On Wednesday, Venezuelan authorities arrested Timothy Hallet Tracy, a 35-year-old filmmaker, on charges of espionage and attempting to foment a civil war. President Nicolas Maduro ordered the California native arrested in the wake of violence that killed nine people following the hotly contested April 14 presidential election. Observers had expected Maduro, heir apparent to the socialist regime of the late Hugo Chávez, to win by a landslide, but he managed only a 2 percentage-point victory over rival Henrique Capriles. Capriles and his supporters, in turn, have been protesting the validity of the election even though Maduro officially assumed the position of president last week.
The charges seem to be based as much on Maduro’s paranoia as any proof of Tracy’s involvement with the United States government. Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez claimed yesterday that Tracy’s videotapes prove he has ties to right-wingers. The video shown to reporters at the press conference, however, did not seem to have much to do with any “destabilization plan.” In addition, the government has not provided concrete proof that Tracy financed violent attacks following the election.
Tracy had been in Venezuela for the past year to film a documentary on political tensions between the “Chavistas” and opposition groups in Venezuela. Tracy’s family and friends have vigorously denied he is a spy: “They don’t have CIA in custody. They don’t have a journalist in custody. They have a kid with a camera,” coworker Aengus James insists. Maduro, however, maintains that Tracy is an American intelligence agent “on the side of the bourgeoisie,” part of a larger conspiracy to overthrow the current Venezuelan government. State Department spokesman William Ostick categorically denied such allegations yesterday, instead blaming the unrest on the thin election margin.
The arrest is the latest in a series of mixed signals President Maduro has sent regarding his intention to continue his predecessor’s hostile stance towards the United States. Hugo Chávez famously called former President George W. Bush “the Devil” and “a donkey” in 2006. He also allied Venezuela with other adversaries of the United States, such as Cuba and Iran. Since becoming interim president following Chávez’s death from cancer, however, Maduro had struck a milder tone when speculating about what future relations might look like: “We hope one day to have respectful relations with the United States, a dialogue between equals, state-to-state.” He even – albeit briefly – opened a diplomatic back channel to the United States last year.
Tracy’s arrest this week may, however, be the norm for the Maduro administration. The government has also ordered the arrest of Capriles for allegedly urging his supporters to riot following the election. With only a tenuous grip on power, the government maybe attempting to rally wavering supporters by railing against Chávez’s favorite scapegoat, Uncle Sam. Maduro has the potential to be an even bigger thorn in the side of United States regional policy than his mentor was.