CARACAS, Venezuela – Facing an invigorated opposition and mounting demands for a recount, President Nicolas Maduro’s week-old government on Friday stepped up accusations that its political adversaries are plotting to destabilize the country.
The escalating political tension comes as officials signaled they may be preparing to arrest opposition leader Henrique Capriles, a charismatic lawyer who says Maduro stole the election that was called to decide who would succeed Hugo Chavez after the populist died last month of cancer. An American filmmaker was caught in the middle of the turmoil this week, arrested at the Caracas airport and accused of being a secret agent working to spark a civil war.
“The gringo who financed the violent groups has been captured,” Maduro said in comments carried on state television.
William Ostick, a State Department spokesman, said Friday that the American, Timothy Tracy, 35, who graduated from Georgetown University and lives in Los Angeles, does not work for the U.S. government. U.S. officials in Caracas have sought access to Tracy, who was arrested Wednesday, but the Venezuelan government had not responded to the request, Ostick said.
Tracy’s arrest comes in the midst of increasingly tense days in which Venezuelan officials have alleged that the opposition is burning down clinics and that a phalanx of foreign agents and mercenaries from Colombia, El Salvador and the United States is working to topple the new government. Tracy was accused of having provided financing and directions to university students looking to spark conflict, filming hundreds of videos as he carried out his plans.
Ostick said the United States “categorically rejects allegations of a U.S. government effort to destabilize Venezuela or harm anyone in Venezuela.”
“These allegations have not in any way been substantiated,” he said.
The U.S. government has called for a careful examination of the votes cast in the April 14 election, which electoral officials in Caracas said Maduro won by less than 2 percentage points.
Minutes after his victory was announced, Maduro said he would permit a recount, but the government backtracked the next day. The National Electoral Council has signaled that a partial audit of votes that it announced on April 18, the day before Maduro was inaugurated, would not reverse his victory.
That has further angered the opposition, which says it is organizing a march on May 1, a traditional date of protest in Latin America.
“These tensions result from an extremely close election, which is why we continue to believe that a recount or a review of irregularities would provide transparency and would help assure the Venezuelan people that their aspirations are being met,” Ostick said. “This is consistent with Venezuelan law, and with Venezuela’s international commitments.”
Carl Meacham, the director of the Americas program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Maduro has opted to harden his rhetoric in a way that will appeal to the more radical elements of Chavismo, the late leader’s movement.
“I wouldn’t be surprised with summary arrests. I wouldn’t be surprised if they declared a state of siege to get people off the street,” he said. “You’re also trying to bait the United States to get involved and to try to establish order in a country that’s very close to spiraling out of control.”
On Friday, Maduro spoke of a “fascist right” that his government is dismantling.
“Here there is a hard hand,” he said of his government. “There’ll be justice for whoever it is, so the fascists understand the constitutional and legal limits they have in this country.”
On a Web site, Tracy’s friends called on the government to free him, insisting he had no interest in the political outcome in Venezuela and was simply documenting the events.
“He asked me about the situation in the country,” said Diego Sharifker, a university student and a leader in a student group who was interviewed by Tracy. “Though he said he was a filmmaker, he asked me the questions any journalist would. It was just another interview.”
Another Venezuelan activist, Jesus Gomez, who leads a group called Active Youth Venezuela United, said Tracy was on such good terms with students that he even left them with a camera so they could film their activities.
“He couldn’t be with them 24 hours a day,” said Gomez, who pointed out that he never met Tracy.
In a news conference on Thursday, Interior and Justice Minister Miguel Rodriguez painted a far darker image of Tracy, saying the American “knows how to infiltrate, how to recruit sources.”
“The mission was to take us to civil war,” Rodriguez added. “Why a civil war? Because a civil war would lead to the intervention of a foreign power to bring order to the country.”
But Tracy’s friends in the United States insist that he is simply a budding filmmaker with an adventurous streak, having worked on documentaries about the U.S.-Canadian border and barbershop quartets.
“Tim Tracy is not affiliated with any governmental intelligence agency — is not even remotely associated,” said Jesse Herman, a friend who studied at Georgetown with Tracy. “The whole thing is ridiculous. It’s almost comical, the way he’s being portrayed.”
Forero reported from Charleston, W.Va.