CARACAS, Venezuela -- More and more opponents of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro are seeking refuge in foreign embassies, fearing arrest for their roles in a failed military uprising on April 30.
Three lawmakers have taken refuge in the ambassadorial residences of Italy and Argentina. Others are hiding out in undisclosed missions. Panama's Embassy is now home to 18 national guardsmen who answered opposition leader Juan Guaido's call to rebel.
None has requested asylum, even though countries in Latin America have a tradition of granting such status to political outcasts showing up at their diplomatic missions. Instead, the embassies have allowed them to enter as "guests" in a sort of limbo waiting for Maduro to fall.
They join popular opposition politicians Freddy Guevara, who has been staying at the Chilean ambassador's residence for the past 18 months, and Leopoldo Lopez, who is now living with his family in the Spanish ambassador's residence. Lopez defied house arrest to take part in the attempted rebellion.
Guevara's status as a guest of the embassy has allowed him to remain politically active, holding frequent strategy sessions with Guaido and other members of their Popular Will party.
"I'm like the ghost in a haunted house: I can't leave, but if you want to come over, you can talk to me," he said.
Guevara's decision to seek refuge inside the ambassador's residence was part necessity, part political strategy.
The 33-year-old cut his political teeth during student protests against Hugo Chavez a decade ago and quickly rose through the opposition's ranks after several of its stalwarts were jailed or exiled. As vice president of the opposition-controlled congress, he was one of the leaders of anti-Maduro protests in 2017 that led to more than 130 deaths. When the government finally quelled the unrest, Guevara was high on officials' list of organizers to target.
Guevara said a Supreme Court magistrate tipped him off about his impending arrest on charges of instigating violence, giving him time to sneak out the back door of his apartment building as police with the Bolivarian Intelligence Service were arriving.
He appealed for protection from Chile in the hope that it would drive home to Venezuela's neighbors the spillover risks from a spiraling political and economic crisis. Many of those neighbors were reluctant to confront Maduro but now recognize Guaido as the country's rightful leader.
"Every lawmaker living inside an embassy is a permanent reminder for that country, its media and its people that Nicolas Maduro isn't just a problem for Venezuelans," said Guevara. "Imagine if [U.S. House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi had to run to an embassy because President [Donald] Trump wanted to send her to prison, or the head of congress in France had to hide inside the Spanish embassy because of [French President Emmanuel] Macron."
He was welcomed with open arms by Chile's then-ambassador, Pedro Ramirez, who had already taken in Roberto Enriquez, president of the conservative Social Christian Party. Two years later, Enriquez is still living in the compound.
At one point, Ramirez was also sheltering five judges whose appointment to the high court by congress was disallowed by Maduro. The jurists, who did request asylum, later abandoned the residence and slipped across the border after Maduro's government denied them safe passage into exile.
For Ramirez, who had served as a Cabinet minister in the socialist government of Salvador Allende, it was an opportunity to return a favor: When Allende was overthrown in 1973, Ramirez was arrested and spent three years in jail before being exiled to Venezuela, which took in tens of thousands of Chileans after the coup. Ramirez considered himself an admirer of Chavez but quickly came to view his successor Maduro as a dictator after returning to Venezuela as ambassador in 2014.
"Venezuela for me is like a second home," said Ramirez from Chile's capital. "It pains me to watch what's happening. It's almost indescribable."
Clearly Guevara is better off than the 857 Venezuelans, including two fellow lawmakers, considered political prisoners by local human-rights groups. Giant tortoises and loud-squawking birds -- chachalacas -- roam a tropical garden complete with a pool, the site that has essentially become Guevara's office. Embassy employees cook his meals, power up a generator during frequent blackouts and resolve daily chores that are a time-consuming burden for even better-off Venezuelans in a collapsed economy marked by hyperinflation and widespread shortages.
But for all the comforts, the deprivations are real too: He can't travel to visit family living abroad, and he's already missed two friends' weddings where he was supposed to serve as best man. He's also not allowed overt political activity, although Chile's Foreign Ministry made him available to The Associated Press for a rare interview.
His own plans are also on hold. Recently he asked his fellow activist girlfriend to marry him, convinced that he could no longer allow Maduro to dictate the course of his life. He's confident they'll be able to get married in a post-Maduro Venezuela -- freed from what he calls his "golden cage" -- by the end of the year.
"Part of resisting a dictatorship is just living your life," he said.
Meanwhile, he draws strength from jumping rope and a book of daily prayers that was a favorite of Abraham Lincoln and that he bought at the U.S. National Archives in Washington.
"Freedom is something intrinsic to our common humanity -- it's not enough to just have a roof over year head, a bed and food," he says. "That's helped me understand why communism goes against human nature. ... As the Bible says, 'Man doesn't live on bread alone.'"
A Section on 05/13/2019
Print Headline: Embassy a 'golden cage' to foe of Maduro