Of the thousands of protesters in JC Bermudez Park on Saturday, 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 the chavista government, Rendón is eager to add his two cents.
"If you support [Venezuela president Nicolas Maduro], you support killing," he says. "You support genocide."
See also: J.J. Rendon is Latin America's Karl Rove
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 like Honduras, Mexico, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic.
In 2010, he turned a tossup of a presidential race in Colombia into a landslide victor for Juan Manuel Santos. And last year, he almost helped Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles defeat Chávez's handpicked successor, Maduro. (Rendón says he has "proof" that Maduro actually 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 that 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," Rendón 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,' 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 that there are "radical" factions within the opposition that want to use the protesters to start a civil war.
See also: What the Hell Is Going on in Venezuela?
"There are people who want to give guns to the kids," he says. "Some people want revenge, but that's less than one percent. Most of the protesters are non-violent... 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 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."
"Maduro has an approval rating of 13 percent," Rendón says, citing a poll by Mexican company. "They are losing credibility, they are getting blamed for everything, so how do you think a government like that can rule?"
A protester in Doral on Saturday
Michael E. Miller
Rendón says one of the biggest factors so far in the student protests has been the role of social media.
"You cannot even imagine how fast things are moving," he says of sites like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. "There are 20 shots of the same situation at the same time, in different languages. You see one policeman killing a kid from 20 different angles. So we are fighting them social media."
Asked about well documented instances of these photos being fake -- taken, for instance, not in Venezuela but in Brazil or Egypt -- Rendón is unapologetic.
"That's the way it is," he says. "It's like with tabloid newspapers. All you can do is expose [the fakes]. People shoot first, send pictures, especially in the middle of an emotional roller coaster like the one we have at the moment. The government only wants to talk about the fake [photos] or the old ones. Some of them can be intentional but I assume most of them aren't on purpose."
Rendón also claims (rather implausibly) that many of the fake photos come from government "trolls trying to destroy the credibility of the social media movement."
What is clear from talking to Rendón is that the Venezuelan opposition has learned from its failures. In the past, anger at Chávez often gave way to antipathy towards elite opposition leaders like Leopoldo López.
This time, however, Rendón and others are careful to insist that 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 or not that's true remains to be seen. But the focus on the students has enabled leaders to downplay class issues and instead compare the protests to similar events elsewhere in the world.
"We don't want another Ukraine," Rendón says, using the exact same phrase as Doral mayor Luigi Boria on Saturday.
"This is the first time in 15 years that celebrities like Madonna or Rihanna are turning their attention to our country," Rendón says.
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"These kids, these heroes, have already succeeded in raising the alarm around the world about what's going on in Venezuela."