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Fake News Is Threatening Democracy In Venezuela

"When you are at the climax of polarization, the truth is seen as a betrayal."

06/30/2017 07:11 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2017
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
In Caracas, so much is an illusion. 

CARACAS, Venezuela ― As the day came to a close on Tuesday in the capital of Venezuela, a remarkable scene unfolded. Residents said they spotted a chopper circling above with a message. Government officials said the stolen police helicopter had attacked the Supreme Court and Interior Ministry with gunshots and grenades. Embattled President Nicolas Maduro cried coup, and his vice president, Reuters reported, vowed to “find this fanatic, extremist terrorist” believed responsible. 

And on Wednesday, authorities began hunting Oscar Perez, a 36-year-old rogue special forces pilot and actor said to be the alleged mastermind of the raid.

But conspiracy theories immediately surfaced on social media that all was not as it seemed. There was no trace of the pilot. No one was injured. And in its wake, other events of the day were nearly forgotten, including the besieging of lawmakers by pro-government gangs in the National Assembly, the legislature controlled by Maduro’s opposition. Critics of the president said this may have been staged in order to justify more repression of his opponents or as a distraction

“It seems like a movie,” Julio Borges, leader of the opposition-controlled legislature, told Reuters of the helicopter story. “Some people say it is a setup, some that it is real.”

'It seems like a movie. Some people say it is a setup, some that it is real.' Julio Borges, leader of Venezuela's opposition-controlled legislature

For ordinary Venezuelans, discerning the truth about events in their polarized country has become all but impossible amid a fog of counterclaims, fake news and outright lies. This exaggeration and selective information ― spread by the government mainly via state media channels and supporters of the opposition primarily through social media and their own media outlets ― has exacerbated the chaos gripping Venezuela and pushed it to the brink.

In Caracas, where protesters have occupied the streets for months calling feverishly for the removal of President Nicolás Maduro, so much is an illusion.

Forget the majority of what you read out there: Venezuela is not experiencing a “humanitarian catastrophe” due to a general lack of food, though there is a shortage of some basic goods; the Maduro government will not fall tomorrow as the opposition hopes; and though violence from the national police has certainly led to deaths, my reporting on the ground indicates that it is not as many as some have claimed. 

And it is equally untrue that all is well and the demonstrations are the result of armed “terrorists,” as the government has said.

Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters
Supporters of the late President Hugo Chavez burn a flag with an opposition leader's campaign logo during a 2013 protest in Caracas. 

But none of this is new in Venezuela. The chants of "calle! calle! calle!” (“street! street! street!”) have been repeated by different opposition leaders with varying levels of vehemence, since former President Hugo Chávez was elected in 1998. 

There have been so many protests, boycotts and lockouts, it is hard to keep track. Many of them have been said to be partially supported by the United States through the U.S. Agency for International Development, according to WikiLeaks reports. Since Chávez died in 2013, there have been at least three major protest movements, always following the same script.

Even so, when you talk to the protesters, they promise this time will be different. 

“The whole country does not want to continue with this regime,” Alejandro Ferrero, 23, who wore a helmet with the colors of the Venezuelan flag at an opposition rally, said. Since at least May, more than 2,700 demonstrators have been detained, according Penal Forum, a civil society group, and many remain in jail.

'The whole country does not want to continue with this regime.' Alejandro Ferrero, Venezuelan opposition rally attendee

The current wave of protests began in March. The anger centers on a white building adorned with Roman columns in central Caracas, where the National Assembly, the country’s parliament, functions ― or should function.

On March 29, the Supreme Court ― which is closely aligned with the Maduro government ― decided to assume the powers of the National Assembly and annulled all acts of the legislature

Previously, in August of 2016, the court had declared the National Assembly “in contempt” after opposition parties won a two-thirds majority of the seats in elections, giving the opposition wide powers to make laws in opposition to the president, including the right to influence the federal budget. These events are what led people to take to the streets in massive numbers. And they are still upset to this day.

“It is absurd to pretend that the whole institution is ‘in contempt,’ as if it were a person,” Julio Borges, the current president of the National Assembly, said. “Maduro approved the budget alone, in the Supreme Court. He approved the federal debt alone, without going through the National Assembly. So we have an assembly closed down by a government that does not care about the popular vote or democracy.”

