Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and his political allies claim to be the victims of a U.S.-sponsored campaign of diplomatic and economic aggression. Fortunately for them, a lone voice from Washington has emerged to express steadfast support for the current regime. Over the past several months, White House spokesperson Jim Luers has been quoted by everyone from Venezuela’s state-run media to members of its parliament. The only problem: He doesn’t actually exist.
Luers first captured national attention in Venezuela in late April, after three of the country’s leading independent papers republished a story from ABC, a newspaper in Spain, about the possibility that President of the National Assembly Diosdado Cabello was tied to international drug trafficking. Luers, quoted by the Caracas weekly Quinto Día as a White House spokesperson, denounced the allegations as “totally false.”
The denunciation was immediately picked up by pro-government politicians and state-run media anxious to find something on which to base their case against the media. Venezuela’s Vice Minister of Education, Rodulfo H. Peréz H., tweeted about Cabello’s unlikely new ally.
VTV and AVN, two major government-owned TV channels, made the quote the centerpiece of an article titled, “White House looks down on denunciation against Cabello,” which AVN has since removed.
Just days later, on April 21, the National Assembly released a “report on the triangulation of the media against President of the National Assembly Diosdado Cabello” demanding the criminal prosecution of the editors who republished the original ABC story for defamation. (Cabello himself has sued the local newspapers who ran the story and has threatened to take action against ABC and media outlets in the United States.)
In the midst of the meeting focused on censuring the press for a supposed slip-up in fact checking, the report’s principal author, Earle Herrera, went as far as to praise the papers that had published Luers’ denunciation while criticizing those that hadn’t.
Incredulous about the existence of Cabello’s newfound White House ally, one of the condemned papers, El Nacional, started its own investigation. In late April, the paper’s editors contacted the White House’s Director of Hispanic Media, Katherine Vargas, only to learn that neither the White House nor the State Department employed anyone by the name of Jim Luers. “There’s nobody who works here by that name,” White House National Security Council spokesperson Ned Price confirmed again to BuzzFeed News on Tuesday.
Even after El Nacional published its findings, government representatives continued to reference Luers for support. In May, a federal judge ruled that 22 media executives from the three independent papers would be prohibited from leaving the country, forcing them to stand trial for defamation.
In a particularly Orwellian twist, Herrera applauded the ruling by echoing Luers’ phony statement. “There isn’t an official organ of the U.S. government that has said that they have an investigation open against a Venezuelan functionary, in this case against the president of the National Assembly,” he told state news network AVN.
(In actuality, the Wall Street Journal interviewed U.S. federal prosecutors that very week, who confirmed Cabello was indeed the center of an ongoing drug trafficking investigation that had already pulled up “extensive evidence.”)
Undeterred, the editors of El Nacional made one last-ditch attempt to track down the elusive Luers. In early June, they called the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York and the FBI’s New York City offices. Still no Jim Luers.
A spokesperson at FBI headquarters also confirmed to BuzzFeed News that no such person works for them.
What the editors did discover was that the career of Caracas’ favorite White House spokesman actually began years ago. Not only had Luers been quoted on a variety of topics by several media outlets since 2010, he had also undergone a series of lighting-quick career changes. In the space of five years, he weighed in on money laundering as an FBI agent, spoke on behalf of the Treasury Department, and became a representative of “The Inteligence Week” (yes, with only one “l”).
While Luers’s exact origin remains unclear, the independent paper Tal Cual suspected he was invented by the Caracas weekly Quinto Día. The source of inspiration for Luers’ name is less of a mystery: William H. Luers served as ambassador to Venezuela from 1978 to 1982.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, New York-based journalist Mario Szichman, who conducted his own investigation into Jim Luers for Tal Cual, highlighted the absurdity that underlies how the fictional agent came into being.
“In a democracy there is the separation of powers,” he said. “A denial of the accusations against Cabello would have to come from a spokesperson of the Justice Department. Whoever made up the false rumor spread by Quinto Día believes that the separation of powers is just a pipe dream, like what happens in his country.”
One would think that proving he never existed would allow the FBI agent/spokesperson/investigator a hard-earned early retirement. But supporters of the current regime remain eager to keep the mythical jack-of-all-trades alive, judging by his burgeoning web presence.
Last week, a Twitter account claiming to represent Jim Luers, @RealJimLuers, popped up, complete with links to a blog in which the storied Luers discusses his views on inter-American policy and compares Latin American colonial liberator Simón Bolívar to George Washington. But nothing on his now infamous quote about Cabello.
@RealJimLuers, who claims to serve as “a White House spokesperson and FBI Agent with responsibility for the Western Hemisphere” (a lot of responsibility), advertises such all-American interests as “satire” and “college basketball,” and has dialogue with supporters from as far away as Germany. In less than a week he has already amassed over 2,000 followers.
He also has the same face as Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew.
Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post was quick to point out the resemblance.
So while the sight of a fake FBI agent with the Treasury secretary’s face may be good for a laugh, the climate for journalists in Venezuela continues to decline. “The censorship will continue increasing. Opposition papers will continue closing,” Szichman, the New York-based reporter said. And so Jim Luers lives on.