Oscar Pérez, the young rebel who shot to worldwide fame last June when he defied the government of Venezuela, was killed during a massive police raid on Monday. For nine hours, according to reports, security forces exchanged fire with a rebel group, led by Pérez, which was hiding out in a small structure in the Caracas neighborhood of El Junquito. Including Pérez, seven rebels were killed. Five others were arrested. Two officers involved in the raid also lost their lives.
Those are the facts, though there are plenty who doubt even that much. Pérez’s wife and mother told the press that they suspected Pérez was taken alive, demanding that the government of president Nicolás Maduro release the man’s body.
But let’s say that’s what happened. Let’s say Oscar Pérez is dead. Did he have to die? Was he, say, really fighting against the police forces who had his group under siege? The Venezuelan government claims that the group was “terrorists,” that they were preparing a car bomb to attack a foreign embassy, that they were enemies of the state and dangerous criminals.
But opponents of the Maduro government, and they are many, see the events much differently. In a series of videos Pérez transmitted from his hideout, he claimed that he wished to surrender, but that the government “wants to kill me.” Many inside and outside of Venezuela take the videos at face value, and already the affair is referred to as “a massacre,” and “a political assassination.”
“They even brought a tank,” says one critic. “The encounters escalated and in the end, Pérez was gunned down. They assassinated him. It was an extrajudicial execution. A crime. Evil and unacceptable. Repugnant.”
According to this version of the story, Pérez was a hero. A trained criminal investigator who had worked with the police for many years, he became increasingly disillusioned with the corruption and anti-democratic policies of the Maduro government. In late June of last year, he stole a police helicopter and staged a bizarre attack that involved dropping live grenades on Venezuela’s Supreme Court building. Several of the weapons did not explode, and there were no casualties.
But Pérez was just beginning. The attack, which was promptly labeled terrorism by the government, achieved its real goal, which was to bring attention to Pérez and his cause. Oscar Pérez, you see, loved attention. While he was a working police officer for fifteen years, on the side he was an aspiring actor and action star. Fit and handsome, with striking blue-green eyes, he worked on creating a massive social media presence. He liked to portray himself as a Rambo, or James Bond type, a trained killer with superhuman skills. He released hundreds of photos and videos of himself wearing military fatigues, carrying enormous guns, riding horses. One famous image has him shooting target practice backward, using only a small mirror to aim.
After his helicopter stunt brought him a worldwide audience, he proclaimed his intention to topple the Maduro regime and organized a series of increasingly daring escapades, which he documented with cellphone videos and released for the world to see. The most famous involved a raid on a weapons facility. The footage shows Pérez and his men binding and gagging several guards, and then menacing them for their complicity to the regime. Always the marketer, Pérez named the action “Operation Genesis.”
Social media was awash with speculation and conspiracy theories involving Pérez. He was a superhero, said some. He was a traitor said others. He was actually hired by Maduro, said others still, to justify his crackdown on the political opposition. Rumors, tall tales. In Venezuela, it’s become impossible to tell truth from fiction.
This is because Oscar Pérez was doing nothing but giving his government a taste of its own medicine. Maduro, remember, is the handpicked successor of former army lieutenant Hugo Chávez Frías, who staged a failed military coup of his own way back in 1992, before winning the 1998 presidential election and become the leader of his country until his death in 2013.
Chávez, a loquacious populist who loved attention at least as much as Pérez, was a pioneer in the post-truth, “fake news” rhetoric that Donald Trump is currently perfecting in the United States. Like Trump, Chávez railed against his country’s mainstream media, calling them enemies of the nation and dismissing criticisms of his policies as traitorous lies. Much like Trump has threatened to revoke the broadcasting license of certain American media outlets, Chávez fought for almost two decades to silence the private media that opposed him. His critics, on their part, never missed an opportunity to ridicule the president, painting him in increasingly horrifying caricatures and warning incessantly of the coming cataclysm.
In Venezuela, then, nobody can be trusted to tell the truth, free of spin or ideological venom. How then are we, in the outside world, to understand the phenomenon of Oscar Pérez, a man who could not separate his quest for fame from his political struggle, a man who sought to be a hero because he loved the idea of being a hero?
After Chávez’s death, Maduro continued his predecessor’s policies and tried to emulate his media strategy. But Maduro is not nearly as deft with words, nor as comfortable in the limelight, as Chávez was. His opponents are counting on high-profile acts of rebellion like Pérez, in concert with Venezuela’s worsening economic crisis, to finally begin to break down Maduro’s base of support and return Venezuela to political normality.
Pérez himself will leave behind many legacies, many stories, none complete, none objective. He will certainly not be the last casualty of our brave new word, in which anyone can say anything, and the most powerful people in the world are enemies of truth.