The “birther” movement that contested President Barack Obama’s presidential legitimacy marked a low point in U.S. politics. In Venezuela, a country with a history of coup plotting, a month-long opposition campaign to paint leftist President Nicolas Maduro as a presidency-usurping foreigner has proved equally embarrassing.
The case made fresh headlines on Tuesday when Henrique Capriles, the 41-year-old opposition leader who narrowly lost the presidency to Maduro last April, demanded in a Webcast speech that the political heir to Hugo Chavez clarify his citizenship status: “Where were you born Nicolas? Venezuelans want to know. Will you lie? Show your birth certificate.”
Capriles’ decision to pick a fight that only his most radical followers will support shows how desperate he is to regain political strength after his electoral defeat, and that he’s running out of ideas. Such pettiness also illustrates why, in a country crippled by inefficiency, corruption, sky-high inflation and rampant crime after 14 years of Chavismo, a new generation of opposition leaders has failed to regain power. A tweet by @ysabelitaber, a law student and government supporter, captured the Chavista mood: “@NicolasMaduro 100% Venezuelan more than many, bad intentions will fail because the people no longer believe them. Invent whatever you want.”
The imbroglio began in early July when an opposition lawmaker floated the idea that the Caracas-born Maduro -- son to a Colombian mother and Venezuelan father -- holds a dual Venezuelan and Colombian citizenship. If true, this would disqualify him from the presidency. On Monday, Guillermo Cochez, a former Panamanian ambassador to the Organization of American States and a vocal anti-Chavista, went a step further in referring to the president and tweeting: “His name is Nicolas Alejandro Maduro Moros and he was not born on 11-23-62 as he claims, but on 11-20-61 in Cucuta, Colombia. You will soon see certificate.”
What people saw next was as cringe-worthy as it was telling. Even after the Panama-based Cochez told Colombian broadcaster NTN24 that Maduro was born in a Colombian border town, he admitted: “We haven’t been able to authenticate it yet … But Colombia’s authorities are the ones that must corroborate this … The ball is on the Colombian court.”
When Colombian authorities replied on Tuesday that the birth certificate in question was a fake (the I.D. number didn’t exist, the document format was wrong, and the civil registry official whose name appeared in the document had retired two years before the paper was issued), Cochez brazenly stuck to his story. For his part, Capriles insisted, “There is a debate even if the Colombian registry says they’re false.”
The case became more bizarre later that day, after some of Maduro’s political foes dropped off a letter at the American Embassy in Caracas, hoping to get support from Obama. The politician Pablo Medina, who was in attendance, told El Nacional newspaper that Obama would understand this situation since “he was forced to make public a birth certificate because people were saying he was African. Once he presented it, he solved the problem, he became a candidate and later president of the U.S.” The idea that Obama would somehow prod a Latin American president, even from an avowed enemy government such as Venezuela, to release his birth certificate shows how clueless Venezuela’s opposition politicians can be.
Jorge Garcia Urquiola, head of the anti-Chavista Democracia Renovadora Party, even made what sounded like a threat: “We want president Obama to be informed, because there is a serious political problem in this country that Venezuelans will solve through new elections or through a new provisional government.” How such a provisional government would come about in the absence of elections was not clarified.
For those left wondering about the opposition’s shoddy thinking, Nelson Ramirez Torres, a lawyer and rabid anti-Chavista columnist for the Web-based newspaper Noticiero Digital, offers a glimpse. In a piece titled “Legal Conclusion: Maduro was not born in Venezuela”, Ramirez argues “legally, a foreign birth certificate is not necessary to conclude Maduro was not born in Venezuela.” And added that any judge can infer as much from a list of 33 “known facts” which include, “his grandparents are Colombian” and “Maduro never talks about his family.”
Maduro’s citizenship has become a divisive issue on the Web as it has in real life. Maduro supporters tweeted views under the hashtag #OtroMontajeFascista (or #AnotherFacistFarse) while opponents added #NicolasMaduroEsColombiano (#NicolasMaduroIsColombian). The satirical Web-based newspaper El Chiguire Bipolar, Venezuela’s equivalent of the Onion, usually harshly critical of Chavismo, poked fun at a gaggle of well-known birther politicians in a piece titled: “Cochez, Patricia Poleo, Dr. Marquina and Reinaldo Dos Santos unite to demonstrate Maduro is a Nazi Alien.”
Maduro himself tried to make light of the issue in televised remarks to reporters during a visit to Ecuador: “I would feel proud if I had been born in Cucuta. I would be proud of being Colombian. But, well I wasn’t born there I was born in Caracas. Let’s not waste our time on mad men.” In a televised cabinet meeting on Thursday Maduro dubbed Cochez “the ideologist of the right wing,” but didn’t make public a birth certificate.
Odds are the case is not going away. Chavismo’s opponents feel they have reason to doubt Maduro’s words. He knew early on this year that Chavez’s illness was terminal but said nothing about it publicly, which arguably made the government transition easier.
General Carlos Peñaloza, a former head of the Venezuelan armed forces and a government detractor, exemplified the opposition’s hardheadedness on the birther issue in a Tuesday tweet: “It seems that Colombians contest the document of Cochez. That may be so, but it won’t stop us. Maduro is obligated to prove his citizenship.”
Venezuela’s anti-Chavistas often wonder how Maduro, a modest bus-driver-turned-politician, came to run a nation with the largest oil reserves in the world. A good look in the mirror would offer an easy answer.
Raul Gallegos is the Latin American correspondent for the World View blog.