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In 2013, David Smolansky, then 28, became Venezuela’s youngest-ever mayor, elected to serve a middle-class Caracas suburb. Today he proudly ticks off his accomplishments: a steep reduction in kidnappings and other crimes, a school-lunch program, a transit system. But he ran afoul of the increasingly dictatorial President Nicolás Maduro when he allowed antigovernment demonstrations on his turf. In 2017 a warrant was issued for his arrest, and he fled. It turns out he was following in the footsteps of his grandparents and parents, who fled Russia after the revolution and Cuba after the rise of Fidel Castro. Now living in Washington, Mr. Smolansky says he was inspired by his family history as he sneaked into Brazil en route to the United States. “It gave me strength to follow this path,” he says. Now working on the Venezuelan migrant and refugee crisis for the Organization of American States, Smolansky says he is still dedicated to public service and hopes someday to return to rebuild Venezuala. “I know the millions of Venezuelans who are refugees now will also want to go back,” he says, “and together ... we will work to build back our country.”
When David Smolansky decided it was time to escape the arrest warrant issued for him in his native Venezuela, the idea of living somewhere in exile was hardly a new one in his family.
As it turned out, David would become the third generation of Smolanskys to leave their homeland to live in freedom somewhere else, fleeing a revolution that morphed into a repressive and authoritarian regime.
Elected in 2013 at age 28 as Venezuela’s youngest-ever mayor, Mr. Smolansky got down to addressing crime and feeding hungry kids in schools – but he also eventually ran afoul of the increasingly dictatorial regime of President Nicolás Maduro. With a warrant issued in August 2017 for his arrest – and political-prisoner status looming – the popular mayor of the middle-class El Hatillo suburb of Caracas made a plan to sneak out of the country.
Here we go again, thought the broad-smiling politician with a football-player’s build.
Indeed Smolansky’s paternal grandparents, Russian Jews, had fled what became the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution. Their chosen destination to rebuild their lives? A promising place called Cuba.
But after losing the textile business the Smolanskys had built in their new home to the revolution of Fidel Castro, David’s parents decided to leave. They looked around the region for a new place where they might build a family and prosper in freedom.
That place was Venezuela – a democracy and advancing middle-class country that, when David’s parents arrived in 1970, was the envy of much of South America.
Now living in Washington, Smolansky says his family history was a lifeline as he went underground in Venezuela, crossed the border into Brazil dressed as a priest – Bible in hand and rosary around his neck for good measure – and made his way to the United States.
“I prayed so much while I was in clandestinity, but I was also inspired by what my grandparents and parents had overcome in similar situations before me,” says Smolansky, whose mother is Catholic and who himself was baptized at age 10. “It gave me strength to follow this path.”
Goal is to return
Yet in one critical way Smolansky is determined to see his story play out differently from those of his forbears. The exiled mayor who chose a future of public service as a college student is set, not on building his life in his new home, but on returning to Venezuela to help rebuild the country from the ashes of its downward political and economic spiral.
“I’ve been and would like to be again a public servant for my country,” he says. “So my goal is to go back when conditions allow that. I know the millions of Venezuelans who are refugees now will also want to go back,” he adds, “and together with those like many in my family who are still there, we will work to build back our country.”
Smolansky is proud of his record as mayor. He ticks off accomplishments in El Hatillo that won him a spotlight when so much of Venezuela was going downhill: a steep reduction in kidnappings and other crimes fomented by a sinking economy; a school-lunch program to help address rising malnutrition among children; a transit system linking his municipality to surrounding rural areas.
But as a known member of the political opposition – as a college student he had helped organize large demonstrations against Maduro’s predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chávez – Smolansky also drew the attention of the Maduro government. When the country’s supreme court, known to be stacked with pro-Maduro jurists, issued a list of opposition mayors it wanted arrested and tried on various charges, Smolansky’s name was on it.
His crime? Failing to keep public thoroughfares unencumbered. In other words, he allowed anti-government demonstrations on the streets of El Hatillo when the Maduro government had ordered them stopped.
It was the kind of trumped-up charge that had already landed dozens of mayors and other public servants in prison – Venezuela had at least 237 political prisoners behind bars in mid-October, according to Foro Penal, a Venezuelan legal assistance organization – and it’s what set the young mayor on his path to exile.
Smolansky says he feels every day like his place is back in Venezuela, pursuing his calling in public service. But he says he also has a strong sense that he is able to continue serving his country from his new home in the US.
At OAS, serving Venezuelans
In large part that is because of the new task he has taken on. In September the secretary general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, called on Smolansky to chair the OAS’s new working group on the Venezuelan migrant and refugee crisis.
“I can’t be in my country right now, but this position does give me a sense of purpose and a chance to continue serving Venezuelans,” he says. With an estimated 2.6 million Venezuelans having left their country – a number that could reach 3 million by the end of the year – Smolansky says there is a long list of services to be provided, from food, shelter, and jobs, to education for displaced children.
Most Venezuelans leaving their country are crossing land borders into Colombia and Brazil, with growing numbers also moving on to Peru, Mexico, and if they can, the US.
“Many people don’t realize it, but this is the biggest [refugee] crisis ever” in Latin America, he says. “Syria is the only current crisis that has displaced more people,” he says, “but that’s a terrible war situation. This crisis is happening without a war.”
Unlike Smolansky, who left for political reasons, most Venezuelans are fleeing the country’s dire economic straits. The GDP has fallen by half over the last five years, inflation has reached an unfathomable 1 million percent, oil production – the country’s bread and butter – continues to shrink, and imports of food and medicines – critical to a country that has lived off its oil wealth and never developed much domestic production – have plummeted.
Smolansky says he also feels inspired by the long line of prominent Latin American leaders – from Brazil’s former president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, to former Chilean President Ricardo Lagos – who also found themselves forced to live in exile before they could return to lead their countries.
“I know they used their time in exile to learn and to remain in service, and when they went back they were able to accomplish some great things,” he says.
Dream of democracy
The bearded former mayor, who has taken a liking to a particular arepa shop in Washington (an arepa is a ground maize muffin-like staple in Venezuela and Colombia), says he’s too busy to focus on when political conditions will change to allow a return to his country. But he acknowledges it won’t be tomorrow.
“Maduro has the generals and the arms on his side right now,” he says. He notes that the president has put generals in charge of the industries Venezuela still has operating, including the state-owned oil company. That helps isolate the higher echelons of the armed forces from the country’s impoverishment and encourages their loyalty – a strategy used by the Castro regime in Cuba.
Experts on Venezuela also underscore that the country’s political opposition is deeply divided, hapless, and now decimated after years of an increasingly authoritarian central government.
But Smolansky says he remains confident that some day before too long he and many Venezuelans like him will return to build a new country.
“I’m 33 years old, I’m part of a generation that grew up under Chávez and Maduro and doesn’t know what it is to live in a country that has democracy, the rule of law, security, and opportunity and prosperity,” he says. “But realizing those things for Venezuela is my dream, and I know there are many, many more Venezuelans who dream like me.”