Until last year, David Smolansky was mayor of El Hatillo Municipality in Caracas. When he was elected in 2013 at 28, he became the youngest mayor in the history of Venezuela. After Smolansky began to emerge as a leading figure of the unified Venezuelan opposition, the Maduro regime responded by removing Smolansky from office, disqualifying him from holding public office, and placing a warrant for his arrest. He fled Venezuela after spending 35 days in hiding, finally arriving in Brazil after passing through more than 35 checkpoints without detection.
Smolansky has found a temporary home in Washington, D.C. as a visiting scholar at Georgetown University. From afar, he continues to actively engage as a leader of an international opposition movement that continues to grow in strength and numbers.
As one of Global Americans 2018 New Generation of Public Intellectuals, we spoke to Smolansky about his life in exile and his proposals to restore democracy in Venezuela while he was in New York City as part of a tour of the U.S. and Latin America to speak out against the regime. Though David acknowledges the long road ahead for his country, he speaks about restoring democracy and rebuilding Venezuela with inspiring hope.
David, thank you so much for meeting with Global Americans during your stop in New York City. Let’s go a bit back in time. You are a former journalist and former student activist, what led you to this life of social activism?
I’m part of a generation that was born in, or has grown up in, a dictatorship, under a regime that does not know what a free Venezuela is, where there is no rule of law, and that doesn’t know what it is to live in a country with no fear. So I think the most beautiful thing about our generation is that it is fighting for something we actually don’t know.
When I was a teenager, I was always interested in everything going on in Venezuela and internationally. But in 2007, when I was a journalism student, and Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV)—the oldest and most popular television station in the country—was shut down by the regime, thousands of students went out to the streets in a non-violent protest. We used symbols, such as the palms of our hands painted in white, as a form of a peaceful protest intended to say to the National Guard and to the world that we were peaceful people. The marches led to a campaign—quite by accident—to defeat Chávez’s quest to change the Constitution. That accelerated all my participation in social activism.
You took your civic engagement to the next level when you ran for mayor of El Hatillo Municipality in Caracas. What made you decide to make that leap from activism into politics?
I always wanted to be a public servant for my country. I wanted to start in the town where I grew up. In Hatillo, one of the five municipalities of Caracas, we have many problems, especially security. We had a very intense campaign that I was fortunate enough to win and I became the youngest local administrator in Venezuela.
When I started my term, there were 94 kidnappings the year before I was elected; the year I was removed there were only16 kidnappings—a reduction of more than 82 percent.
Unfortunately, we have the opportunity to speak to you precisely because you have been in exile since August 2017. You arrived in Washington in November. What has your day-to-day life been like? How has your life changed during these past months?
I always try to be really active. I had the opportunity to start in January as a visiting scholar at Georgetown University, where I’m doing research. I’m also part of the democratic opposition as an international force, so I’ve been really active on diplomatic efforts.
I went to the Eighth Summit of the Americas and to the border with Venezuela in Colombia. I’ve also been helping the diaspora organize in cities in the United States.
I’m taking exile as an opportunity to get to know a lot of people that I can learn from, to grow professionally, politically and academically. I’m so inspired by so many leaders, not only from Venezuela but also from other countries in Latin America, that have been exiles because of dictatorship or armed conflict and then turned into relevant actors in promoting a transition to democracy in their countries: Lagos and Aylwin in Chile, Cardoso in Brazil, Rómulo Betancourt in Venezuela. I look up to all of them, because they had to live in exile for so many years, but were still instrumental in the transition from dictatorship to democracy.
I hope that from exile I can do my part to contribute to a transition democracy in Venezuela soon.
In a 2016 interview for the BBC you mentioned that no other authority has been more prosecuted than mayors like yourself. Why do you think that is?
Thirteen mayors have been removed by the regime; six have served jail time, the rest are in exile. We represent 10 million people, which is one third of the population. As far as I know there is no precedent to this situation, not only in Venezuela but also in the whole region.
Maduro went after the local authorities because in Venezuela people have the opportunity to elect their local authorities, and many local leaders have become important leaders from the opposition; central opposition figures such as Leopoldo López, Henrique Capriles, and Antonio Ledezma all started as mayors. So local office is considered a starting place for many leaders, and what Maduro fears most are emerging leaders. That’s why he went against 13 young, prominent mayors, not only me but people like Daniel Ceballos, the mayor of San Cristóbal, one of the top municipalities in Venezuela. Daniel is still in jail. He’s the only mayor who is still in jail, and he’s been there for four years now.
You mentioned that you are part of the democratic opposition in exile. In a Reuters interview earlier this year you agreed with the opposition coalition’s boycott of the presidential election, which is this Sunday. Why do you support the boycott?
There are six strong and clear reasons why we cannot participate in the May 20th Election. The first is that the electoral council is not independent in Venezuela. Second, the candidates that could win an election from the opposition are in jail, have fled or are in exile. Third, the majority of political parties from the opposition have been banned. Fourth, at least a million and a half Venezuelans that could vote from abroad are not allowed to. Fifth, there is no guarantee that a delegation from an international community will go to Venezuela to observe and certify transparent elections. Finally, the illegal National Constituent Assembly, which more than 7.5 million Venezuelans rejected last year, called for the elections, so we cannot call this normal, fair transparent election. What we have is a fraud—a coronation—and Maduro is desperate to have the opposition participate to gain some legitimacy.
Let’s talk a bit about your international engagements. You were recently in Lima during the Eighth Summit of the Americas, and among the people you met was U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. Given your conversations, as well as recent remarks from the U.S. government rejecting the upcoming elections and offering additional financial aid to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, do you have any hope of further international cooperation and pressure on the Maduro regime?
