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Message From a Venezuelan Opposition Leader: 'Welcome to My Golden Cage'

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 4/20/2019 David Luhnow
a man wearing glasses: Venezuelan oppositlon leader Freddy Guevara has taken refuge in Chile’s diplomatic compound in Caracas since late 2017.
© Fabiola Ferrero for The Wall Street Journal Venezuelan oppositlon leader Freddy Guevara has taken refuge in Chile’s diplomatic compound in Caracas since late 2017.

Freddy Guevara lives in what he calls Venezuela’s nicest jail. He has his own bedroom, a chef makes his meals, and there’s Netflix, a pool and a garden with five turtles. The opposition leader has been cloistered since late 2017 in the Chilean ambassador’s residence in the capital, Caracas, where he fled to avoid arrest by President Nicolás Maduro’s secret police. Recently he welcomed a visitor for his first interview since taking refuge: “Welcome to my golden cage,” he said.

Mr. Guevara’s asylum in a diplomatic compound is a throwback to the Cold War, when Latin America was awash with revolutions and military coups—but with a twist. Back then, Venezuela was one of the few democracies in the region, and dissidents trying to escape certain death at the hands of dictatorships in Cuba, Argentina and Chile saved their lives by rushing to its embassies and other diplomatic outposts, among others. Now, with most of Latin America democratic, the situation is reversed: Venezuela is the autocracy pursuing opposition politicians, and Chile has given some of them refuge.

“It’s sad to see what Venezuela has become,” says Pedro Felipe Ramírez, Chile’s ambassador until last year, who got permission from his government to shelter Mr. Guevara and others. For Mr. Ramírez, it was a kind of payback for his own rescue: He was one of an estimated 50,000 Chileans to whom Venezuela granted asylum after the 1973 coup in Chile by Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Mr. Ramirez had been Chile’s housing minister. He was jailed for three years, then fled to Venezuela when he heard he was about to be arrested again.

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Mr. Ramirez, named Chile’s ambassador in 2014, had been an admirer of Venezuela’s former strongman, Hugo Chávez, who died in office the year before. But he says that Mr. Maduro’s slide into outright authoritarianism changed his view. Venezuela’s population is suffering though the worst economic crisis in its history, with a lack of food and medicine now compounded by regular shortages of power and water. Democratic institutions have been dismantled, and the opposition and government are now struggling over who has legitimacy to lead the country.

Along with Mr. Guevara, Chile’s compound in Caracas hosts Roberto Enríquez, the head of another opposition party, who has been there for two years dodging treason charges. And during two months in 2017, Mr. Enríquez was joined by five judges hiding from Mr. Maduro, turning the small compound into a retreat of sorts for the persecuted.

“I went from living alone to having a boardinghouse,” recalls Mr. Ramírez. “It was a bit like a reality television show.” The togetherness had its lighter moments, including pranks: Mr. Enríquez convinced the judges that there was a panic room loaded with food and wine where they could hide if police stormed the house and even got them to ask Mr. Ramirez for the secretive “Alpha code” to unlock it.

Latin America is the only region of the world that has long practiced so-called diplomatic asylum, where a country can grant refuge at a diplomatic mission instead of within its borders. That tradition is partly why Ecuador granted shelter at its London embassy to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in 2012. Last week, in kicking Mr. Assange out, Ecuador’s president argued that he had interfered with the politics of both Ecuador and the U.K., breaking the terms of his stay as outlined by regional deals, including the 1954 Caracas Convention.

The Caracas pact was spurred by an incident in 1948, when Colombia granted asylum at its embassy to a Peruvian opposition leader who found himself on the wrong side of a coup. Peru’s military dictatorship wouldn’t let him leave, and he lived in the embassy for five years. The Caracas Convention called on governments to provide safe passage out to those granted asylum in diplomatic compounds.

In Venezuela’s case, the government refused to grant safe passage to the five judges in the Chilean embassy, but they managed to leave their refuge, elude arrest and flee to Colombia. Messrs. Enriquez and Guevara have not formally requested safe passage. They think that Venezuela would say no, and they want to stay in their country to fight for change.

Mr. Guevara knows that he has it good compared with many of the nearly 900 political prisoners in Venezuela, including his political mentor, Leopoldo López. Mr. López, jailed in a military stockade for more than three years, is now under house arrest and living with his family not far from the Chilean residence, but he sleeps in his clothes in case police arrive to take him away at night. The government’s charges against both men are the same: inciting violence by calling for street protests.

“This is a great jail. But not having freedom is like dying in life,” said Mr. Guevara, who admits to bouts of loneliness and depression. “For the first two months, you’re like, ‘Hey, this isn’t so bad.’ Then it gets bad.”

When the arrest order forced him to seek refuge, Mr. Guevara was acting head of the Popular Will party and deputy head of the National Assembly. On Nov. 5, 2017, he got a tip from a Supreme Court justice warning him that the court had just signed his arrest warrant. As intelligence agents arrived at his house. Mr. Guevara escaped out the back and made it to a European ambassador’s house.

Together, they searched for a place for Mr. Guevara to ask for asylum. Upcoming elections in Brazil, Mexico and Colombia posed a risk that leftist parties would win and be more sympathetic to Mr. Maduro. But in Chile, both the ruling party and the opposition saw Venezuela as a dictatorship, so the pair sought out Mr. Ramirez. On Mr. Guevara’s first night at the Chilean residence, the Argentine ambassador visited and gave him a piece of advice: “Your body may be here, but keep your mind outside.”

One condition of his stay under the Caracas Convention is to avoid overt political activity. But since Chile, along with 53 other countries, has recognized the opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader instead of Mr. Maduro, the Chilean government allowed Mr. Guevara to speak to the Journal.

Mr. Guaidó became the face of the opposition only after Mr. Guevara, Mr. López and others were locked up or hounded out of the country. Nine of their party’s leaders are in jail, and eight more have outstanding arrest warrants or have gone into exile. Earlier this month, Venezuela’s government stripped Mr. Guaidó of his parliamentary immunity, a step that some fear will pave the way for his eventual arrest, too. It was the same first step taken against Mr. Guevara.

Since they took refuge, Messrs. Guevara and Enríquez have watched with frustration as the country’s political and economic crisis has grown steadily worse. Mr. Guevara’s sister and most of his close friends have left the country, part of an exodus of some 3.4 million people. Of his college graduating class, only four of 60 remain, he says.

To stay involved, Mr. Guevara regularly speaks via the conferencing app Zoom with other opposition leaders. “It’s hard not being on the street with people. You feel frustrated because you could be helping lead this, but your hands are tied,” he said. “So you accept your role.”

He recently got engaged to his girlfriend, but since they don’t know when he might regain his freedom, they have yet to set a date for a wedding. “Like a lot of Venezuelans,” he says, “my plans for life are on hold due to one man—Nicolás Maduro.”

Write to David Luhnow at


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