My Name is Francisco, And I Am a Toxic Exile

Being expelled from your own country is a caustic experience that's making some of us, Venezuelan exiles, noxious to the cause we defend—whether we know it, or not

The tropes, images and fears of the Cuban exile in the US mustn't colonize the narrative of the Venezuelan diaspora

Photo: The New York Times

As a Venezuelan abroad, one question began to plague me over the last few weeks: am I a toxic exile? 

Are you? 

And what is a toxic exile, anyway? 

Let’s start there. I define it as someone who, warped by the trauma of exile, adopts political views detrimental to the people left back home. 

Exile is an emotionally devastating experience, that’s well recognized. What not everyone grasps is that it’s also a politically transformative one. The day politics forces you out of your home, a wedge is driven between you and the country you leave behind. 

That distance is minuscule at first. But it grows. And grows.  

The country you remember, the one you knew, stays frozen in time on the date of your Cruz Diez shoe selfie. The real country continues to evolve and, in almost every way, to deteriorate. 

You talk to your family and the friends you’ve left behind, at least until they also leave, and that keeps you more or less grounded in the country as it is now. But that grounding is uncertain, evanescent, it fades gradually over time. As years pass, your allegiances inevitably tend toward anachronism. Eventually, your nostalgia, your saudade, is for a place that has disappeared. 

I define it as someone who, warped by the trauma of exile, adopts political views detrimental to the people left back home. 

That’s the universal experience of migrants, of course. But for us exiles, there’s an added ingredient. We left not because we wanted to, but because we had to. Our estrangement is suffused in the bitter politics that forced us out. More often than not, our allegiances remain rooted to another moment, another fight. As time passes, those allegiances become more and more out of sync with the political realities of the evolving home country. 

None of this is new. Every exile spawns its own toxins. In the 1920s, some Russians exi led by the Bolsheviks in the Far East formed a Russian Fascist Party to oppose them. For much of the 20th century, Irish exiles provided a financial and political lifeline to Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army that kept the Troubles going in Northern Ireland far longer than they could’ve been sustained without them. 

Neither could hold a candle to Cuba, the springhead of the world’s most destructive exile. Over the last eight decades, Cuban reactionaries have done more to sustain the communists in power back home than almost any other force: their unhinged maximalism making castrismo seem almost reasonable in contrast. 

Venezuelan exile is more recent and, consequently, not yet as toxic. But signs of toxification are obvious and worrying. Already, outside Venezuela, a reactionary fringe carries by far the biggest megaphone in discussions about policy toward our country. Obsessed with avenging the loss of the republic, more concerned with defeating the enemy than with the actual lives of the 28 million flesh-and-blood Venezuelans still living (somehow) back home, they continue to press yesterday’s orthodoxies as though the country remained what it had been the day they left. 

I’d always figured this was a problem for other people. I’m an intellectual, above such sordid nonsense. Of course!… or, am I?

Then, Henrique Capriles broke with Juan Guaidó and called on the opposition to take part in December’s elections. And what happened next… well, it bears pausing over.

My first reaction was a white hot flash of anger and contempt. How dare he? How dare Henrique Capriles collaborate with the dictatorship and lend credence to the farce the regime is proposing in December? How dare he saw off the branch of international support upon which Juan Guaidó precariously sits? Has he learned nothing? At all!?

It made me angry. I know this regime. I know its shocking inhumanity, its contempt for every norm decent people abide by. My gut rebels at any move to normalize its evil. Capriles, I could see, had just cracked under the pressure, capitulated in the fight that is our generation’s calling.

I stalked around my house in a foul mood for a while, despairing for Venezuela’s future, wondering how old my kids will be the first time they manage to visit, thinking how alien, how foreign it will all seem to their thoroughly Canadian eyes. And then a funny thing happened. A flash of… insight? That’s what recovering alcoholics call it, that tiny instant when, between one bender and the next they just catch a peek at themselves the way others might see them, take stock of what they’ve become. 

I looked in the mirror, and I saw… a Miami Cuban.

Toxic exile isn’t something you can sidestep just because you’re aware of it intellectually. It works inside you and through you.

I realized, in a flash, that I was replaying all the old ideological debates from years gone by in my head, rehashing them and relanding in the same place where I’d always landed before: the barren controversies about participation vs. abstention, the conceptual desert of the mechanics of delegitimization and the limits and promises of external pressure. And I just had a moment of asking myself if I knew, if I really knew, if these ideas were still relevant to Venezuela today.

How dare I? How dare Francisco Toro pass judgment on Henrique Capriles from the comfort of a Montreal exile, where the water always works, the power never goes out and nobody throws you in jail for thinking the wrong thought? How dare I presume to tell Henrique Capriles, who’s slogging through the grueling task of facing down this monstruous regime, what the right way to do that is? How dare anyone not in Venezuela do that?

That momentary insight, that flash, shook me. 

Toxic exile isn’t something you can sidestep just because you’re aware of it intellectually. It works inside you and through you, through the conditions of your life and your exile, and structures your beliefs whether you want it to or not. 

And it does more than drive a wedge between you and your country. It seeps into the public sphere, driving a poisonous dynamic among maximalist exiles who, after all, have already lost everything they had to lose, and the people left back home who need to figure out a way to survive the ordeal somehow. 

All exile is toxic. It’s toxic to our collective ability to come to considered judgments about what the country left behind has become, what it needs, and how to help it. And toxic exile is always damaging, in our case not by manning the shock troops at the Bay of Pigs or bankrolling the IRA, but in keeping wishful thinking alive, fanning fevered fantasies, egging on extremists and doubling down on a now falsified narrative of our history, past and future. 

We can try to mitigate the toxicity of our exile by being attuned to it, aware of it, wise to it. But there are limits to what we can do. Because, in the end, it’s exile itself that’s toxic.