Meet Latin America’s Most-Feared Election Maven — In Exile
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this Venezuelan exile is the Latin world’s 21st-century brain behind power.
By Wesley Tomaselli
Before he launched a quest to change the course of Latin American power, Venezuelan psychologist Juan José (J.J.) Rendón’s life resembled scenes from the 1970s action TV series Starsky & Hutch, as he shot films performing stunts in hot rods. Troubled by his sneaking into the movies with his pals, his grandmother urged J.J. to consider therapy, asking: “Why don’t you steal books instead?”
Today, Rendón lives in exile in Miami, a political consultant with methods just as cinematic as his youthful exploits but far more consequential. He enters into political combat for a select few of Latin America’s contenders — as long as they fall within his complex moral code.
Rendón, 54, deploys social media and grass-roots tactics to protect democracy from what he views as a neo-totalitarian threat, best personified by what he calls the “criminal gang” now running Venezuela. He often evokes comparisons to longtime conservative strategist Karl Rove. Foes, however, depict him as a Roger Stone–like figure, calling him the “king of black propaganda.” Rendón is deeply aware of the myth built around his controversial public self, but he won’t discuss his campaigns and methods in detail, labeling such talk “disrespectful.”
Juan Diego Zelaya, a Honduran politician who met Rendón on Porfirio Lobo Sosa’s successful 2009 presidential campaign, says Rendón “basically sees everything happening five to seven moves in advance. It’s not the typical ‘Hey, let’s talk about grassroots, strategy, messaging.’ No. He’ll tell you the story of what’s supposed to happen, and then he works backward.”
I don’t do bots. I don’t do fake news. We don’t need it. We do real shit.
Rendón wielded those tactics against Latin America’s early-21st-century leftward turn, as the socialist model spread from Venezuela to Ecuador, Bolivia and Brazil. As a consultant, he helped right-leaning politicians win multiple presidential elections, including the two-term Colombian Juan Manuel Santos who signed a peace deal with FARC rebels. He also helped Mexico’s recently departed president, Enrique Peña Nieto, ascend to power. But Rendón won’t take just any job.
“I’m not a passive actor, like a brain for hire, like you can come here and tell me whatever crazy thing you want to do,” he says. “Sometimes I say no. Sometimes I say no and align with the opposition. Sometimes I will not only align with the opposition, I will do it for free and I will kick your ass.” About one out of every 10 jobs, he says, is pro bono, and most of them are in Venezuela.
Rendón was born in 1964 in Caracas. At 15, he witnessed the massive funeral procession for Rómulo Betancourt, the Venezuelan president credited with re-establishing democracy after the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez. The spectacle captivated the teenager. “He was bigger than a rock star,” says Rendón. Watching that democracy fail is what most torments him. A breakdown of Venezuela’s economy and democracy under President Nicolás Maduro has sparked a regional refugee crisis.
While international efforts to get Maduro to step aside have so far failed, Rendón continues to take calls from across the region. One of his Instagram posts is a photo of himself speaking with former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in January 2017. Would Rendón support military intervention in Venezuela? “Yes, but only as an extreme solution,” he says. “And it looks like that will be the only solution.”
He traces his career to a dare at age 19 by his then lover, who doubted Rendón’s future when he was working odd jobs, writing poetry and touring the country performing creativity seminars. He told her that one day he would become “the brain behind power,” then they broke up.
A collection of samurai swords neatly decorates the walls of his immaculate Miami penthouse on the 46th story of a structure looming over the surf. Cristina, his maid, appears with espressos 10 to 11 times a day. Displayed on one wall of the practicing Zen Buddhist’s study is Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, an ancient book on how to control and defeat your adversaries.
For whom, and where exactly, Rendón is working at the moment, he won’t reveal. But his methods? “We work like special forces … We are available 24/7 to our few clients,” he says. Teams of five to 15 people in each country are “knowledgeable, strict and loyal,” and spend a third of their time “being into everything,” he cries, smacking his hands down on two towers of magazines. They watch telenovelas. They read Scientific American and Foreign Policy. They pore over articles in Cosmopolitan.
“I don’t do bots. I don’t do fake news. We don’t need it. We do real shit,” Rendón says calmly.
But many in Latin America — including Mexico’s newly inaugurated president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador — accuse Rendón of authoring dirty campaigns. In March 2016, Bloomberg Businessweek published a portrait of jailed Colombian political hacker Andrés Sepúlveda, who alleged that election-related cyberattacks he conducted came under Rendón’s direction. Rendón denies any wrongdoing and filed defamation suits against the magazine, its journalists and Sepúlveda. The cases are ongoing.
In 2004, Rendón called fraud on Hugo Chavez’s electoral victory, was chased out of his homeland and found himself country-less and in the U.S. with a nullified passport. Maduro’s regime in June 2013 declared Rendón public enemy No. 1 for conspiring against socialism. “One day, we will get him and throw him behind bars and he’ll pay for all the damage he’s done to Venezuela,” Maduro said. In 2016, the U.S. granted Rendón asylum.
Today, dressed all in jet black save for white socks, he stretches out on a white sofa and lights up a white Belmont, his choice Venezuelan brand of smokes.
As Peña Nieto leaves office amid scandal, Rendón admits regrets about his choice of clients. “Power changes people,” he says. “Around 30 percent of the people we work with, they get changed by power. And half of those people change for the worse.”
Growing up, Rendón was an “asthmatic, allergic, annoying” kid. Then, his father, who served in the military, introduced him to long-range shooting — and the meditative breathing necessary for hitting your mark saved him. Soon, Rendón was traveling the world for shooting competitions. Those were also the days the self-described “romantic” protested his military school’s lack of a vegetarian menu and declared himself a pacifist.
In the 1980s, he studied psychology in Italy and discovered that “communism should stay in the books.” A decade later, he would find himself conspiring with his old Cuban classmates, trying to lodge capitalist thinking on the communist island. In old photographs, he appears with a goofy grin at a conference in Havana wearing a turtleneck. Fidel Castro kicked him out.
Since making his 1984 vow to his former lover, Rendón claims he has won 36 of 41 presidential campaigns and handled thousands of local and regional elections. You can feel his pain that the Venezuelan regime still exists. On his desk, there’s an autobiographical manuscript detailing all of the ways he says the regime has menaced him: attempted kidnapping, poisoning and that time when they tried to disable the landing gear on his private jet. “I will publish it,” he says. “But not yet.”
Read more: The Colombian ethicist who says even office printing is a no-no.