CARACAS, Venezuela – Gisela Parra started trembling behind the steering wheel and nearly hit another car when she heard the news over the radio: She had been charged with trying to overthrow President Hugo Chavez.
Fearing she would end up behind bars on what she says are trumped-up accusations, she boarded a private yacht in the middle of the night and escaped to the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao, her gateway to the United States and political asylum.
“I went into shock because I never imagined that something like that could happen to me,” Parra told The Associated Press by phone from Palmetto Bay, Fla., where she is among a growing community of Venezuelan asylum-seekers in the Miami region. “It was at that moment that I understood the Cubans who leave on rafts.”
Parra is among more than 3,700 Venezuelans who have been granted asylum in the United States since 1999 claiming political persecution. The U.S. government, no friend of Chavez , happily accepts many of them, but many more are currently in the United States illegally and could face deportation.
Chavez vehemently denies persecuting opponents, saying many have broken the law while trying to topple him.
“Nobody is persecuted here,” Chavez said in a recent interview with the AP. He accused the U.S. of granting safe haven to hard-liners who publicly call for his assassination.
“There’s no doubt that some people from Venezuela may have very strong claims for asylum,” said attorney Ira Kurzban, an immigration expert in Miami. But “many claims are simply based upon Chavez leading the country toward socialism, which in and of itself is not a basis for asylum,” he said.
In 1998, the year Chavez was first elected, the United States granted political asylum to only 14 Venezuelans, according to the U.S. Office of Immigration Statistics. Last year the figure was 1,085, compared with 2,431 from Haiti and 1,508 from China.
Parra was chief of Venezuela’s Judiciary Council – a government body that wields administrative control over the courts – until Chavez allies sacked her in 1999. During a 2002 coup attempt, she and more than 20 others attended the swearing-in of a prominent business leader as interim president, but loyalists in the military thwarted the plot and restored Chavez to power.
In March 2005 she was charged with rebellion and decided to flee. “I was a good example, used so they could say to others: ‘Look what happened to her,”‘ Parra said. She was granted political asylum in November 2006.
Another exile in Florida is university professor Vilma Petrash, 48. She said that weeks after the coup, a Chavez supporter confronted her at a protest and warned that “something bad could happen” if she continued her political activism.
Then a note was left on her office door: “Vilma Petrash, coup-plotter, terrorist, we don’t want you in this university.” Phoned threats followed, one of them from one man who said he knew where Petrash’s 5-year-old son attended school, and that he might be kidnapped.
Business leader Carlos Fernandez said he was swiftly targeted for his role in a 2003 strike by oil workers, business groups and labor unions organized by the opposition. He said masked gunmen speaking Cuban-accented Spanish seized him one night and whisked him to a secret police headquarters where he was stripped naked and pushed into a dark cell. He was released the next day, but then the anonymous threats began, he said.
“They’d say to me: ‘We know where you are, and we are going there to grab you and kill you,”‘ Fernandez said. He sailed to Curacao in 2003 and was later joined in Miami by his three children. But his wife is still in Venezuela, waiting for a visa to enter the United States.