This week, is the final of my series of interviews with Venezuelan dissidents in response to Oliver Stone's film, South of the Border.
Words matter, but images stay long after the words have been forgotten by all but the academics. While human rights groups issue reports and calls-to-action, including the Venezuela Awareness Foundation, which I am proud to represent, films like Mr. Stone's live on to be taken as fact by future viewers. And, as Groucho Marx once said, "Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?"
Hugo Chavez knows the importance of images and visual impressions and has taken over the independent media, as well as bankrolling film productions.
But the people who know the truth, well, they speak with their feet and Mr. Stone's authoritarian buddy picture, South of the Border, has been a commercial flop in Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil. Well meaning, but ill-informed Americans have been a more receptive than the audiences in countries where Mr. Stone is trying to paint Chavez as their savior, where the people have voted with their feet to stay away from this propaganda.
I spoke with Maria Luisa Vincentini. Maria Luisa left Venezuela when the intimidation against her failed and the backers of Chavez instead turned to her 7 year-old son -- whose life was threatened directly. She is another brave activist in the struggle for true democracy in Venezuela, who helped to hide dissidents who had applied for asylum in the embassies near her home. So I put the same questions to her.
Oliver Stone's film, South of the Border, claims that Venezuela has no political prisoners. What would you tell Oliver Stone about this, based on your own experience in Venezuela?
I would tell Oliver Stone that saying there are no political prisoners in Venezuela is a big lie. There are political prisoners and I personally know of at least 27. I lived in Venezuela until mid-2007, when I had to leave the country due to political persecution and was granted asylum in the United States -- for which I am extremely grateful.
Some of my friends were not so lucky.
They had to go underground for publicly opposing Hugo Chavez's totalitarian government. Chavez even put a price on the heads of these activists. The situation was awful for them and very dangerous for us all.
I helped them by providing a place to stay, food, medicine and sometimes transportation -- since they had to be on the move constantly [Ed note: In Venezuela, the government has a network of spies and informers in every neighborhood].
I believe there was betrayal because two of them were caught and are currently in jail after a mockery of a trial and trumped up and fabricated charges. They never committed any crimes. They merely opposed Chavez.
There are political prisoners in Venezuela, Mr. Stone. I can give you their names. I believe Chavez paid for you to say the opposite and that makes you a liar.
Why are people seeking asylum out of Venezuela if there is freedom to oppose the government?
There is no freedom because people only speak or act out as far as the government arbitrarily allows. There are no laws to protect people from government abuse, as in the US with its guarantee of freedom of speech, association and assembly. It is subjective according to the whim of the dictator, Hugo Chavez. Communism invaded Venezuela by the hand of Fidel Castro's rich benefactor, Hugo Chavez.
Have you had experience with government surveillance or have any of your house guests been harassed?
Absolutely, our phones were tapped, menacing cars with no license plates and dark windows were parked outside our houses or followed us to work, school, the market. We received phone threats, threats by email. A couple of our houses were sprayed with machine gun fire, raided, invaded. As I said, two of my friends are still in jail, others in exile. Some were able to leave Venezuela, escaping the injustice, the incarceration, the torture -- they now live scattered around Central America, the USA and Europe -- but are separated from family and friends, looking for a job, trying to survive. I was not able to attend my own father's funeral last year. But all that seems to matter to Oliver Stone is the money that the communist government of Hugo Chavez paid him.