Ivan Alvarado/Reuters
The current wave of protests began in March and continue to this day. 

Remnants Of Chavez 

But there remain a substantial number in Venezuela who are still loyal to the government. In the center of the capital, the eyes of the late leader Hugo Chávez are everywhere. Painted on the walls of government buildings. Sprayed on the steps in El Calvario Park. It’s an ominous reminder that Venezuela is still the “territory of Chavismo,” in the words of the graffiti artists.

Under the gaze of Chavez portraits, loyalist Elías Jaua commands a government effort to resolve the crisis: the creation of a constituent assembly, proposed by Nicolás Maduro in May.

Elections for the assembly members are set to be held in late July, and the proposed assembly is beyond controversial ― if sworn in, it would supplant all other authorities and therefore could shut down the rebellious National Assembly. It would also have the power to rewrite the constitution. A referendum on the changes would happen only at the end of the process.

But Jaua doesn’t think such a measure would be enough to move Venezuela away from the chaos consuming it, which he blames on the opposition. He emphatically believes that the country’s biggest problem is the “unjustifiable refusal of the opposition to sit down and talk with the government,” he said.

“It is not about changing the constitution,” Jaua continued. “It is a question of appealing to the principle that popular sovereignty is the supreme source of the destiny of the nation.”

'It is not about changing the constitution, it is [about] appealing to the principle that popular sovereignty is the supreme source of the destiny of the nation.' Government loyalist Elías Jaua

Unfortunately, his effort seems to have decreased the likelihood of both parties sitting down together and put the “destiny of the nation” on edge. Maduro’s constituent assembly proposal had an explosive effect on Venezuelan politics.

Since March, this wave of protest has brought at least 76 deaths. One of the most recent lives lost was David José Vallenilla, 22, whose shooting at the hands of a soldier during a march to the chief prosecutor’s office was vividly captured by a photographer.

The anger reached a high point on May 11 at a demonstration on the eastern edge of Caracas. Families prayed, sang and brought wreaths for Miguel Fernando Castillo Bracho, a 27-year-old killed the day before.

The counting of the dead immediately becomes politicized by both the government and the opposition, with details sensationalized or left out, depending on the source of the information.

It is rarely said, for instance, that of the 76 deaths from this wave of protests, less than five were government supporters killed by gunfire close to protests. But my reporting on the ground found that to be true. 

Elyxandro Cegarra/Getty Images
Although deaths and injuries are reported, the numbers are sensationalized by both the opposition and the government.

Fake News And The Future Of Democracy

Fake news takes many forms in Venezuela, from dubious government claims on official news channels to unverifiable opposition claims that spread online. The latter has allowed many to hear of marches not even mentioned by state television channels, as well as aided in the distribution of videos like this, which purports to show the national police breaking and burning their own bikes to incriminate protesters. 

But the government is guilty of the same thing. State television networks Telesur and VTV give hours of airtime to propaganda programs with accusations against opponents. Only the government will focus on social media instead when probed on the question.

“These are websites that corroborate each other [and] help spread exaggerated or false news,” Ernesto Villegas, Venezuela’s minister of communications and information, said of the opposition’s fake news. According to him, their purpose is to spread information in a way that will garner outside attention.

“The pretext for foreign intervention is human rights violations,” he added, talking about the wave of anti-Maduro websites and social media channels. “Therefore, the efforts of a gigantic media apparatus are put to this narrative of Maduro’s government as a massive violator of rights” in an effort to bring about change. 

Fake news takes many forms in Venezuela, from dubious government claims on official news channels to unverifiable opposition claims that spread online.

For one man though, the key to bringing about democratic change comes not necessarily from social media but from more street protests.

Henrique Capriles has frequently been mentioned as the main face of the opposition for more than a decade. And the government has sought to block him from making an impact as a result. In 2013, he was defeated by Maduro by only 224,000 votes. In April, he was banned from seeking election for 15 years. And in May, he had his passport confiscated when en route to the United Nations to report human rights violations.

“If there were elections next weekend, the government knows I would be the next president,” Capriles said.

