The Venezuela Hustle

Grayzone, alt-media conflict profiteers

Thousands of Venezuelans rushed to cross the Ecuadorian border from Colombia before visa rules went into effect on Aug 25th, 2019 (photo: Joshua Collins)

The final installment in a three part series on the toxic influence pseudo-journalists in a digital age and the damage they present to the self-determination of peoples across the globe. You can read parts one and two here.

*The first section of this article contains graphic descriptions of sexual and physical violence*

Caracas, Venezuela- “Julia” was arrested by Venezuelan National Guard in Caracas on September 30, 2017 for sheltering protesters in her apartment during a crackdown by armed forces. A neighbor denounced her to the police and she was arrested for “terrorism”.

She was thrown into a truck with a dozen other prisoners. Many of the other detainees were bruised and bloodied-they had been beaten viciously. A young girl of perhaps 15 had her feet and hands bound behind her back with plastic restraints, forcing her body into a contorted U-shape. She laid face-down on the floor of the truck, unmoving.

Julia assumed she was unconscious.

The truck headed down “La Cota Mil” a highway that leads out of Caracas. Julia took that to be a very bad sign- they were not headed to a police station.

The van stopped on the outskirts of the city and the soldiers forced everyone out.

The prisoners were lined up and forced onto their knees. The 15-year old girl who had been next to Julia was placed in the center. Venezuelan soldiers took turns beating her.

An officer from FAES, the Venezuelan special police force responsible for thousands of extra-judicial killings and systematic torture (Photo: Twitter)

When they tired of the beatings, some of the soldiers raped her in turns while the prisoners watched. Other soldiers spoke up trying to stop the attack, but were shouted down or threatened themselves. Afterwards, the soldiers who objected seemed nervous and argued loudly with the perpetrators.

Julia was certain at the time that she would be next, and that no one would make it to the police station alive. How could they leave witnesses to an act so atrocious?

She soiled herself in abject terror waiting for an execution that seemed imminent- but wasn’t.

They loaded everyone back into the truck.

Julia sat in urine soaked clothes that she would be unable to change for weeks.

That turned out to be a blessing- when the guards made their nightly selection of prisoners for sexual violence, she was overlooked for her odor and appearance. She was imprisoned for two months without charge until her family could come up with the bribes to free her.

She fled Venezuela immediately. To this day she struggles with night-terrors and worries her family could still face consequences.

Julia is a lot stronger than me.

To Anya Parampil, Max Blumenthal and the other journalists of Grayzone, however, Julia isn’t a human survivor of injustice and brutality; she is “filth”(escualido).¹

Anyone who dares to question the brutal tactics of the Venezuelan government, those who have paid steep prices in blood and suffering; people who have endured tribulations Grayzone can neither imagine, nor muster the moral courage to condemn not only deserve to have their voices silenced, their very humanity must be denied with terms like “filth”.

Or worms.² Anya likes to call them “worms” as well .

Real journalism from the ground up

Long before Venezuela had much of a presence in English media, before most Americans or Europeans had given much thought the unfolding humanitarian disaster, tales like Julia’s were all-too-common.

In my time here in Latin America I have spoken with former political prisoners, exiled journalists, protesters whose friends lost their lives to security forces and family members of those executed in the night by Venezuelan secret police.

I spoke with hundreds of the millions who flee penniless, and I listened to the stories of those trying to live off $3/month and the food from insufficient government CLAP boxes.

When a political crisis erupted in Venezuela in 2019 the government found it’s increasingly brutal tactics under the international media spotlight. President Nicolas Maduro found himself in dire need of a public relations firm that could spin his atrocities to an English language audience.

Grayzone, a mercenary propaganda organization founded by Max Blumenthal, the son of a wealthy Clinton advisor, already had years of experience denying atrocities, amplifying government lies and defending dictatorships in half-a-dozen countries.

The mercenaries of Grayzone are specialists in the field of disinformation — Max Blumenthal, Ben Norton, Dan Cohen, Anya Parampil and their associated minions milk exposure from the suffering of people in conflict zones and sell it for clout.

For them, the sudden media attention on Venezuela was a godsend. Another opportunity to use their Kremlin-amplified misinformation network to silence, discredit and dehumanize victims of state violence under the cynical guise of “anti-imperialism” — a way to get more eyeballs on their disinformation network.

To me, Venezuela wasn’t political — it was a humanitarian disaster. One caused by a government that had almost completely dismantled it’s mechanisms of democracy and stolen hundreds of billions from the public. It wasn’t an abstract political debate to argue about online. It was a wave of human suffering unfolding before my eyes.

I never supported a US military intervention. I have written before that the most recent sanctions have worsened the situation considerably, and that historically there isn’t much evidence that they even work.

US intentions in Venezuela are highly questionable at best, but that doesn’t mean we must deny the very real suffering happening within that crippled nation.

