Why Maduro Charged Against the Red Cross

The chavista government crafted another operation to create a parallel entity, this time one that has been crucial in the humanitarian emergency. Propaganda is just part of the problem

On August 5th, the Constitutional Chamber of Venezuela’s Supreme Court of Justice handed down a “preliminary” injunction ordering the immediate intervention of the Venezuelan branch of the Red Cross, a chilling echo of Daniel Ortega’s closure of the Nicaraguan Red Cross just a few months back. This injunction created an ad-hoc committee to select the members of the NGO’s (not anymore, I guess) new board of directors, a committee under direct control of the Constitutional Chamber. To the people who follow Venezuelan news and politics, it’s very clear that this is an authoritarian move coming straight from the top. To those who don’t, well, it may seem like a normal, everyday proceeding, and that’s one of chavismo’s greatest ever tricks. The illusion of normalcy.

You see, the decision didn’t come from a “Dictatorial Decree”, no. The decision appears to have come from an “independent” institution, the Supreme Court. Moreover, the Court didn’t just act out of nowhere, there was a motion filed by a “private” actor first, asking the Court to take the matter into its own hands. The Court even designated Ricardo Cusanno, a businessman, former head of the local business union, Fedecámaras, as the person in charge of that ad-hoc committee. Surely Nicolás Maduro wouldn’t have chosen someone from the business-owner class to oversee the restructuring, surely not someone associated with Fedecámaras, an organization famous for its opposition to the PSUV’s government. Well, that’s the genius behind the decision, it has a sheer veneer of “independence”, enough to convince an outside observer that things may not be so clear cut as they’ve been led to believe by opposition media and allies. Could it be, perhaps, that Maduro isn’t a dictator? Are things grayer than the black and white narrative the opposition and its international allies attempt to present?

The target chosen by Maduro is the perfect one for this muddying of the conversation. The Venezuelan Red Cross had spent some four decades headed by Mario Villarroel Lander, a millionaire businessman whose career has seen him surrounded by controversy, which makes him an easy target for removal by the government. It’s easier to go after someone who’s already disliked by the public, and who seemed rather unwilling to step away from his post. The committee that’s been named to oversee the transition in his stead has also been well-thought out. Besides Cusanno, the well-known rum magnate Alberto Vollmer (an “acquaintance” of Tareck El Aissami), the recently-elected Vice Dean of the UCV María Fátima Garcés, and even Rubén Limardo, an Olympic gold-medalist and former PSUV deputy, also make up what seems to be a “multidisciplinary” effort. Rich businessmen, someone from the education sector, a famous athlete… it all seems so “new”, so far removed from the old Venezuela led by the anti-bourgeoisie ranting Chávez.

Maduro’s strategy is a decade-long effort to present things in Venezuela as “normal” by co-opting civil society’s actors, creating false opposition parties, intervening the existing ones, and adopting a “positivity” narrative that makes a comeback every-so-often.

Weaponizing weariness

The government is waging a war of attrition on the narrative-side of the Venezuelan political conflict. 

The first audience of this move is the people of the opposition’s international allies, by giving supporters of chavismo in those countries another chance to alledge there is a “media narrative” against the country. They can now point to people like Alberto Vollmer and Ricardo Cusanno and say “The country is unifying behind Maduro, even these old rivals understand the PSUV is better for the country than the destructive far-right opposition”.

The second audience is us, Venezuelans. If you’ve ever spent two seconds eyeing news about the country (or living in it) you’ve probably been hit by the brick-walled realization that it’s all just so tiring. Opposition parties fight among themselves, it’s hard to tell which ones are real and which were created by the government, politicians are barred from running for office as soon as their campaigns get going, NGOs are criminalized, workers are jailed for protesting, institutions are torn down on a whim… it’s all just so much.

The PSUV government has slowly cornered the political opposition and their supporters by creating all those doppelgangers we’ve spent years seeing rise. A fake opposition, fake civil society organizations, fake “independent” media that promises us the “truth about Venezuela”, fake analysts that only get jobs on the government payroll. A sort of buffer zone, new PSUV-loyal rivals for the opposition to wear itself out fighting against. A buffer zone to muddy the conversation for outside observers, a new parallel society that blurs the line between the State and the people.

Thus, they complete their Great Gaslighting. Outside observers are led to believe Maduro isn’t the dictator people say he is, and those on the inside become more and more convinced that resistance is futile. 

But going after the Red Cross does a lot more than just fulfill these propaganda goals. The Red Cross operates more than 30 medical centers across the entire country, an effort that’s been maintained by humanitarian aid in the past. With the organization effectively under the direct control of the government, information on that aid (and the administration of funds) is worryingly close to the regime’s grasp and control. 

The organization was never openly political, owing to their founding neutrality principles. The intervention of the Red Cross should provide a swift and solemn reminder that no one’s outside the government’s reach, fury or pettiness. Cruz Roja Venezolana kept its head down, it didn’t rock the boat, and yet the government came for them. This isn’t a message the government will like being spread, but they only have themselves to thank for doing so. We’ll see if people listen.