In this article, published on May 30, 2017, journalist Fabiola Zerpa writes about the practice of mocking and exposing beneficiaries of cleptoregimes and dictatorships in and out of their country. Case in point: Venezuela. I′m consulted briefly on social media use for this so-called “escreche” practice.

Fabiola Zerpa

  • Public shaming of Maduro regime confederates goes viral on web
  • Opposition warns about taking controversial tactic too far

Venezuelans’ fury is global. Roy Chaderton, a senior member of the country’s diplomatic service, discovered this when he was pelted with garbage on a street in Madrid.

A video flew around social-media sites. So did a clip of Eugenio Vasquez Orellana, president of the Bank of Venezuela under the late Hugo Chavez, fleeing a bakery in Miami to chants of “Get Out!” Expatriates shouted “assassin” at former Chavez minister Maripili Hernandez in Barcelona and chased the daughter of Caracas Mayor Jorge Rodriguez down Bondi Beach in Sydney, the incidents captured on smartphones.

This is escrache, a Spanish word for what roughly translates to public shaming, in this case of people connected to the government of President Nicolas Maduro or his predecessor and mentor, Chavez.

Venezuelans watching from afar as their homeland is wrenched by daily demonstrations, which have claimed at least 54 lives, are using the tactic to rail against the country’s misery of widespread hunger and soaring crime after 18 years of socialist rule. The Chavistas have driven the country into an economic collapse unprecedented in its modern history, and many in and connected to the Maduro regime have been accused by the U.S. of criminal activities including drug-running and money laundering.

The escrache activists have a rapt audience on Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp feeds around the world, including Nillson Castillo, a 26-year-old lawyer who left Caracas in September for Santiago, Chile. “I feel good when I see people pointing out those who have robbed Venezuela,” he said. If he has moments of doubt about it or guilt over watching someone being shamed, he said he reminds himself of the mess the country is in.

Back home, social media has been ablaze with #escrache posts and images. There was the ambassador to Switzerland being insulted in a supermarket, and a leader of Chavez’s Fifth Republic Movement being heckled at a human-rights conference in Lebanon. A Google map purporting to show where relatives of Maduro-administration members live around the world circulated at warp speed in chat rooms.

Going Too Far?

That’s one of the scale-tippers where escrache becomes controversial — with the targeting of people unconnected to the Chavistas except by blood or friendship. Freddy Guevara, an opposition lawmaker, warned against taking things too far.

“This will generate controversy, but I should say this with clarity: It’s not correct or moral to harass the children of officials,” he said on Twitter. He made the comment after video of the daughter of the Caracas mayor, a Maduro supporter, was posted; one woman chasing her shouted, “It must be nice to live here while they’re killing students. Answer me! There are people dying because of your father!”

There’s a fair amount of criticism of escrache in general. Some detractors complain it doesn’t accomplish much beyond giving a little satisfaction to “people who have all this inner rage,” in the words of Alex Yllarramendy, a Venezuelan sound engineer living in Barcelona and a regular critic of the Maduro regime on Twitter. He said expats should put their energy toward documenting how grandly some Chavistas are living overseas and sharing that with Maduro supporters. “That message would be more effective.”

Venezuelan officials and business executives with close ties to the government are believed to have pulled billions of dollars out of the country that were generated during an oil boom a decade ago. That wealth is particularly evident in the mansions they own in cities like Miami and Panama City.

Trending Hashtag

It’s unclear whether any escrache practitioners have landed in hot water. Venezuela Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez recently claimed that two “fascist” expats were detained by Australian authorities after they tried to throw paint on a vice-minister who was in the country for a conference. The pair denied her claim, posting a video they said showed they’d simply tried to ask the man a question during an anti-Maduro demonstration. (More routine protest methods are raising some hackles abroad, though: In Panama, President Juan Carlos Valera threatened to deport Venezuelans after a group tried to crash a pro-Maduro rally at the University of Panama.)

The tag #escrache began to appear on Twitter late last year. It’s been trending steadily, according to an analysis of a curated list of around 30,000 handles tracked by Bloomberg. It reached an all-time high on May 15, the day the opposition held sit-ins around the country.

It’s not gone unnoticed by Maduro, who in a speech on May 19 called the strategy “part of a fascist escalation” of persecution and declared, “We’re the new Jews of the 21st Century.”

Trying to humiliate public figures isn’t a new maneuver in opposition politics. It’s been popular in Argentina, where videos circulate of people insulting ministers who served under Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who has been indicted on corruption charges. A former aide was heckled on the way into a bank in Santa Cruz province and a former commerce secretary was harassed while walking toward the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires recently. In 2013, then-Finance Minister Axel Kicillof was insulted during a ferry ride with his family by passengers who yelled “thief” and “shameless.” The power of the Internet gave the episode wide distribution.

For Venezuelans far from home, the web’s social networks are “a dream come true,” said Fernando Nunez-Noda, a social-media consultant in Miami and former professor at Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas. “They’re crowdsourcing locations, identifications, logistics. Those who want to hide have it harder than ever.”

Published in Bloomberg, on May 30, 2017.