To paraphrase Blumenthal before he conveniently traded his worldview for a paper cutout of Russia Today’s editorial stance:

“It is possible to oppose [Maduro] and not support US intervention. The people have a right to resist, and those leftists who are so blinded by their anti-imperialism that they support the murderous actions of a dictator must be condemned.”³

The Simon Bolivar bridge which connects La Parada Colombia to it’s sister city of San Antonio, Venezuela (Photo: Joshua Collins)

Cucuta: on the edge of chaos

“Look, you can enter. If you want,” said the Colombian immigration official. “But Tachira [Venezuela] is incredibly dangerous for foreigners. Even if you don’t get robbed or killed while you’re there, it’s totally up to that guy if he wants to fuck you or not when you come back.” he said, gesturing towards the Venezuelan guard a few meters away.

It was October of 2018, and I had arrived at the Venezuelan border a few days before. The humanitarian crisis wasn’t much in English language news at the time. Nobody cared.

I was standing on the Simon Bolivar bridge, in La Parada, Colombia, a meter from Venezuela. The border was chaos. At the time 3.2 million people had fled the crumbling country. Between 25,000 and 30,000 people crossed the border into Cucuta daily for work, school, to buy food, for medical attention or to flee a country on the edge of collapse.

I didn’t cross into Venezuela that day, but I would later, though I would take the informal paths rather than risk the official checkpoints.

I chatted daily with the millions fleeing- if there was any common thread among them it was their desperation. The people fleeing on foot across border regions that were becoming more dangerous by the day didn’t fit any stereotypes of partisan loyalty or skin color. Most of them didn’t care about politics at all, and they hailed from a full rainbow of regions and skin-tones.

Some of the estimated 5,000 Venezuelans that enter Colombia daily, fleeing on foot (photos: Joshua Collins)
A Venezuelan immigrant travelling to Peru catches a nap in a truck transporting scrap metal (Photo: Joshua Collins)

Some of them were walking across an entire continent just to build a life. I have an incredible amount of respect for those leaving behind their hearts and homes to create a better life for their loved-ones.

And over time, many of them became my friends. So when Grayzone began to claim these people didn’t exist, I took it a little personally.

left: Deveis, with whom I walked from the Venezuelan border to the Colombian capital. Center, and right: immigrants we met along the way (photos: Joshua Collins 2019)
All the super-rich, extreme-right, fascist, white, rich, Miami Venezuelans who for some strange reason didn’t like Maduro or slowly starving and decided to show their support for the US State Department in a strange manner: by fleeing Venezuela on foot (Photo: Joshua Collins 2018–2019)

Doing the Grayzone hustle

I’ve watched Blumenthal and his cronies go about their sordid business so many times that the method has become depressingly familiar. In parts one and two we took a in-depth look at this strategy, which principally boils down to obfuscation, denial and de-humanization, or more plainly written; lies.

Their history of lies is why no one who works at Grayzone can get published in any even remotely reputable media outlet.

Their blood campaign began with a laughable cartoon-villain description of the refugees I had been talking to for months. Anyone criticizing the Maduro government wasn’t a three-dimensional individual with complex opinions and history. They were rather dismissed as a monolithic caricature that bore no semblance to reality — a false and grotesque caricature of villainy.

Worms. Racists. Facists. Right-wing extremists. Filth. Rich white oppressors. Thugs. Just as they had done in half a dozen countries before, they de-humanized and denied agency to people of color in the global south.

They quickly followed with blatant denial of easily verified facts. Blumenthal led the charge with a widely-mocked video in a luxury shopping mall, claiming that the thousands of media and UN reports describing a broken medical system and millions of dangerously malnourished people were merely the lies of “war-mongers.”

“It is the duty of the thinking man not to be on the side of the executioner,” wrote Albert Camus. Lamentably, Grayzone provides the executioner with his hood as he swings the axe.

Even leftist journalists within Venezuela who had supported Chavez, like Clifton Ross, pointed out the utter duplicity of Max “disproving” an economic and health disaster by going shopping for Gucci in the richest neighborhood of Caracas.

These bizarre antics were of course amplified by the Venezuelan government, their state-owned news network TeleSur and Grayzone’s Russian media sponsors.

They started re-writing Venezuelan Ministry of Information press releases and peddling them as Grayzone stories. In a move that Goebbels himself would have been proud of, Max and Anya filed a series of stories about Maduro’s overwhelming popularity, despite most polls putting his approval rating at less than 15%.

Some of the stories they hyped would prove laughably false, not an uncommon occurrence from a government ministry that in the past claimed ongoing electrical outages pre-dating the crisis were caused by “hungry parrots who ate the electrical cables”, that “Capitalism ended life on Mars” and that “Trump had dropped an EMP bomb on Maracaibo”.

But Grayzone, and especially Parampil, were unconcerned with being caught in lies. As per their Modus Operandi, they simply moved on to the next ridiculous claim or denial.

