CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - Hours after barely winning Venezuela's presidential election, the ruling party started to flood state media with accusations that opposition provocateurs were firebombing Cuban-run neighborhood health clinics across the country in revenge.
More than a week later, a national dispute is raging as the opposition wages a remarkably successful media counteroffensive showing the claims to be seriously exaggerated and in some cases entirely false. With meticulously dated amateur photos of undamaged clinics, opposition supporters have vividly illustrated how cellphone cameras, Twitter and Facebook can help even the playing field against a government that came to dominate broadcast media during the late Hugo Chavez's 14-year presidency.
The fight is fueling tension in a country that's deeply polarized and almost exactly divided between supporters of the government and an opposition that claims the April 14 election was stolen. The chief of national prisons, Iris Varela, declared Tuesday that she was preparing a cell for opposition candidate Henrique Capriles for allegedly directing the purported clinic attacks and other violence against government buildings and supporters.
Chavez had a history of making claims he never substantiated, denouncing dozens of alleged assassination plots before succumbing to cancer in March. His heir, Nicolas Maduro, has shown himself prone to even more grave accusations, including repeatedly claiming in the week before his election that Salvadoran and Colombian mercenaries had entered Venezuela to wreak havoc. The government hasn't presented any evidence to back up those claims.
Tinedo Guia, president of Venezuela's largest journalists association, said the government does not appear to fully grasp that people distrustful of state-controlled media can increasingly rely on Internet-driven grassroots reporting.
Internet use in Venezuela soared from 4.6 percent of the population in 2001 to 40.2 percent in 2011, according to the World Bank. Mobile phone subscriptions more than doubled from 47 per 100 people to 98 per 100 between 2005 and 2010, and the number of mobile phones with Internet access plans grew from less than 1 per 100 people to more than 25 per 100 people over the same period.
"It's evident they are mistaken in thinking the people are stupid," Guia said of the government.
Health ministry officials did not respond to requests for comment but other government ministers have alleged the clinics were repaired faster than the damage could be documented. Some accused skeptics of questioning the government's claims simply because they opposed the ruling Chavista movement.
Information Minister Ernesto Villegas wrote last week on Twitter that "the media and non-governmental organizations are uniting in complicity with the attacks on doctors and patients."
On April 16, two days after the election, Maduro announced that an unspecified number of Comprehensive Diagnostic Medical Centers had been burned by thugs operating on direct orders from Capriles. Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said eight clinics had been attacked. The number grew in subsequent accountings by government officials, with then-Health Minister Eugenia Sader saying by Saturday that 25 clinics had been burned. She was replaced in a Cabinet shuffle this week.
But no sooner had the first accusations been made than Capriles supporters rushed to at least five of the clinics and took photos of their undamaged facades. Amateur photographers were careful to hold up editions of that morning's newspaper so there would be no doubt the images were captured after the purported attacks. Then they posted the photographs on Twitter and Facebook.
The images spread quickly and were published in opposition newspapers such as El Nacional and El Universal. A website that specializes in political satire, Chiguire Bipolar, posted an article headlined "Maduro denounces the opposition's burning, repair, painting and resupplying of 11 Comprehensive Diagnostic Medical Centers." It was tweeted at least 4,200 times and posted even more frequently on Facebook.
Despite earlier insistence from some officials that the damage couldn't be documented, a government-linked group published 10 photos Wednesday that it said revealed evidence of the attacks on public buildings, most showing minor damage to the interiors, such as scorch marks on walls or a splintered wooden door. One exterior shot showed several streaks of fire damage above a white building, another revealing minor burns along the bottom of a health clinic sign on an otherwise untouched wall.
The 561 clinics opened by Chavez are a potent symbol of Venezuela's effort to alleviate deep poverty by transforming the country with the world's largest oil reserves into a socialist economy with deep ties to Cuba. Under an agreement between Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro, thousands of Cuban doctors have moved to slums and remote villages to attend to the poor. Venezuela, meanwhile, props up Cuba with billions of dollars in oil.
Cuban government officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Communist Party newspaper Granma reported last week that island doctors would continue their work in Venezuela despite what it called "aggressive protests" at some Cuban-run health facilities. Granma said no one had been hurt, and did not mention any damage.
Cuban state-run news agency AIN later said clinics had taken precautionary security measures due to "provocative actions by some people." AIN added that more than 32,000 medical workers are currently serving in Cuba's medical mission to Venezuela, which observed its 10-year anniversary this year.
During the campaign, Capriles had indicated he wanted to end subsidized oil aid to Cuba, saying he no longer wanted to "give" the resource.
The purported burning of the Cuban-run clinics, in turn, became "the perfect symbolic vehicle for the government's case against the opposition," which officials have attempted to portray as "antidemocratic, inhumane, and as a threat to the social policy gains of recent years," said David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at the University of Georgia.
Provea, an independent group that is one of Venezuela's most prominent human rights organizations, compiled images of the five unharmed clinics and included them in an April 18 report that cast deep doubt on the government claims.
"No clinic in the country showed signs of having been burned or vandalized to the intensity suggested in the allegations so widely distributed by official media and high-ranking government spokesmen," the brief report said.
In an unintended echo of the parody article, Gabriela Ramirez, Venezuela's top official charged with investigating human rights violations, said Saturday that an unspecified number of clinics had indeed been hit by firebombs but were repaired overnight a day after the April 14 election.
Maduro mentioned at least two allegedly burned clinics in the capital's Baruta district by name. Ramirez said on April 20 that one in the southwestern state Barinas had been 90 percent burned.
AP reporters visited one of the Baruta clinics on April 16 and one in Barinas the next day and found no visible signs of fire or smoke damage on their facades. Neighbors of both clinics said they had not seen either damaged.
Villegas, the information minister, accused Provea of calling the government's claims into question solely because the group's director secretly opposes the government and the Chavista movement, a charge director Marino Alvarado denies.
"This type of behavior stimulates the fascists," Villegas said. "I'm very surprised how anti-Chavez sentiment has completely taken hold of him."
Alvarado, the head of Provea, noted how Chavez once accused Provea of lying about rights violations by military personnel following deadly 1999 mudslides that killed thousands in the coastal state of Vargas, then acknowledged weeks later that activists had been right and called for an investigation that found bodies had been tossed into an unmarked grave.
He suggested that authorities should try to regain lost credibility by admitting they were mistaken or misinformed about the purported clinic attacks.
"We hope this government has the capacity to correct its position on the accusations," Alvarado said.