Shaming 'Chavistas': Venezuela activists decry officials' luxury lifestyles
By Alexandra Ulmer
CARACAS - One is shown blowing a kiss from a private jet. Another is seen posing in front of a store of luxury jeweler Cartier in China. Others grin as they tuck into a plate of lobster or a massive birthday cake.
Venezuelan activists are increasingly posting details of locations and lifestyles of leftist officials and their families, depicting them as thriving off corruption while the population struggles to eat in a devastating economic crisis.
The social media blitzes, targeting officials and their business partners, relatives and even lovers, are another weapon in a wave of huge protests against President Nicolas Maduro's government that began in April. Protesters are seeking early presidential elections, freedom for jailed activists, and humanitarian aid to alleviate chronic food and medicine shortages.
One Twitter account published photos purportedly showing the wife of Vice President Tareck El Aissami enjoying champagne and lounging on a pristine beach with her sisters. In another case, an alleged lover of a powerful Socialist Party official is shown on trips to the Middle East.
Venezuela's opposition accuses officials of profiting from currency controls and a decade-long oil boom to fill their pockets. The opposition-led congress estimates that at least $11 billion have "disappeared" from state-run oil company PDVSA.
The government says oil-rich Venezuela has been corrupt for decades, and that authorities are trying to root out a few bad apples.
Activists have targeted armed forces chief Vladimir Padrino, accusing his troops of using excessive force on protesters, and attacking him through a photo purportedly showing his daughter in an embarrassing pose.
"Wake up, Vladimir Padrino. We have a photo of your daughter that you're going to love," the Twitter account @VVperiodistas, run by journalists, wrote early on Thursday.
Then the account published a photo allegedly showing Padrino's daughter and two friends at a party flashing their breasts, a photo it said had appeared on Snapchat.
Reuters was unable to authenticate the multiple denunciations on social media or contact the targeted families. Venezuela's Information Ministry and Armed Forces did not respond to specific queries on the cases mentioned above or about the general trend.
But Maduro has said the harassment tactics are just another front in what he has called an "armed insurrection" on the street. In a speech last month, he likened the harassing of officials, government sympathizers and their families to Nazi persecution of the Jews.
Activists have focused in particular on current or former "Chavistas" who they call hypocritical for living in the United States, the ideological foe of Venezuela's socialist movement founded by the late Hugo Chavez.
Activists behind one Twitter feed, @YosoyJustin, said they turned their ire on the private life of officials and their families due to Maduro's crackdown on the latest wave of protests.
But some in the opposition are uneasy, viewing the campaign as unethical or counterproductive as they said it foments hate and could complicate a potential transition.
"It's not morally or politically correct to harass the children of officials," opposition lawmaker Freddy Guevara said recently, adding that it would discourage children from criticizing their parents as the son of the ombudsman did in April.
'THEY'VE BEEN FOOLED'
The social media activists, who declined in-person interviews citing security reasons due to threats, dismiss the criticism.
"We don't think this will foment Chavista unity," @YoSoyJustin said in a written response to questions.
"On the contrary, we're making their followers see that they've been fooled and forced to suffer shortages in Venezuela while these families fatten their foreign bank accounts."
Two of the main Twitter accounts behind the social media attacks say their teams are swamped by dozens or hundreds of daily denunciations of government officials and their families or associates, which they check before publishing.
"We knew there was corruption, but never at these levels, and especially flaunted like this on social media," said @VVperiodistas, which has around one million followers.
At least three children of prominent Socialist Party officials have blocked their Facebook accounts in the last weeks.
"Outing government officials and their relatives... has become a phenomenon," added @YoSoyJustin.
Additional reporting by Andreina Aponte; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Frances Kerry