A Venezuelan prosecutor’s plea for asylum in the United States after confessing he sent the country’s opposition leader, Leopoldo López, to prison on trumped-up charges has set off a moral and political dilemma from Miami to Washington.
Many Venezuelan-Americans, including an influential group of former political prisoners in Miami, oppose protecting the former official, Franklin Nieves, who is seen as a longtime enforcer of the Caracas regime’s abuse of power.
But South Florida leaders in Washington and the Obama administration – which has already spoken out against López’s imprisonment – must also weigh whether it’s worth working with unsavory insiders like Nieves if it means more leverage against President Nicolás Maduro and his administration – especially with critical parliamentary elections looming next month.
In an interview at the Capitol’s Speaker’s Lobby, just off the floor of the House of Representatives, Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, a Miami Republican, said he was skeptical about Nieves’ request for asylum considering that his role “in the oppression machine of going after political opponents” was very recent. He noted that López was sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison only two months ago.
“We have to be very, very careful to make sure that anybody who seeks asylum in the United States is in fact somebody who deserves asylum, not someone who is part of the regime,” Díaz-Balart said.
Sen. Marco Rubio, the Republican presidential candidate who grew up in the Miami area, wouldn’t address whether Nieves should be granted asylum. But he, too, was skeptical of the request. He said Nieves “merely confirmed” what the U.S. government already knew: “that Venezuela is being run into the ground by incompetent crooks with no regard for the rule of law.”
“Mr. Nieves has a lot to answer for, namely why he proceeded with pursuing a sham legal case that violated the human rights of an innocent man, and why he has waited almost two years to speak out against the Maduro administration’s abuses,” Rubio said.
The United States has a history of protecting those with questionable backgrounds.
Former Bolivian Interior Minister Carlos Sánchez Berzaín was granted asylum even though he was accused of leading the military crackdown on protesters during October 2003 riots that resulted in the deaths of 56 people.
Jaime Garcia Covarrubias, a member of the late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s secret police, was allowed to teach for more than a decade at the National Defense University, the Pentagon’s premier learning center, despite being charged in criminal court in Santiago with being the mastermind in the execution-style slayings of seven people in 1973.
When the FBI worked to take down the New York mob in the 1960s, it did so with the help of informants who turned against their bosses in exchange for entry into the witness protection program. Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Washington-based Council of the Americas, made the organized crime comparison to emphasize that sometimes governments must work with objectionable characters when striving for a higher goal.
“The broader point is you deal with the people who are on the inside, and by definition they’re not going to be Boy Scouts,” Farnsworth said.
Asylum may be granted to people who are unable to return to their home country because of persecution based on their political opinion, race, religion, nationality or particular social group. Those who receive it can live and work legally in the United States. They can later apply for permanent residency and then citizenship.
Nieves fled with his family to Miami late last month. He then posted a video online calling the López case a sham, saying that he was pushed by superiors to introduce fake evidence.
“I decided to leave Venezuela with my family because of the pressure that I was under from the executive branch and my superiors to continue to defend the false evidence that was used to convict Leopoldo López,” Nieves says in the video.
The Venezuelan government dismissed the allegations. Venezuela’s ambassador-designate to the United States, Maximilien Arvelaiz, accused Nieves of playing a role in a strategic public relations campaign to undermine the government before parliamentary elections on Dec. 6.
“Suddenly you have this story, you don’t need to be an expert or to read a lot of tea leaves to understand why,” Arvelaiz said. “It’s like a bad episode of ‘Homeland,’ the TV series. That is more or less how I felt when I read the news.”
Nieves’ dramatic confession is expected to stir up even more uncertainty about the Maduro administration, which has been hurt politically by food shortages, rapid inflation and increasing violence. Mixed polling results indicate that Maduro’s ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela could lose control of the Parliament.
Nieves said he’s willing to share more information, but it’s unclear whether he came with a suitcase full of documents or if the evidence is primarily in his head. He has not gone into specifics.
Federal officials with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which oversees lawful immigration to the United States, said they can’t comment on specific cases because of privacy concerns. But a Miami-based exile group, the Politically Persecuted Venezuelans in Exile, or Veppex, has called for U.S. authorities not to provide any protection for Nieves, stating asylum is designed to help the persecuted – and not the persecutors.
The United States also must be cautious not to inflame matters by acting too aggressively, said Farnsworth. The Venezuelan government already has implied that opposition groups in the United States helped Nieves, who is with his family in Miami.
Maduro, like his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, has often demonized the United States to build public support. In a Venezuelan television appearance, Diosdado Cabello, the head of the country’s Congress, noted how convenient it was that Nieves was in the United States already when he issued the video and accused him of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to make the claims.
Díaz-Balart said more information is needed about Nieves’ role in the Maduro administration. It’s been the understanding, Díaz-Balart said, that those who have “blood on your hands must suffer the consequences.”
Just this year, retired Salvadoran Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, who was once seen by Washington as a close ally during the Salvadoran civil war in the 1980s, was deported by the United States after immigration courts linked him to human rights abuses and killings by his troops.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said she looks forward to seeing what evidence Nieves provides, but she remains “extremely skeptical” of Nieves’ true intentions.
“We should hold human rights violators accountable and not excuse anyone’s actions against the people of Venezuela just because they seek refuge in the United States,” she said.
Greg Weeks, the editor of the academic journal The Latin Americanist, said Nieves likely can provide firsthand insight of wrongdoing by the Maduro administration. While it’s understandable Venezuelans in South Florida and across the country can’t accept Nieves, strange bedfellows sometimes make sense. Weeks, who is also the chair of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, noted that the U.S. government has worked with individuals who have much more brutal pasts than the prosecutor.
“From a strategic point of view, I would think they want to get as much dirt as they can get,” Weeks said. “This is a pretty small price to pay to get some pretty good dirt.”