A 31-year-old Brazilian man living in Los Angeles leaves his comfortable life behind to pursue a humanitarian mission in Venezuela. Jonatan Diniz, founder of a non-governmental organization called Time to Change the Earth, posts photos of malnourished Venezuelan children and asks for donations on social media. The goal: raise funds for the NGO so it can purchase toys for children who are victims of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and his Bolivarian Revolution. It would be a very touching story about a young idealistic do-gooder — if it weren’t all a farce.
Just days before he traveled to Venezuela, Diniz created social media profiles for a non-existent NGO and started soliciting donations. In so doing, he didn’t just fool the usual online rabble rousers on the Brazilian right, but also the Brazilian and Venezuelan governments. His antics caused a diplomatic incident during what may have already been the most tense period in the countries’ bilateral relations. On December 23, Venezuela expelled the Brazilian ambassador from the country. Three days later, Brazil declared Venezuela’s highest-ranking diplomat in the country a “persona non grata” (Venezuela had already withdrawn their ambassador in 2016 to protest the impeachment of former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff).
On December 27 Diniz was arrested by Venezuelan authorities for alleged connections to a “criminal organization with international tentacles” and held in jail for 11 days, provoking an international outcry until he was eventually released and deported.
After he was freed, Diniz published a video explaining that he went to Venezuela with the goal of getting himself arrested and, with the media attention, raising the profile of his fake NGO. But before that revelation, several prominent figures on the rising Brazilian right – including the “Free Brazil Movement” (Movimento Brasil Livre, or MBL); entertainer Danilo Gentili, who has been called the “enfant terrible of comedy in Brazil;” and journalist Rachel Sheherazade – had embraced his cause. The #FreeJonatan hashtag was created to pressure the Brazilian Foreign Ministry to get to work liberating a new national hero.
In this age of so-called fake news, no one bothered to do a basic fact-check on Diniz and his supposed organization. One Brazilian newspaper referred to Diniz as a “member of a U.S. NGO” – information that doesn’t stand up to a simple Google search.
One didn’t have to undertake a rigorous investigation to unravel the story. The first photos the ostensible NGO published on Instagram were from November 21, 2017, just weeks before his trip to Venezuela. One can already see the red flags of fraud.
Any self-styled social media Sherlock Holmes could poke holes in Diniz’s story were they not blinded by the fact that it fulfilled a convenient anti-leftist agenda. His story fit the needs of right-wing groups like a glove. The Free Brazil Movement was the loudest voice in the #FreeJonatan campaign and spent days mobilizing their followers to pressure the government.
It’s worth noting that this is the same Free Brazil Movement that has made a habit of attacking fact-checking outlets and has their own fake news websites. After Diniz came out and said he’d planned his arrest and that both the government and the opposition are at fault for the situation in Venezuela, the Free Brazil Movement sent out a release calling Diniz a “charlatan” and comparing him to a psychopath. That about-face is to be expected; Diniz had ceased to serve the group’s interests. Another of the right-wing personalities hoodwinked by Diniz was the colorful attorney Janaína Paschoal – a main agitator for the impeachment of Rousseff – who has since been more concerned about the well-being of Venezuelan children than that of Brazilians. On Twitter, she condemned the “Brazilian’s kidnapping” and the silence of “defenders of fundamental rights.”
O silêncio não é só do governo! Onde estão os defensores dos direitos fundamentais? Ah! Esqueci! Eles não se importam quando os abusos são praticados por ditadores amigos! Tem um brasileiro sequestrado na Venezuela e ninguém fala nada!— Janaina Paschoal (@JanainaDoBrasil) January 1, 2018
As it would happen, even the Venezuelan government fell for the trick. Lawmaker Diosdado Cabello, a Maduro ally, announced on state TV that Diniz was arrested for working with a “criminal organization with international tentacles.” Cabello said he was taking part in a “CIA operation, carried out on other occasions and in other countries. They use NGOs as a façade in order to traverse the country, identify strategic objectives and fund terrorists.”
In an interview with the São Paulo newspaper Estadão, Diniz appears to be rather apolitical. He spoke in platitudes that seemed off for a young activist supposedly concerned about the political future of Venezuela. On top of that, he said he’d never heard of the Free Brazil Movement. Maybe if he had heard their talking points beforehand he’d have stayed in Brazil and tried to save some of our children instead.
Diniz also spoke about his own mental health issues, saying:
I’ve been hospitalized six times. Four times in 2012 and twice in 2015. They sent me to the hospital because I communicate with spirits. I study everything about religion, culture, philosophy. I’m a medium.
Diniz is neither a medium nor a hero of the Brazilian right nor a CIA spy funding the Venezuelan opposition. He’s a young man in need of medical care. It’s hard to believe that he alone was able to mobilize the diplomatic corps of two countries, major media outlets, the Brazilian bar association and several human rights organizations. In days when fake news on social media travels far, a young man with mental health issues was able to fool us all and cause a diplomatic incident. Now just imagine what what will and won’t happen during the Brazilian elections this year.