Two years ago, Levin de Grazia told WLRN he was the victim of a malicious online defamation campaign.
“This situation is like a witch hunt,” he said.
De Grazia is a Venezuela native and co-owner of the Bocas restaurant chain in South Florida. He’s based in Doral – the largest Venezuelan enclave in the U.S. – and he feared the effort to smear his name could ruin his business.
“It could break us,” he said at the time. “No Venezuelans want to go to a Chavista restaurant.”
Being a Chavista was exactly what De Grazia was being accused of. The Chavistas are the authoritarian socialist regime that rules Venezuela – they’re responsible for the catastrophic collapse of the country’s economy and its democracy – and they’re hated by just about every Venezuelan expat in South Florida.
So De Grazia was alarmed to see anonymous Instagram posts at the time calling him an enchufado. That means someone “plugged in” to the Chavista regime – and living off its corrupt wealth in the U.S.
“There is no way for me to be an enchufado,” De Grazia insisted, pointing out that he’s a vocal Chavista regime opponent and that the Instagram slam presented no evidence whatsoever to back up its scathing assertion.
But last summer yet another anonymous social media post, on an anonymous "news" site called UltimaHora24, claimed – again, with no evidence – that De Grazia laundered millions of dollars for Chavista officials. At wit’s end, De Grazia made an all-out effort to discover the source of the online attacks – and says he discovered it was a disgruntled former business partner, Venezuelan expat and Miami resident Cesar Gonzalez, whom De Grazia is now suing for libel.
De Grazia’s suit may be the first legal response to a growing trend among Venezuelan expats: escraches, or publicly calling people Chavistas.
More and more it means falsely calling them Chavistas.
“Everybody is constantly afraid that they’re going to be named in some sort of a blog or Twitter or Facebook – and there’s no proof to the accusations,” says Helena Poleo, a Venezuelan journalist and communications expert who heads the Influence Communications firm in Miami.
Poleo says there are certainly many enchufados in South Florida. And if they have brought dirty Chavista cash here, U.S. federal authorities should investigate it.
But she also points out expats are bitterly frustrated that the Chavistas are still in power in Venezuela. As a result, feeling impotent, many have decided that naming and shaming enchufados is a way to fight back – the way Cuban exiles used to call out communists.
“It’s the one thing they feel they can do is take to social media,” says Poleo. “But it does more harm than good. It creates a very negative situation in the Venezuelan community.”
That’s because escraches are too often reckless witch hunts. They’ve created a boom in anonymous social media sites like UltimaHora24, which is also named in De Grazia's suit along with vozdeamerica.org and expresa.me. They claim to be outlets for Venezuela news, but critics say they're simply forums for angry cyber-mobs to post enchufado accusations with no fact-checking at all.
Some, like a Twitter account known as TemplarioResistencia, like to post escrache videos that show blood dripping down the screen. What they don’t show is any actual evidence to back up their accusations.
In his suit, De Grazia accuses his ex-business partner Gonzalez of using sites like those to spread the false claims about him. Gonzalez did not respond to WLRN requests for comment. Nor did the Venezuelan expat accused of running many of those sites, Gerardo Gil Dams.
And nor did another defendant in De Grazia’s suit: former Venezuelan TV news anchor Angie Perez. She lives in South Florida – and her Instagram account is a notorious escrache site.
In a recent YouTube video, Perez explains her crusade to expose Chavista loyalists around the world – but offers little or no investigative proof behind it. That’s one reason Instagram last year shut down her account for violating its terms.
Perez somehow got back on Instagram – and this year hopped into the rumor mill about De Grazia and his family and posted photos of De Grazia with the caption: Utilizan cadena de restaurantes para lavar dinero de narco-Chavistas – They use their restaurant chain to launder narco-Chavista money.
Again, the post contains not a scrap of evidence. Perez also posted photos of a Lear Jet she said De Grazia bought with that dirty money. Problem is, FAA records clearly show the jet is not his – and she includes nothing to back up her assertion that the real owner is somehow a front man for De Grazia.
In the YouTube video, Perez tells her critics she can say what she wants in her social media posts because “this is the United States of America.”
But critics like Helena Poleo point out Perez and other Venezuelan escrache fanatics seem to forget that free speech even in America has reasonable limits – like libel, slander and defamation.
“Here you can’t just go around saying anything you want publicly about somebody – which unfortunately is often the way it is in Venezuela and most of Latin America,” Poleo says. “So this is a new reality that they are not used to.”
But now that folks like Perez are being sued, that reality might just begin to sink in.