WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When Venezuela’s government issued an arrest warrant for David Smolansky last year, the young opposition politician went into hiding before shaving off his trademark beard and fleeing through the southern jungle to neighbouring Brazil.
Six months later, Smolansky has settled in Washington D.C., part of a growing group of Venezuelan exiles lobbying for a tougher international stance against President Nicolas Maduro in the midst of the country’s dramatic economic meltdown.
The 32-year-old former student leader and journalist has been living in a strange limbo since leaving the oil-rich nation beset by food shortages, disease and hyperinflation.
“Many people think, ‘he’s left, so he’s doing well.’ Exile is also difficult. You’re not in jail, but you’re not free either because you can’t go back to your country,” Smolansky, the former mayor of the wealthy Caracas suburb of El Hatillo, told Reuters in a recent interview.
His exile has a particularly ironic twist: his Jewish grandparents escaped the Soviet Union and his father then fled communist-run Cuba for Venezuela.
“I’m the third generation that has had to emigrate,” said the husky-voiced Smolansky, whose father advised him that exile must not break him.
So Smolansky focuses on meeting Trump administration officials and international diplomats to press for U.S. and Latin American sanctions against Maduro’s unpopular socialist government.
“My focus is that Venezuela is a threat to the region,” he said during the interview just off K Street, the downtown city road known for its lobbying industry.
He is also in touch with other Venezuelan exiles, including former Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma, who fled house arrest by slipping across the porous Colombian border last year and is now based in Spain.
Smolansky, who belongs to the hardline Popular Will party, agrees with the opposition coalition’s boycott of the April 22 presidential election, which has been widely condemned for democratic shortcomings.
“It’s not an election, it’s a coronation,” said Smolansky, pointing out that top opposition figures are barred from running and the electoral council openly supports the government.
In August, at the end of four months of major protests, the pro-Maduro Supreme Court issued an arrest warrant for Smolansky on grounds that he allowed stone-throwing hooded youth and roadblocks in El Hatillo.
He knew the writing was on the wall. The head of the Popular Will party, Leopoldo Lopez, had been behind bars since 2014 on charges of stoking street violence, and a half-dozen opposition mayors had also been jailed.
He immediately went into hiding. Moving between several safe houses, Smolansky slept during the day to be alert should authorities try to nab him under cover of darkness. He spent the solitary nights writing, reading and watching sports, his backpack always ready in case he had to flee.
Thirty-five days later, after dissident former state prosecutor Luisa Ortega and opposition-named magistrates successfully escaped the country, Smolansky decided to do the same. He shaved his beard, donned glasses, wore a flathat, and used an identity card that belonged to someone else.
He fled through Venezuela’s remote southern jungle and savannah region, which teems with gasoline smuggling and illegal gold mining, to reach the Brazilian border.
Remarkably, he made it through what he said were 35 checkpoints and was welcomed in Brazil, whose conservative president Michel Temer is a staunch critic of Maduro.
When Smolansky arrived in Washington in November, childhood friends from Venezuela put him up for three months while he found his footing. He now works in an office, is frequently featured at think-tank events, and receives some income from consulting work.
Still, daily life in the bountiful United States remains a jarring reminder of penury back home.
“Here you have white rice, brown rice, dark rice, black rice,” he said, laughing, before turning serious. “In Venezuela, there is no rice.”
Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer in Washington; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Matthew Lewis