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Of the thousands in J.C. Bermudez Park last month protesting Venezuela's chavista government, only one was dressed all in black.
J.J. Rendón stood out solemnly in the sea of white. Latin America's most infamous political consultant wouldn't have had it any other way. For the 15 years since Hugo Chávez was elected, Rendón has mourned what he considers the death of his native Venezuela. Now that student protests are shaking President Nicolás Maduro's government, Rendón is eager to add his two cents.
"If you support [Maduro], you support killing," he says. "You support genocide."
Anyone expecting softer words doesn't know J.J. Rendón.
He may be little known in Miami, where he lives in exile, but Rendón is one of Latin America's most important political figures. He's a conservative campaign consultant extraordinaire who has swung scores of races in favor of rightist candidates in countries such as Honduras, Mexico, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic.
In 2010, he turned a tossup of a presidential race in Colombia into a landslide victory for Juan Manuel Santos. And last year, he helped Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles nearly defeat Chávez's handpicked successor, Maduro. (Rendón says he has "proof" that Maduro stole the election.)
Rendón credits his success to hard work and his background in psychology (he has a master's degree in the subject). But critics claim his victories owe just as much to underhanded tricks and smear campaigns. Indeed, his nickname is "J.J. Rumor."
When it comes to the current crisis in his home country, however, Rendón readily admits things are personal. "My fight against Maduro goes back to when he was foreign affairs minister and I was working on elections in other countries," he says. "His government was giving candidates money, and I was hired as a strategist [by opposition parties] to stop it."
Rendón claims Americans are too preoccupied to realize that "neo-totalitarianism" is spreading throughout the hemisphere.
"You guys are so busy worried about your economic crisis and global warming and 'Oh, the whales are dying' that you don't realize what is going on," he says. "When will the international community look at us? When we have 1,000 killed? When we have 20,000 killed?"
Rendón denies having any involvement in the student protests in Venezuela and says they aren't puppets of opposition leaders. But he admits there are "radical" factions within the opposition that want to use the protesters to start a civil war.
"There are people who want to give guns to the kids," he says. "Some people want revenge, but that's less than 1 percent. Most of the protesters are nonviolent... But how long are they going to remain peaceful? How long until the government infiltrates them or breaks them or makes them tired?"
In a 40-minute interview with New Times, Rendón oscillated between hyperbole and hope. He said it's only a matter of time before Maduro is forced to step down, but he admitted he's not sure how that will happen.
"This guy is not Chávez," Rendón says of Maduro. "Chávez was a charismatic leader. He could make people be in love with him even when he was fucking up."
What is clear from talking to Rendón is that the Venezuelan opposition has learned from its failures. In the past, anger toward Chávez often gave way to antipathy for elite opposition leaders such as Leopoldo López. This time, however, Rendón and others are careful to insist the protesters aren't tied to a party or particular politician.
"They let everyone know they are not taking orders from any opposition leader," he says. "It's not partisan. Capriles can't control them."
Whether that's true or not remains to be seen. But the focus on students has enabled leaders to downplay issues such as class — and the Venezuelan elite's involvement in the 2002 coup against Chávez — and instead compare the protests to uprisings elsewhere in the world, including the Ukraine.
"This is the first time in 15 years that celebrities like Madonna or Rihanna are turning their attention to our country," Rendón says. "These kids, these heroes, have already succeeded in raising the alarm around the world about what's going on in Venezuela."