Fake News Before That Was Even A Thing

“I’m going to erase adecos from the face of the earth, I’m going to fry their heads in oil.” Everyone knows Chávez made that threat back in 1998. Except he didn't. A look at TWENTY years of fake news.

Photo: retrieved / ModoGráfico

In September this year, one of the most successful fake news in Venezuelan history turned 20 years old. Repeated by politicians, scholars, journalists and prestigious publications, tribunes and thinkers; assumed true by defenders of the accused. In sum, it’s been 20 years of rampant validity of an unfounded rumour that may never be recognized as such. Without further preamble: Chávez never said that he’d “erase adecos off the face of the earth” when he took power. He never said “I’m going to fry their heads in oil,” and never promised that he’d “dissolve them with muriatic acid, with battery acid.”

Although he never said that, he ended up doing it, which contributed to the good health of the rumor. Chávez didn’t squander any efforts in his determination to destroy Acción Democrática and the remaining political parties in Venezuela. Paradoxically, out of the many threats the leader of the 1992 coup uttered, the one he didn’t make has always been held as the most credible.

On October 12, 1998, journalist Alfredo Peña interviewed presidential candidate Hugo Chávez Frías on his TV show in Venevisión. A month before, in September, the Polo Patriótico candidate enjoyed 41.6% of the electorate’s support according to Datanalisis. By October, that figure would climb three points up to 44.8%, and by November, after the gubernatorial elections, it would reach 49.6%.

Although he never said that, he ended up doing it, which contributed to the good health of the rumor.

During the interview, Chávez said that he’d filed a complaint that very day before the National Electoral Council, “so that, as the Bible says, he who has eyes may see, and he who has ears may hear.” Then he went on explaining that, as part of a “wild dirty war,” his contenders hired actor Gonzalo Cuberos to imitate his voice saying precisely those phrases. As proof for his accusation, Chávez brought—and Alfredo Peña, who called him “commander”, rushed to play on air—a video showing Cuberos saying that Chelique Sarabia had “contacted him” to go to a studio on Wednesday, September 24, to record the aforementioned phrases.

Once the video, which had been played during Chávez’s press conference before going to Venevisión for his interview with Peña, had concluded, Chávez said that he’d given the recording to Dr. Edmundo Chirinos, who was analyzing it, and added that he’d requested the National Electoral Council to suspend the broadcast of a TV spot that referred these phrases and included the impostor’s voice saying them. It was an advert where a red beret was crushed and a few women around a cauldron full of boiling oil were saying that, if he was going to fry the adecos, he’d have to fry all Venezuelans. The spot was taken off the air.

In an essay published in the magazine Nueva Sociedad, March-April 1999, researchers Luis E. Lander and Margarita López Maya say: “Throughout the campaign, generally taking advantage of some slight mistake in his discourse, Chávez was stigmatized as authoritarian, fascist, anti-democratic, instigator of violence, with a personality that wouldn’t hesitate to destroy institutions and unleash a climate of terror leading to a civil war if he won.” And a few paragraphs later, they mention “his promise in a public rally that he would ‘erase Acción Democrática off the face of the earth’ or that in case he was victorious, he would ‘fry’ the heads of adecos and copeyanos,” as if it were true.

When this publication started circulating, the lie was scarcely six months old, but it enjoyed quite the fame.

“The point is,” said Alfredo Peña, “did you or did you not say that?”

“I didn’t say it,” Chávez said. “If I’d said that I was going to fry the heads of adecos in oil, they wouldn’t need to come up with this fraudulent operation, of cheating a man, a young Venezuelan, and record a voice that appears in the spot.”

Peña then retorted that José Vicente Rangel had written in El Universal on September 13, that Chávez had said in a rally: “The AD plague will leave no trace in Venezuela, because we’re going to erase it along with COPEI and Convergencia.” After the quotation, Peña asked him how he planned to make that happen, “the gallows, the firing squad, boiling oil?”

He did say that it was a metaphor to refer to a political model, not the people behind it.

Provoked, Chávez went on one of his rants (“I’m not threatening anyone, I’m calling for reunion, for peace, for reconstruction, humanistic economy, paying off the social debt…”), but he didn’t deny he was the author of “The AD plague.” He did say that it was a metaphor to refer to a political model, not the people behind it. “Anyone who studied second-year literature in high school can find out what a metaphor is.”

In his “Aló President” N° 137, on February 2, 2003, Chávez returned to the issue. He didn’t remember the name of the actor who imitated his voice by then, but insisted on denying that he ever said the “frying” phrase. He made a big meal out of the matter then, but made no emphasis on it. It’s as if he’d grown accustomed to those words in past years and he wasn’t bothered by them anymore. Perhaps he didn’t find it entirely alien, it was like a picture of cousin where he ended up recognizing himself.

Perhaps that’s why, among so many formulas of intimidation, so many lies and such a thick rhetorical mess, one of the most famous mottos tied to Chávez’s figure, more than any of the thousands he said himself in his long history of public appearances, was the one attributed to him by others.