Wanted Chávez foes flee to South Florida
South Florida is quietly emerging as a sanctuary for foes of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. U.S. officials said their presence hasn't become a policy issue -- yet.
BY GERARDO REYES AND ALFONSO CHARDY
Johan Peña and Pedro Lander, former Venezuelan security officers, arrived in Miami in early December, only days after investigators in Caracas accused them of killing a prominent federal prosecutor.
Carlos Fernández, former leader of a key Venezuelan opposition business group, arrived in 2003 -- soon after fleeing house arrest, punishment for his role in efforts to overthrow elected President Hugo Chávez.
Daniel Romero, a Caracas lawyer who publicly read a decree suspending the National Assembly and other democratic institutions during a brief 2002 coup, also fled to Miami and asked for asylum.
Immigration court figures show a steady increase in the number of asylum requests by Venezuelans -- from 47 in 2000 to 659 in 2003. Some of the recent arrivals are either wanted for crimes in Venezuela or under investigation for allegedly trying to undermine the Chávez government. Some insist that they face persecution back home in retaliation for their peaceful opposition to Chávez.
While U.S.-Venezuelan relations have been strained over Chávez's populist rhetoric and his claims that Washington backed the coup, the presence of Venezuelan asylum seekers has not become a policy issue -- yet -- according to a Bush administration official.
''Until they give us any specific formal request through the State Department as to why these people should be extradited, the immigration service will merely view them as visitors or asylum seekers entitled to pursue their cases,'' the official said on condition of anonymity.
A State Department official, meanwhile, said that his department had no comment on the Venezuelan exiles and that their asylum petitions were matters for Homeland Security to resolve.
Former Venezuelan national guard Lts. José Antonio Colina and Germán Rodolfo Varela left Venezuela after being charged with the Feb. 25, 2003 bombings of the Spanish Embassy and the Colombian Consulate in Caracas. They have been held at the Krome detention center in West Miami-Dade County since arriving in late 2003.
Bernardo Alvarez, the Venezuelan ambassador to the United States, told The Herald that his government has asked only for the lieutenants' extradition. But he said authorities in Caracas were investigating other people implicated in the coup, the bombings and the prosecutor's assassination.
''The majority of Venezuelans in the United States lead a decent life,'' Alvarez said. ``But there is a small group linked to radical actions.''
He said those people have fled to avoid prosecution -- not persecution.
''Venezuela is not Cuba, but there are enough disturbing signs to compel some people to leave,'' said Susan Kaufman Purcell, director of the University of Miami's new Center for Hemispheric Policy. ``And Miami is the perfect place for them. It's in the United States, but culturally it resembles home, with the things they like about home and without the things they don't like about home.''
Among the earliest anti-Chávez activists to arrive in Florida was Romero. The 46-year-old lawyer was jailed briefly when Chávez returned to power after the coup, then was admitted into Miami as a tourist. In November 2002, Romero applied for asylum. His petition is pending.
Romero runs a printing business in downtown Miami that makes letterheads, posters of singer Julio Iglesias and other products.
Fernández, former leader of Venezuela's largest business organization, Fedecamaras, arrived in April 2003. He has applied for asylum and recently earned his real estate license in South Florida.
''I'm in limbo,'' Fernández told The Herald. ``There has been no response on the part of immigration.''
Colina and Varela arrived Dec. 19, 2003, about a month after a Caracas judge ordered their arrest as suspects in the February 2003 bombings.
Immigration Judge Neale Foster prohibited the U.S. government from deporting Colina and Varela to Venezuela. But he also denied them asylum Feb. 18, saying, ''there are serious reasons for believing'' they had a role in the bombings. The two deny it and are appealing. But the Department of Homeland Security has asked an immigration appeals court to overrule Foster and order the lieutenants' deportation to Venezuela, arguing that they are in the United States to avoid prosecution.
Foster said that the car-bomb assassination of Caracas prosecutor Danilo Anderson in November 2004 was remarkably similar to the bombings of the diplomatic missions. Anderson had developed the case against the ex-lieutenants and also was investigating coup supporters.
Venezuelan investigators blamed Peña, Lander and Juan Guevara in Anderson's slaying. All three are former members of Venezuela's security and intelligence services. Guevara was arrested in Caracas.
Peña and Lander arrived Dec. 4, according to travel records relayed to The Herald by federal sources. The two requested asylum.
Neither Peña nor Lander wanted to be quoted for this report. Wilfredo Allen, their immigration attorney, declined to comment.
Peña and Lander have told people in Miami that the charges are false. They claim that the Chávez government wants to frame them because they have evidence linking government officials, including Anderson, to corruption.
Another Chávez opponent in Miami-Dade is former Venezuelan army Col. Yucepe Piliery. Judge Foster's ruling says a witness in the Venezuelan investigation saw Piliery meet with Colina, Varela and former national guard Gen. Felipe Rodríguez just before the bombings.
While Colina, Varela and Rodríguez were charged, prosecutors in Caracas told The Herald that they were investigating others -- including Piliery. Piliery declined to comment.
Herald research editor Monika Leal contributed to this report.