. Nicely strung up.”
One of the most debated videos, seen hundreds of thousands of times, shows Caracas Mayor Jorge Rodriguez’s daughter Lucia Rodriguez walking with a man along Bondi beach in Sydney as she is badgered in Spanish by a woman who walks alongside shouting, “Thanks to your father, people are dying!”
An online petition now signed by nearly 30,000 people asks Australian authorities to revoke Rodriguez’s student visa, saying that money of a “dubious and dishonest origin” financed her filmmaking studies there.
The mayor appeared on state TV to denounce the harassment of his daughter and identified her tormenter as Deborah Goldberg, who he said left Venezuela in 2006 with much family wealth.
Rodriguez held up what he said was a childhood photo of Goldberg with Lilian Tintori, the wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, and said they are working together to tarnish the government’s reputation.
“We know this is all part of a cooked-up lie to spread hatred,” he said.
Joshua Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia.