The leader announces the discovery and dismantling of a great conspiracy, he announces many pieces of evidence which will be presented shortly. One or two days later, recordings, videos, and WhatsApp conversations show up. None of the evidence is conclusive nor even convincing for the most part, but they are presented in press conferences with images explaining relationships and links, they lie through their teeth about some web and an irrefutable conspiracy. It’s a pattern we’ve witnessed many times and it may be unavoidable for the government. Maybe they don’t have another way of responding to events that challenge the revolutionary script.
These accusations are usually aimed at Leopoldo López or anyone linked to him, which is why his party Voluntad Popular is the target of these theories, the same way it has happened with Primero Justicia, López’s party before he founded his own. When López was mayor of Chacao, he was accused of just about everything in the municipality’s chavista propaganda. Before the 2014 protests, led by López and for which he went to prison, the center of Caracas was plastered with posters accusing him (and other opposition leaders) of being a murderer. It’s a long history that now takes Guevara, Guaidó, and other allies of López.
The Kidnapping of a Concupiscent Mathematician
‘Twas 2018, as chroniclers say, and Nicolás Maduro was informing the country that his security forces had unraveled+ a terrorist plan by Voluntad Popular (VP). “We have recordings, videos, statements, witnesses, confessions made by the terrorist party Voluntad Popular, preparing a kidnapping and assassination attempt,” Maduro said. Gustavo González López, the director of SEBIN, was in charge of showing the “pile” of evidence of the opposition’s plan announced by Maduro. SEBIN had detained two people, according to González López, “allies of the Voluntad Popular party.”
As it was already usual at the time, the general showed videos of these two VP allies confessing to a plan of “selective kidnappings and assassinations,” which in truth weren’t that selective, but surprising, because González López revealed that the first victim of these terrorists would be kidnapped, and it wouldn’t be Maduro or Diosdado, it would be a bland Nelson Merentes, who by then wasn’t even president of the Central Bank of Venezuela (BCV) anymore. The purpose of that weird kidnapping was, according to González López, a high ransom for Merentes’s rescue (the general didn’t say who would actually be willing to pay, and if it was a low or high sum of money, to rescue someone such as the almost forgotten and concupiscent mathematician). Afterwards, with the money from that first kidnapping, the terrorist party VP would launch a series of abductions and assassinations of more relevant chavista leaders. In the video shown as evidence of this strange plan, one of the rattled VP “allies” confessed that the ringleader was Freddy Guevara. González López also explained that Guevara wasn’t a bad man but a terrible one, because his plan was, even after receiving the ransom money, to kill poor Merentes.
On that occasion, as it was also customary, the government brought other pieces of evidence besides the videos. The direct relationship between the detainees with opposition leaders was through photographs showing how they walked in public events alongside these leaders, including Leopoldo López, Antonio Ecarri, and Richard Blanco. Unfortunately, González López hadn’t been able to find pictures of the detainee with Freddy Guevara, but as it was, this was easily solved by photos of both of them linked by diligent arrows which proved a direct link.
The Burning of Caracas
Before that, in April of the fast-paced and tumultuous 2017, Maduro had announced that Holy Week had been a “triumph for peace.” As the result of a “relentless investigation,” Maduro was able to show “testimonial” videos that “proved beyond doubt” the links between Primero Justicia and terrorist actions (by terrorists they meant intense street protests). Of course, there was already concern about the government’s practice of showing confession videos as evidence of conspiracies, but Maduro said that the judicial and citizens’ branches of power had given him permission, as head of state, to show these types of things, because they were matters of high national interest.
Taking this exception into account, where the president could violate rights as long as they were in the name of national interest as defined by the president himself, Maduro showed a video of a young man “who was part of criminal gangs,” according to the Agencia Venezolana de Noticias, and confessed to being on the mysterious payroll of the Metropolitan Mayor’s Office, but he wasn’t employed by them, but he received instructions from “leaders of Primero Justicia” to burn Caracas. That was it, that was the evidence of a terrorist plan presented by the president: “There’s the testimonies, the evidence, and we’re going after those directly responsible for the destruction all across the country. We have several lines of investigation. I want to congratulate SEBIN and CICPC agents, the Ministry of the Interior, Justice and Peace, the Prosecutor’s Office, the Judicial Branch, for this thorough job in accordance with the law.”
You don’t have to go too far back to find other examples of this form of presenting evidence of all kinds of terrorist conspiracies. The second half of 2016 had been plagued with accusations and arrests. Opposition leaders, especially from Voluntad Popular had been detained, forced into hiding, or had fled the country. González López showed his PowerPoint slides on TV, with photographs of opposition representatives like Lester Toledo, Daniel Ceballos, Délson Guarate, and Carlos Melo, with the incriminating arrows linking them to, of course, Leopoldo López, but also former president of Colombia Álvaro Uribe Vélez. González López explained that, in a series of meetings that took place in Colombia, those who appeared in the photographs (except Leopoldo López who was under house arrest) had planned the “Takeover of Caracas”. The Takeover of Caracas being planned was public domain, but the general added that the protest’s purpose was to fire Caracas up, and as a bonus it would serve as background for the “selective kidnappings and assassinations,” which two years later would be revealed as not being truly selective, with the foiled attempt to kidnap and murder the party-loving, former president of the BCV.
2016 ended with another particularly strange case of accusations based on videos and incriminatory images. On October 2nd, two men on a motorcycle drove past the National Guard post in Petare and threw a grenade that wounded 16 people, including two children who were passing by. Although the first round of investigations suggested the attack was done by a gang of street vendors in retaliation for the arrest of some of its members, SEBIN decided to uncover new things and shortly after González López was on television showing evidence through undisputable images that the real mastermind behind the attacks was the then mayor of Petare and Primero Justicia leader, Carlos Ocariz. The mayor would be the head of a “Dirty War Laboratory” dismantled by the SEBIN. These slides shown by González López, also offered “proof” of the very close link (long and yellow arrow) between Carlos Ocariz and the celebrated “professional strategist” and of course conspirator J.J. Rendón.
A PowerPoint Arrow to Explain the Universe
Of course, this way of presenting evidence of conspiracies didn’t start in 2016. We could go back year after year and find ministers, chiefs of police, journalists, and chavista propagandists showing recordings, videos, and photographs as proof of links between opposition leaders and criminal groups and terrorists (if anyone would like to check it out, they can start by visiting my personal blog Venezuela Conspiracy Theories Monitor). I can’t be certain of it, but one of the first times this practice was used was during the 2004 Daktari Operation, when the then DISIP arrested 153 “Colombian paramilitaries,” who according to chavismo, were brought by Uribe into Venezuela to carry out a coup against Chávez.
Now back to the present day: following the three-day war between gangs and security forces in the surrounding areas of the Cota 905, came one of these militarized police operations, so very common and used in Latin America. Explanations of the event are varied, by politicians, economists, analysts, criminologists, sociologists, and much worse people. But as Maduro was beginning to let on a few days ago, his regime had a very clear explanation of the conflict almost from day one, one which perfectly fit in the conspiratorial, consistent, coherent speech they’ve sustained through time: Anything bad that happens is part of a conspiracy by enemies of the people, or their local agents.
In this case, Maduro asserted that exiled Voluntad Popular leader Leopoldo López was the “puppet master and coordinator” of the gangs in the Cota 905. And of course, like on previous occasions, Maduro announced he would show evidence of this. Jorge Rodríguez has played the role of the announcer, and according to the pattern seen over and over again, the evidence is what it is.
In this case, there are no recordings or “testimonial” videos, but screenshots of WhatsApp chats, a messaging app widely used precisely because of its safety features because the messages are encrypted. It isn’t only Leopoldo López and Freddy Guevara, other Voluntad Popular leaders like Emilio Graterón, Gilbert Caro, Luis Somaza and Hasler Iglesias were accused of being involved too. The already detained director of NGO FundaRedes, Javier Tarazona, is implicated in a different conspiracy, geographically distant from the Cota 905.
Explanations as to why the government chose this precise moment for a wave of accusations and arrests have been floating around, and many encourage looking at the context of possible (or already almost impossible) talks in August, the visit from an EU mission to evaluate electoral conditions for November, and the protests taking place in Cuba.
All of this has to be taken into account and I suggest, without denying such context, another explanation: the chavista discourse repertoire doesn’t admit a different tune. From the conspiratorial vision of the world, there’s no other possible explanation for the events that occurred in the Cota 905, other than agents financing, controlling, and driving the gangs. Protests (in Venezuela or Cuba) can’t be explained beyond agents who organize everything. This is a vision that covers everything, explains everything, which is of course shared by a portion of the opposition, and which is independent of the scenario from which the explanation is given. “If something happens, it’s because someone is making it happen,” that’s the premise of the conspiracy theorist. If the conspiracy theorist is a populist political leader, they add “if something bad happens, it’s because that’s what my enemies have wanted, and in reality they are enemies of the people, and here’s the proof.” It’s a vision of the world that covers everything and explains everything.
A version of this piece was originally published in Spanish at our sister site, Cinco8.
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