Oscar Pérez Is Now A Symbol Of Venezuelan Resistance. But Don't Make Him An Icon

Jan 24, 2018

COMMENTARY

A lot of Venezuelans who oppose their authoritarian socialist regime are into self-flagellation at the moment. They feel guilty because they didn’t rally behind rebel cop Oscar Pérez – whom authorities killed last week – until it was too late.

“I was quick to dismiss what Oscar Pérez was doing,” Venezuelan actress Nina Rancel wrote in Caracas Chronicles. “I’m so ashamed now.”

To which I have to say: Seriously?

READ MORE: From Copter Cops to Caricom Cop-Outs, Venezuela's Opposition Has to Play Smart

That’s not to make light of the gratuitous bloodshed that took place Jan. 15. Evidence – especially video showing a bloodied Pérez trying to turn himself in as his hideout outside Caracas was being fired on – certainly indicates the former investigative police officer and six others with him were unlawfully executed. This makes Pérez a martyr in the struggle against Venezuela’s increasingly brutal security forces, who last year killed scores of anti-government protesters.

Perez at the controls of a commandeered police helicopter flying over the Venezuelan presidential palace in Caracas last June.
Credit YouTube

But it doesn’t mean anti-government Venezuelans were wrong to keep Pérez at arm’s length last summer when he burst on the scene – literally – high above the Miraflores presidential palace.

Pérez had commandeered a police helicopter, buzzing the palace and the Supreme Court building, where he tossed grenades. (No one was hurt.) Draped across the copter was a banner that read “Libertad 350” (Freedom 350). It was a reference to an article in Venezuela’s Constitution that allows for revolt against dictatorial rulers – in this case socialist President Nicolás Maduro.

Pérez and a group of masked, armed renegades then issued a video calling on Venezuelans to join their “coalition of patriotic security forces personnel against this criminal government and its impunity and tyranny.”

This month, just before his death, Pérez told the New York Times from hiding that he had hoped to see a mass response to his “call to the streets.”

“But unfortunately,” he conceded, “there wasn’t one.”

Despite his unlawful execution, Venezuela's opposition was right to keep Perez at arm's length – because the dictatorial revolution choking the country today started with the kind of armed adventurism Perez flirted with.

Indeed, most Venezuelans did not embrace Pérez or his tactics – even if they did agree with his appraisal of a corrupt and incompetent regime that’s responsible for the collapse of their country’s democracy and oil-rich economy, and for the terrible humanitarian crisis it’s spawned. One that has driven tens of thousands of Venezuelans into exile in South Florida.

For starters, they couldn’t be sure Pérez had any real “coalition” behind him. All they knew was that he’d been in a 2015 action film called “Muerte Suspendida” (Death Suspended) in which he played a special forces cop who pilots a helicopter. It was hard to tell if Pérez was heading a political insurrection or reprising a movie role.

PLANT OR PATRIOT

Many government opponents even took to social media warning Pérez might be a regime plant – that he was possibly hired to stage the copter caper and give Maduro a pretext for a more severe crackdown on his political foes.

But whether Pérez was a plant or a patriot, here’s the most important reason opposition leaders didn’t line up for selfies with him: It would have compromised the credibility of their campaign to restore Venezuela’s democracy – and would have made them hypocrites.

Mourners at Perez's grave in Caracas.
Credit Fernando Llano / AP via Miami Herald

That’s because the despotic leftist revolution choking their country today started back in 1992 with the kind of armed adventurism Pérez flirted with. Meaning, the failed but deadly military coup led by Hugo Chávez, who ended up ruling Venezuela from 1999 until he died in 2013, when he was succeeded by his “Chavista” acolyte Maduro.

So there’s no reason to feel “ashamed” this winter for “dismissing” Pérez last summer. It would be a tad disingenuous, really. What’s more, even though Pérez has now become an emotional symbol of anti-Chavista resistance – especially after the regime cruelly kept his mother waiting a week before she could bury him – opposition leaders should still be wary of making him an icon.

That’s especially true after Maduro’s government made its underhanded decision on Tuesday to hold a snap presidential election before the end of April. It's doing so a good half year sooner than expected because it knows the opposition right now is fractured and dysfunctional.

No one thinks the vote will be fair, of course. Even so, opposition leaders can’t succumb to the easy but self-defeating urge to let Pérez’s image overshadow that of whomever they pick to run against Maduro.

That would be a shame.