He slipped out of Venezuela in disguise. Now he’s the OAS migration czar.

Hunger, looting mark daily life for many Venezuelans

Across Venezuela hunger, looting and protests are becoming part of daily life.
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Across Venezuela hunger, looting and protests are becoming part of daily life.

A little over a year ago, David Smolansky was on the run in his native Venezuela. Stripped of his job as mayor of El Hatillo and facing arrest on political charges, he shaved his beard, hid behind sunglasses and sneaked into neighboring Brazil disguised as a missionary.

Last week, Smolansky was back on the Venezuelan border — this time in Cúcuta, Colombia — as the very visible head of an Organization of American States working group that’s studying the Venezuelan exodus.

Speaking to the Miami Herald after the brief trip to the border with OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, Smolansky, 33, said he was moved by the tens of thousands of Venezuelans who plod across the international bridge every day trying to escape hunger and disease — some staying for good, others staying only long enough to buy medicine and food no longer available at home.

Just as Cubans fled to the United States on rafts after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Venezuelans “are the balseros of the 21st Century,” he said.

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Many Venezuelans are crossing the border for good, traveling to places like Perú and Chile to find work. But the vast majority are looking for life-saving necessities to take back home.

“That people would have to go to Colombia for something as basic as groceries to feed their family … is the clearest demonstration of the collapse of Venezuela and the humanitarian crisis,” Smolansky said.

That the OAS would name Smolansky — a well-known opposition politician and a fugitive from Venezuelan justice — the head of the new working group is another sign of how frayed relations are between Caracas and the organization.

Last year, Venezuela announced it was withdrawing from the OAS, which includes every country in the Americas except Cuba, after the body took the socialist government to task over its handling of national protests. Since then, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and OAS chief Almagro have torn into each other in the press.

Last week, after Almagro visited the Colombian border, he set off a firestorm when he suggested a military invasion of Venezuela to resolve the humanitarian crisis shouldn’t be ruled out. He later backtracked on the statement but not before most members of the Lima Group — a bloc of Latin American nations — denounced all talk of military intervention.

On Tuesday, Maduro fired back, calling Almagro “garbage” and saying he had already been relegated to the “trash heap of history.”

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Smolansky steers clear of the invasion debate, but he’s adamant that Venezuela has no future with Maduro in power.

“The cause of this massive exodus is the dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro,” he said. “And the best solution to stop the mass exodus is for democracy and liberty to be restored in Venezuela.”

The broad outlines of the Venezuelan crisis are well known: The once-wealthy petro-state is in an economic free-fall featuring hyperinflation and chronic food and medicine shortages. In addition, Maduro’s authoritarian streak has led to the jailing or exile of many opposition politicians who might help the country change course.

Amid the economic, social and political breakdown, more than 2.4 million Venezuelans have left the country — 1.6 million since 2015 alone, according to United Nations figures.

If the problem is clear, the solution is not. And that’s where Smolansky is hoping to shape the debate from his new OAS post, which was created Sept. 5.

Smolansky calls his approach “manos amigas, brazos fuertes” — or friendly hands, strong arms. In essence, he says the region needs to push for the ouster of Maduro (that’s the strong arm portion of the equation) while making sure that Venezuelan migrants are given free movement in the region, and access to jobs and training.

The difficulty of the approach is it requires all of Venezuela’s neighbors to work together, so the problem doesn’t overwhelm any one nation.

“This is today a migratory crisis without precedent in Latin America and the Western Hemisphere,” Smolansky said. “This is a problem that can’t be seen from the perspective of an individual [country]. It has to be seen as a regional issue.”

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A regional approach will also make it easier to access the multilateral funding that countries like Colombia say they need in order to keep absorbing Venezuelans.

There are already small steps being taken toward a regional response. Last month, several nations released the “Quito Declaration” in Ecuador calling for open borders and that nations in the region accept expired Venezuelan passports and national IDs as valid. But those aspirations haven’t been turned into policy yet.

Asked if his status as an opposition figure would give Maduro ammunition to undermine his work at the OAS, Smolansky said there was no way to escape Maduro’s fire.

“The Nicolás Maduro regime has always undermined the OAS and David Smolansky,” he said.

The government accused Smolansky — and other opposition mayors — of not doing enough to stop anti-government protests and barricades during 2017 national demonstrations. The courts sentenced him to 15 months in jail and stripped him of his right to hold public office, tactics it has used to sideline and silence other opposition figures.

Smolansky said his work and recommendations at the OAS will be “transparent” and fair and not tinged with politics.

But for Smolansky, there’s only one real solution: that Maduro, who has been in power since 2013, be removed from the equation.

“The Venezuelan exodus will end when Venezuela sees liberty and democracy again,” he said. “Not only will the exodus end, but there will be the incentive for millions of us to go home.”