The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Venezuela’s propaganda state is collapsing under its own weight

Venezuelan Chief of Public Prosecutions Luisa Ortega Diaz holds a tear gas cartridge during a press conference in Caracas, Venezuela, on May 24. (Cristian Hernandez/European Pressphoto Agency)
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Francisco Toro is executive editor of the Caracas Chronicles news site and a contributing columnist for Post Opinions.

We have just witnessed an extraordinary event in Venezuela. We’ve long since grown accustomed to government bureaucrats endlessly recycling the most blatant lies. But this week, a senior official openly defied the regime’s version of truth — and Venezuelans are still reeling.

The story began on April 26, when dozens of people saw a soldier shoot Juan Pablo Pernalete. The 20-year-old student was taking part in a street protest against the government when a member of the National Guard reportedly fired a tear-gas canister directly at his chest, at point-blank range. Tear gas isn’t meant to be used like this. In Venezuela, though, photo after photo shows that it has become routine.

The official lies about Pernalete’s death began immediately. The government concocted a far-fetched story that Pernalete had been killed by fellow protesters with a bolt gun, “No Country For Old Men”-style. The story was absurd. It flew in the face of dozens of witness statements, all forensic evidence and even basic logic.

None of that made a difference to the state propaganda machine. Officialdom had handed down “the line,” and dozens of state-run newspapers, radio stations, TV stations and websites toed it, immediately and uncritically. A dripdripdrip of articles gained traction through sheer, numbing repetition, proliferating across state media (including a government website that actually goes by the Orwellian name of “Truth Mission”).

Anyone who has tried to face down a propaganda state knows the feeling that came next: that panicky sense that the lies were winning, that dismal feeling of isolation and helplessness that comes from seeing hard truth under assault from a powerful machine of lies. We know how these things go, after 17 years of experience. We know how the combined power of the propaganda apparatus — in lockstep with prosecutors, courts and the police — can elevate politically motivated lies into truths that seem so solid that the actual facts blur and then dissipate, like skywriting.

But not this time. This time, the unexpected happened.

At a historic news conference on Wednesday, Venezuela’s Chief of Public Prosecutions, Luisa Ortega Díaz, broke ranks with the propaganda state. Her office had investigated Pernalete’s death, and now she laid out the evidence that made it perfectly clear that he had been killed by the National Guard. Ortega Díaz held out a tear gas canister for the cameras, commented on its weight and described the forensic reports she’d commissioned. She cited the five witness statements she had collected and then, looking at the camera, said plainly that she intends to prosecute not only the soldier who killed Pernalete but also the officer who gave him orders.

It was an electrifying moment. For 17 years, Venezuela’s revolutionary government has placed an absolute premium on loyalty. It had built a monolithic state, where the president expected automatic obedience from every part of the state. For years, Ortega Díaz had been a loyal foot soldier to this system — prosecuting political dissidents according to the same sort of made-up lies that the propaganda minister had presented a few days earlier. But something has changed. Whether out of conviction or calculation, Ortega Díaz balked. One key component of the propaganda state was refusing to play ball.

Daughter of a long-time Venezuelan Communist Party leader revered on the left, Ortega Díaz has long enjoyed the status of revolutionary royalty, a rock-solid pillar of the regime. Under the constitution, her office has a monopoly on prosecutions: No criminal charges can be brought without her say-so. That means that the government’s repressive apparatus can’t work if the chief prosecutor doesn’t play ball.

It’s unclear whether Ortega Díaz will remain consistent to her new stance. But she has already set in motion an extraordinary new dynamic. Just by signaling that she’s serious about holding officials accountable for human rights violations, Ortega Díaz has started to destabilize the regime. Officers who might not have thought twice about ordering protesters shot are now thinking twice.

The day after Ortega Díaz spoke, the hard-line interior minister — who is wanted in the United States as a major-league drug trafficker — slammed her for “supporting violence and impunity.” Her real crime, of course, was simply refusing to stick to the official line. Make no mistake: For the regime, this is a crisis.

What Venezuela needs now is many more Luisa Ortega Díazes. The Chief of Public Prosecutions did not switch sides. She merely signaled that, from now on, she will act impartially to seek the truth and achieve justice. For a regime built on lies and injustice, the prospect of this attitude spreading is an existential threat. And for Pernalete’s loved ones, it holds out the prospect that his ultimate sacrifice could help to unravel the regime he was demonstrating against.