As the crisis wore on, Parampil often crowed that the UN did not recognize the opposition government, but rather Nicolas Maduro. She and Max even held a press conference on behalf of the VZ government at a side-event that coincided with a UN meeting in Geneva — an action common for PR firms and lobbyists, but rather eyebrow-raising for “independent journalists”.

But, much like it did on Syria, their opinion on the UN as arbiter of what should be would undergo a head-spinning reversal when the the body published a report on human rights abuses by Maduro’s government.

And they were rewarded by Maduro with personal gifts for their efforts.

“Journalists” from Mintpress and Grayzone, being rewarded for their PR campaign by President Nicolas Maduro, who presented them with a replica sword of Simon Bolivar and gave them sweet kisses (Twitter account of the President of Venezuela)

Death Squads, torture, political prisoners and censorship

Many articles can and have been written about the UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s absolutely damning report from July of 2019, which is worth reading in it’s entirety. It confirmed hundreds of independent reports by a dozen media agencies over years, and came as something of media bombshell in Spanish-language media.

The report detailed nearly 7000 extra-judicial murders at the hands of secret police who covered up the assassinations, systematic torture and sexual violence against political prisoners, arbitrary detention, press censorship, food insecurity used as a political weapon and widespread physical and economic violence against indigenous people in Venezuela.

Those accusations are just the ones that made the headlines. The report goes on to detail massive food shortages, economic and social suffering, widespread collapse of the medical system and dispels the governments absurd lies about having an independent press or any semblance of democracy.

Bachelet’s report was all the more surprising considering she was a leftist president of Chile whose father was killed by the fascism of Pinochet, a victim of state torture at the hands of a brutal right-wing government and a “friend of Chavez” in her own words. Most analysts expected the report to be a rather anodyne show of useless finger-wagging, which no doubt was also Maduro’s expectation when he invited her to the country.

Turns out someone who had been imprisoned by a dictatorship recognized one when she saw it in person.

Grayzone was not pleased.

So Anya enlisted the help of Alfred de Zayas, an ex UN reporter known for a checkered history of holocaust denial and support for Venezuela, to “debunk” the report in a a long-winded screed for Grayzone. Her “analysis” consisted mostly of complaining that the UN didn’t investigate a case of a brutal murder from years before that she loves misrepresenting.

Zayas was not involved in the Bachelet UN investigation. At all.

While her hastily drafted word-salad may be virtually unintelligible, just one of the hundreds of misrepresentations she has crafted, and certainly is not convincing, it does illustrate succinctly the most dangerous aspect of what Grayzone does.

They do damage.

Though they wrap themselves in the garments of anti-imperialism, they are anything but. They take the side of Empires that oppress. Empires that censor and lie. Empires that brutally murder. They are counter-revolutionaries in the purest sense of the term. And they write from a place of privilege their victims can only imagine.

They rationalize mass-arrests and the brutal oppression of media while clouding the fog of conflict with obfuscation, spin and outright lies. When authoritarian governments are faced with a rebellion of the masses, Grayzone provides the cover to stomp them into the dust.

They claim to be peace activists — they are anything but. As they shout their propaganda from under a white flag, they provide cover to the worst sorts of violence.

“It is the duty of the thinking man not to be on the side of the executioner,” wrote Albert Camus. Grayzone provides the executioner with his hood as he swings the axe.

Its the most cynical form of information warfare, and their digital smokescreen is not only endagering public trust in a free press, without which democracy can not exist, it is endangering people’s lives.

This article was produced independently with no financial assistance from anyone with the motive of improving journalistic integrity and combating misinformation. If you wish to support more independent work like this series in the future you can donate here.

Footnotes:

  • 1: “Escualido” translates literally as “weakling”,“filth”, “dirty scoundrel” or “dirty bastard” but the origin of the word in Venezuela and it’s connotations are much more foul. It was formed by Chavez to paint those who worked with the great devil the United States and it’s meaning changed over time. It now might be more applicable translate the phrase within Venezuela to mean “sub-human.”
  • 2: “Gusano” means “worm”. It was termed in Cuba during the revolution Gusanos were put up against the wall and executed. It was also used to describe those who fled with riches stolen from the people. It’s use is particularly ironic in Venezuela as the vast majority of those fleeing do so with nothing, and Maduro’s government has robbed hundreds of billions from “the Pueblo”
  • 3- The Blumenthal quote changes the word “Assad” to “Maduro, and is taken from an interview he gave in 2013 which is hyperlinked in the text
A Venezulean protester Feb 23rd 2019 on the Simon Bolivar Bridge on the Venezuelan/Colombian border (Photo: Joshua Collins)

A reporter on immigration and world affairs, based in Cucuta, Colombia. Bylines at Al Jazeera, Caracas Chronicles, New Humanitarian and more