The use of supermarket tabloid headlines hardly seems like a way for a government to govern or to announce complex policy ideas. But while governments in Venezuela, Argentina and Ecuador are not peddling stories about UFOs, chupacabras or Elvis sightings, they have made a steady drumbeat of sensational conspiracies their go-to strategy for connecting with and distracting a weary and increasingly disaffected public.
While using conspiracy theories to consolidate and maintain power has a long, honored tradition in Latin America, the modern variant started with former President Hugo Chávez (1999 to 2013). Venezuelan newspaper Ultimas Noticias once documented that the founder of the Bolivarian government, Chávez, spoke at different times of about 63 different assassination plots supposedly launched against him during his 14 years as president. Recently, the Argentine government has turned out a series of conspiracy theories (some of them far fetched) to deflect criticism of how it handled the suspicious death of special prosecutor Alberto Nisman. And President Rafael Correa of Ecuador has employed the rhetoric of conspiracy when it has been convenient, including in 2010 alleging that the police were attempting to stage a coup d’etat to unseat him.
But the post-Chávez era in Venezuela has raised conspiracy alarmism and propaganda to high art form.
The most recent was the story of a foiled coup plot, an incident the Venezuelans labeled the Jericho Operation. Give them credit, though, they managed to get the international left to believe it. Certainly, the Obama administration’s fumble in placing economic sanctions on Venezuelan officials and labeling the country as a national security threat to the United States aided the Venezuelan government’s outlandish—and unsubstantiated—claims.
Recently, Venezuelan courts convicted eight officers in the Venezuelan Air Force in connection with the Jericho Operation plot; the longest penalty is eight years in prison. Predictably, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro traced the origin of the operation back to the usual suspect: the evil imperialist empire the U.S. plays in many Venezuelan presidential speeches. Maduro went as far as implicating Vice President Joe Biden as one of the plot’s masterminds, which the government claims included plans to use Venezuelan air force planes to bomb the presidential palace and other key buildings. The Venezuelan government also points to a political statement signed by key opposition figures entitled the “National Agreement for Transition,” as the coded signal to begin the coup.
“This transition document, obviously, is not calling for a coup,” says Hugo Pérez Hernaiz, a professor at the Universidad Central de Venezuela. A sociologist, Pérez Hernaiz, not only studies the rhetoric of contemporary Venezuelan politics, but he specializes in tracking the use of conspiracy theories and how they serve as propaganda. Since 2013, Pérez Hernaiz has tracked these conspiracies on his website, called “Venezuela Conspiracy Monitor.” So far, he has assembled almost 390 entries on a wide variety of conspiracy theories. The Jericho Operation and the transition document are only the latest.
These conspiracies usually lack evidentiary proof. However, Perez Hernaiz says the tactic that makes these theories successful propaganda tools is a daily or weekly discussion of these allegations by various members of the government. This daily verbal bombardment via the government’s news channels or through allies of the international left creates an atmosphere where it becomes easier to succumb to these stories that continually play on political paranoia regarding the region’s struggles with its imperialist past.
It’s that historical legacy and collective sense of victimhood that makes the United States a convenient villain in these theories. U.S. covert operations that supported coups, U.S. supported dictators, and U.S. proxy guerrilla wars can easily be traced back 60 years and open U.S. military intervention going back much farther have created fertile ground for modern-day allegations of U.S. shenanigans. Given President George W. Bush administration’s verbal support for an unsuccessful coup in Venezuela in 2002 to unseat Chavez, when Venezuelans are told the U.S. is cooking up new plots, it seems believable.
So use a dash of imperialist paranoia, bend the opposition’s political statements, and finally use the confessions of military officers implicated in a coup attempt, and that becomes enough to arrest Mayor Antonio Ledezma of Caracas, an arrest that was universally condemned by human rights organizations. “This is very interesting,” says Perez Hernaiz, “as you know in the 20th century the use of confessions as evidence was a very important part of other famous cases of conspiracy theories.”
Certainly, the use of confessions during Stalinist show trials comes to mind. Another Stalinist tactic that doesn’t get discussed much is the open use of domestic surveillance by Venezuela’s secret police, the SEBIN. Venezuelan government officials claim to have recordings of Ledezma, Maria Corina Machado and other opposition leaders discussing a coup. But in following the usual script, the only evidence released so far are recordings of people supposedly connected to the plot discussing the conversations of the opposition leaders.
Stay tuned, though. The next great conspiracy theory is no doubt being cooked up in a political office in Caracas, designed to excuse the economic mismanagement and slow-motion slide into authoritarianism that has characterized the so-called Bolivarian Revolution.