Exiled Venezuelan mayor visits Richmond to discuss humanitarian crisis

Exiled Venezuelan mayor visits Richmond to discuss humanitarian crisis
David Smolansky and Michael Shifter led a public panel titled “Venezuela after Chávez” on Jan. 31 in the Grand Ballroom of The Jefferson Hotel. The event was hosted by the Richmond World Affairs Council. (Source: Capital News Service)

By Jaclyn Barton

Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Days before Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó met with U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday, attendees filled a ballroom at The Jefferson Hotel to hear the ‘Venezuela after Chávez’ panel with David Smolansky, an exiled Venezuelan mayor. Along with David Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue, they discussed U.S. foreign policy responses to the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela and described the country’s economic decline.

Trump officially recognized Guaidó as interim president of Venezuela in 2019. Guaidó, who attended Trump’s State of the Union address on Tuesday, had been pushing for a meeting with Trump.

“From my perspective, it would send a very, very bad signal if President Trump does not meet with him after investing so much in this cause,” Shifter said at the panel. “It could be interpreted that there’s not the unflagging, unwavering support that the U.S. has talked about.”

The Venezuelan humanitarian crisis is one of the largest migration and refugee crises in the history of Latin America and the Caribbean. A total of 4.6 million Venezuelans had fled the country by the end of 2019, according to Brookings.

Shifter believes that former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez laid the foundation for what is happening today in Venezuela.

“He kind of went about systematically dismantling every democratic institution and concentrating power in his own hands,” Shifter said.

After Chávez’s death, Nicolás Maduro became president of Venezuela. Shifter said he lacked the charisma, political skill and money that Chávez possessed. Guaidó made the claim that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate, and Guaidó then declared himself the interim Venezuelan president in 2019. Until recently he represented the Popular Will Party, which is democratic-socialist.

At age 28, Smolansky became mayor of El Hatillo, a municipality in Caracas, in 2013. He was later exiled from Venezuela after leading nonviolent protests against the Maduro regime. Before he was exiled, he said he witnessed Venezuelans flee the country because of starvation, lack of medicine, lack of electricity, persecution and violence. Smolansky said refugees must walk a total of at least 2,480 miles to get to safety.

“How desperate has to be someone to walk from Richmond to Salt Lake City to find a place to sleep, to find a place to eat, to find a hospital to cure his disease or just literally find a place to be safe,” Smolansky said.

Maureen Cheatham, a Chesterfield County librarian, attended the event. She shared her own experience fleeing from Venezuela 41 years ago. Cheatham said her brother, who remained in Venezuela, died three years ago because of the humanitarian crisis. She’s never forgiven herself for leaving her family.

“I went to my car screaming when I found out that my brother had died,” Cheatham said. “My husband is the only witness to how I suffer every single day.”

Smolansky believes his work isn’t complete until children living in Venezuela don’t have to flee the country. He currently works as the commissioner of the secretary general of the Organization of American States, an organization that works to have peace and justice among its 35 member states. He is also a visiting scholar at Georgetown University where he was awarded the university’s Global Competitiveness Leadership Impact Award in 2018.

The Richmond World Affairs Council hosted the panel. The group’s next event on March 5 will feature Madiha Afzal, author of “Pakistan Under Siege: Extremism, Society, and the State.”

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.