That’s why he believes the transition has to be a political and especially democratic one.

Carlos Barria/Reuters
Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles rallies against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas. May 20, 2017.

“I am convinced that change has to happen by electoral means,” Capriles said. “Because, the next day, we have to think about Maduro. A government that falls, that ends, because of a military insurrection, a coup, will not give stability to Venezuela,” he said.

The bulk of the opposition have, however, focused on persuading the armed forces to align with them against what they see as a perversion of democracy. In May, politicians told me that the National Assembly proposed an amnesty for those who change sides

“If someone is arrested or fired from his job for supporting the struggle for democracy,” opposition politician Freddy Guevara said, “let him know that even if the dictatorship will frighten him, by the time democracy comes, he will have the reward.”

But the situation is much more complicated than that.

'Even if the dictatorship will frighten [protesters], by the time democracy comes, [they] will have the reward.' Freddy Guevara, Venezuelan opposition politician

Even on the left, Chavismo, a prominent left-wing political ideology based on the policies of former President Hugo Chavez, is deeply embedded in the military, which means it would be difficult to get soldiers to take the opposition’s side. Among Maduro’s 32 ministers, 11 are affiliated with the military in some capacity; as are 11 of the 23 state governors. The armed forces control companies in sectors such as banking, agriculture, television, construction and water supply.

“It’s a militarist government,” Rocío San Miguel, director of the nongovernmental organization Citizen Control for Security, Defense and the Armed Forces, an organization focused on advocating for human rights within the country, said. “Even if it is governed by a civilian, it has all the characteristics. The militarization of society, all elements of daily life are directed by the armed forces: food, subways, pharmacies.”

In addition to the large number of government officials with military backgrounds, since his inauguration in 2013, Maduro started multiple companies run by the military, ranging from a television station to the oil industry.

The military is also at the forefront of the greatest governmental effort to face down the current crisis — to import and distribute food to its poorest citizens. Although not without its problems, the food policy has alleviated the scarcity of imported staple foods, which peaked in 2016. A study conducted by three universities in Venezuela around then, estimated that more than 70 percent of Venezuelans had lost an average of 19 pounds. Previously, the Chavez and Maduro governments had cut hunger rates from around 14 percent to 5 percent, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Bloomberg via Getty Images
"Here is a country where you never know what is true, neither in the media, nor in speeches, debates nor interviews," says a local data analyst.

Deciphering The Truth

It is impossible to find an impartial voice in Venezuela. At best you can find a realistic interlocutor.

Luis Vicente León is not an exceptional man ― by all accounts he is an ordinary Venezuelan. But in many ways, he could be the man to help bring the country from the brink of collapse.

León believes the Maduro government is becoming abusive with dictatorial traits. As the director of the Datanálisis polling firm, however, he can temper his convictions with data.

For instance, for a country in such turmoil, support for Maduro, is much higher than some might think. At the height of the food supply crisis in 2016, Maduro’s popularity hit 18 percent before recovering to 24 percent this year, according to León’s research.  

“This has to do with an important part of the population that is independent ― 35 percent of Venezuelans self-define as neither Chavistas nor opponents,” León said.

'In Venezuela, there is scarcity of milk, coffee, rice, but the scarcest [thing] is the truth.' Luis Vicente León, Venezuelan data analyst

That said, his research shows that more than 90 percent think the country is doing badly or very badly — and some 70 percent blame Maduro for that.

“In Venezuela, there is scarcity of milk, coffee, rice, but the scarcest [thing] is the truth,” León said. “And, even more, objectivity. Here is a country where you never know what is true, neither in the media, nor in speeches, debates nor interviews. Everybody lies, and you never know what is true and what is a lie. And, if you lose the truth, you simply cannot separate the noise from the signals.”

This, he said, makes it difficult for people to make decisions. Venezuela, indeed, was first to witness this kind of polarization that has now infiltrated much of the rest of South America, Brazil and Argentina included. And according to León, this can be fatal to democracy.

“When you are at the climax of polarization,” he said, “the truth is seen as a betrayal.”

This piece was produced by Agência Pública, a nonprofit investigative journalism agency based in Brazil. It has been translated and adapted from the original version, published in Portuguese here.

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