Coup D’Etat Hysteria: In Caracas, Rumors Swirl Night and Day

(Bloomberg) -- It would happen anytime in the next 24 or 72 hours.

The source of this alert was unknown, but it fired up the jumpy Venezuelan rumor mill. It was tweeted, texted and repeated. Something big was coming.

What was it? Who knows? It was a coup one moment and a military intervention the next. By late Friday, the forces on their way to topple Nicolas Maduro were undercover Colombian intelligence officers who had infiltrated the country. By Saturday afternoon, they had morphed into members of the U.S. Army who were secreting themselves in humanitarian-aid trucks that would be like so many Trojan horses.

By Sunday night, social media was a freaked-out maelstrom.

“It’s imminent.” “Are you going to the office tomorrow?” And the Venezuelan classic: “My mom says I should stay home.” People are ready to believe almost anything, because at this point in the crisis-racked country, with Maduro besieged and opposition leader Juan Guaido recognized as the rightful leader by a growing group of foreign governments, almost anything seems possible.

What got the latest wild grapevine going were WhatsApp voice notes -- audio recordings -- from men introducing themselves as “Chief Commissary X” or “Sargent Y” and describing super-top-secret plans. As they speak, you can hear the sounds of TVs blaring in the background.

“Everything is ready,” the voice says on one recording posted Friday. “By midnight Venezuela time, a phone call will be directly made to Nicolas Maduro to see if he’s willing to give up executive power or not.” Two more calls would be placed before the incursion would begin. “Don’t go out to the streets,” another voice warns. “Stay home -- have your phones charged.”

Then a map dotted with outlines of soldiers and tanks started circulating, looking like a Venezuelan version of the board-game Risk. This was after Guaido announced Saturday that an international coalition of his backers would soon be sending in humanitarian aid. For some, it wasn’t a stretch to imagine foreign armed forces would come along with it.

Troops from Aruba, Curazao, Colombia, Brazil and Guyana are ready to storm the border, the map’s unnamed designer wrote. They are “waiting for authorization from Falcon 1.” This line is decorated with an American flag, the falcon presumably being President Donald Trump.

According to the voice notes and other messages on WhatsApp, the troops are instead from Canada, France, Brazil and Colombia and are prepared to run an “impeccable operation” as part of a high-tech war involving drones outfitted with, for some reason, green lasers.

Guiado’s camp has urged Venezuelans to stay calm. “Please do not echo unverified information, with unidentified audios or by unknown people. We’re begging you, from the National Assembly, to only share official information,” lawmaker Delsa Solorzano tweeted late Sunday.

Of course, a big part of the reason these rumors are spreading like wild-fire is that there’s an element to them that’s plausible enough. Trump has repeatedly said that he can’t rule out the use of military force. And the country has a long history of coups and coup attempts, including one in 1992 -- its 27th anniversary was Monday -- that turned Maduro’s predecessor and mentor, the late Hugo Chavez, into a national figure.

Spend too much time on the internet and your head will spin. The vice president of Maduro’s United Socialist Party, Diosdado Cabello, is said to have boarded a Citation 550 jet, armed with a false passport. An unnamed U.S. Marine general is quoted as promising that “the dark sky will shine light with missiles and planes as never before.” Photos spread of the aid ostensibly arriving -- photos of United Nations vehicles, probably taken in Syria.

Even the most cool-headed among us can now be startled into preparing for whatever. A friend of mine described it in a Whatsapp message at 10:20 p.m. on Sunday, as she thought about what would happen if the invasion came in the middle of the night and she had to run: “All I know is I’m wearing decent pajamas to bed tonight.”

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