The international community has been very active, especially in the last month. I don’t have any doubt that Venezuela is a priority for the international community, and when I talk about international community I refer not only to the United States, but also Canada, Latin America, and the European Union.
As we speak, the Grupo de Lima is holding a meeting in Mexico. So I’m sure there are going to be more actions from the international community after May 20th, and the majority of countries in the community will not recognize the election. I hope there are countries that have either supported Maduro or abstained from collective action, especially in the OAS, that will change their position after May 20th.
In my opinion, after May 20th, there is no gray zone in Venezuela. Either you support the dictatorship or you are against it, both domestically and internationally.
Do you think there is more that the international community—specifically the Grupo de Lima— could be doing?
Yes. There should be more restrictions against high officials from the regime—for example, restrictions on traveling freely through countries in Latin America. There are several officials from the regime involved in human rights violations, corruption, and drug trafficking who own assets throughout Latin America; their bank accounts should be investigated and frozen. Maybe some diplomatic relations could be ended or at least frozen. There are many things to do in that regard.
And I also wish that Grupo de Lima would grow. It currently consists of 14 countries and it would be great if more regional countries would join the group, especially countries like Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago.
Also, we will not give up until we have 24 countries in the OAS voting against the Maduro regime. We are five away and I’m sure there are countries in the Caribbean and Central America that could change their position after May 20th.
What are your thoughts on China and Russia, both of whom are keeping Venezuela afloat in a certain way?
In the case of China, their main concern is Venezuela’s debt, which is somewhere between $20 and $25 billion. They do not have any guarantee from the regime that that debt will be paid. I think right now the Chinese are strictly in an economic position and as far as I know there is no answer from the regime.
Russia is different. For Russia it’s not about debt, which is miniscule compared to the money owed to China. The problem is their huge role in supporting security forces and the army and their interest in protecting their oil fields in the east, which were given to them illegally, without the approval of the National Assembly. Furthermore, Russians are also playing on social media to create misleading information and rumors, so it is quite clear that Russia has interest in Venezuela, and its main interest is to maintain the regime.
We’ve spoken of the level of international action. What about inside Venezuela? Could there be more mobilizations? Stronger MUD cooperation? Maybe action by the military?
There are protests everyday in Venezuela. There are between 20 and 25 protests every day in different parts of the country: in the slums, rural areas, and in the cities. There are more social protests because of lack of food, medicine, gas, electricity, so I wouldn’t underestimate that.
Obviously we have not seen the massive protests that we saw last year for 120 consecutive days. We are seeing local protests, people expressing their anger against the regime, and I don’t have any doubt that that situation will weaken Maduro’s grip on power.
We also need to keep working on the non-violent protests and focus on the low- and middle-range officials in the armed forces. We need to understand that Venezuela has 2,000 generals—more than all of NATO has—and that is the main pillar of the regime. You have low and middle range soldiers that are suffering like any Venezuelan. When they finish their job and they go to their houses, the fridge is empty and they have children to feed, or they have a family member with a disease that can’t be treated because there is no medicine. These soldiers have real potential to spark change.
When you speak to the diaspora around the hemisphere, are you hopeful that you’ll be going back to Venezuela any time soon?
I have no doubt that I will go back to Venezuela, but I try not to become obsessed with when it’s going to happen. The sooner the better, but as I said before, I’m taking this time as an opportunity and the diaspora can do what I can. Members of the diaspora can protest, draw attention to the crisis in international media, and help with democratic efforts from afar.
The most beautiful thing about the diaspora is our shared belief that the day will come that the majority of us will return to our country, reunite with our families, and start to rebuild Venezuela. There is so much Venezuelan talent abroad, in more than 400 cities in more than 90 countries, so many of whom are students preparing themselves in universities. We will need all of them to rebuild our country.
At the same time we need to help Venezuelans who are refugees. I’m really concerned about the growing refugee crisis, even more so after visiting Colombia. They need access to education, shelter, food, and healthcare. To guarantee that, we’re going to need a huge effort from the international community.
It’s been calculated that 1.6 million people have left Venezuela during the past two years.
That’s true, but you also need to understand the differences among the diaspora. There are those that have left the country and have a job or are studying. There are others that perhaps do have a degree but no job; it’s so difficult to see lawyers, engineers and journalists working at restaurants, for example, but they are managing.
Then there are people that don’t have anything, literally sleeping on the streets or in houses provided by the Church. I saw a lot of this in Colombia. This last group needs the most help. For the other two, the best help we can provide is the immigration status, but this last group must not fall through the cracks. We’ve seen beautiful experiences in other places, like in Europe, where refugees are guaranteed shelter, healthcare, food, and education. Another thing we can do is capacity building, so they run their own business and become entrepreneurs and have a positive impact on the economy of the country receiving them. Then when they return to Venezuela after we restore democracy, they will also have a positive impact in the economic recovery of our country.
One final question. Global Americans has included you in its list of The New Generation of Public Intellectuals along with other prominent young voices from around the region. What does it mean to you to be a leading member of a new generation of public intellectuals at such a critical time for the region?
I’m humbled to be on the list. It represents more commitment to my country, more responsibility toward Venezuela. It is not about me, but about a generation that has been the main victim of this dictatorship, of family separation, of shortages, of crime, of repression. If I could change the attention I’ve received for a free Venezuela, I wouldn’t give it a second thought, but I’m thankful to Global Americans for granting me that privilege and I take this with more commitment and responsibility. This is a moment when politicians in Venezuela must be very humble. We need to keep our feet on the ground as the situation gets worse. It is not time for any individual aspiration; it is about Venezuela first, second, third, all the time.
David, thank you so much. Consider us as an additional voice for your cause. Good luck with everything.
Thank you so much!
This interview has been edited for content and length.