There are moments in life when the true nature of something is revealed in the fog. Sometimes, an object will only reveal itself slowly as the fog lifts. Other times the object shines brightly cutting through the fog with its clarity.
For example, as the evidence of Russian interference and espionage in the 2016 Presidential election mounts, the true nature of the Russian government is becoming increasing apparent to many in the U.S. Having represented numerous Russians and citizens of former Soviet Republics who had run afoul of the Kremlin over the last decade, I have long known the lengths that the Russian government will go to discredit and undermine its opponents. Years ago, we had to convince skeptical U.S. government officials of the nature of the Russian government. I would venture a guess that most in the bureaucratic structure, if not the political leadership, are well aware of the nature of the beast. This is an example of the fog slowly lifting.
I remember the moment, in contrast, when I was able to see the Venezuelan dictatorship of Hugo Chavez for what it was. That moment occurred when I met Elias E. Eljuri, one of the most unlikely of characters in a drama that, although minor, revealed the Venezuelan government for what it was: a paranoid state built upon the cult of Hugo Chavez and some argle-bargle socialist rhetoric disguising a kleptocracy. And Elias Eljuri helped me understand this. Elias died last month and, although I had not seen him in years, his regular calls and promises to take up his citizenship application always brought a touch of joy into my life. Elias was the central character in a drama I will never forget. And he was a friend.
Elias came from a prominent Venezuelan family and was living here in Washington DC when I met him. He was working at the Inter-American Development Bank for the Venezuelan delegation. The Venezuelan ambassador to the IADB was a close ally of Hugo Chavez. This was the early days of the Chavez regime. Chavez, who was initially democratically elected, was a mysterious figure. Many viewed him as the next Fidel Castro, committed to Marxist-Leninist revolution carried out at the barrel of a gun. Other saw in him a populist figure bent on breaking the Venezuelan oligarchy that many considered to have robbed the country’s massive oil wealth. It is fair to say that, at that time, there was no consensus on Hugo Chavez and his government.
Elisa came and saw me after he was placed on leave by the bank. He was worried that he would lose his visa and have to return to Venezuela, a thought that terrified him. While working for the Venezuelan ambassador to the IADB, Elias became convinced that she was stealing money from the bank. Frightened that he was somehow complicit, Elias decided to send an email to the entire IADB staff accusing the Venezuelan ambassador of stealing tens of thousands of dollars. This started an investigation and got Elias placed on leave. To this day, I have no idea whether Elias was correct or not as to the money. But it was his act and the Venezuelan government’s reaction that turned this episode from a minor human resources matter into an asylum case.
Upon learning of the public accusations made by Elias, the Venezuelan unleashed its fury on him. They published articles in the state-controlled press stating that he was a CIA mole and trying to destroy Venezuela. They held massive rallies and burned Elias in effigy. They waved signs that said “ELIAS ELJURI: TRAITOR.” People called for his assassination.
All this took a toll on Elias. Elias was a nervous man by nature and this notoriety was deeply troubling. He had trouble focusing, sleeping and communicating. He became convinced that the Venezuelan government had installed spies and assassins in his building, a threat that does not seem so out of place based upon what we know today about Venezuela. Elias was paranoid, but he was not wrong to be so.
These challenges made Elias a challenging witness in his asylum case. His comments were not always linear. He was prone to digression. Never very healthy, he sweated a lot and was nervous. But, after hearing from Elias and reviewing the articles and the documents about how the Venezuelan government vilified Elias, the Judge said simply, “well, I’m convinced.” He granted asylum. He was scheduled to be sworn in as a citizen next month.
Elias was one of the most decent and kind people I know. He brought gifts to the entire staff and was always polite. He knew that he had major anxiety and depression issues but always presented a cheerful front, no matter how much that may have hurt him. In this process, I got to know his mother and sister who loved and cared for Elias through this struggle. I also got to know the Venezuelan government. In how they treated Elias, the Venezuelan government showed me what it really was.
I hope that Elias has found the peace that eluded him for so long. We wish his family all our love during this difficult time.