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Arrested: April 2013
The 2013 ShowTrial detainment of American documentary filmmaker and producer, Tim Tracy, makes evident that foreign governments will at times take extreme measures to amplify their political power—including kidnapping American citizens and using them as political bargaining chips. In the wake of Hugo Chavez’s death, interim President Nicolas Maduro took office. Elections were held to formalize the position, but Maduro faced heavy opposition and public allegations that the elections were fraudulent. The new administration struggled to contain rioting in the streets. Maduro desperately needed to establish legitimacy and gain public acceptance of his executive leadership.
In an effort to achieve that validation and legitimacy in the eyes of the populace, the new administration used Tim Tracy as a political bargaining chip in exchange for a peripheral (but strategically significant) handshake and photograph between the foreign minister, Elias Jose Jaua, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Such photos can have immeasurable political value for purposes of de-facto validation of emerging powers or challenged regimes. Venezuela’s government widely publicized the photo, which served to reinforce acceptance of Maduro’s presidency and effectively quell internal opposition. Tim Tracy was immediately released. Complex, backchannel negotiations, such as that carried out in this case, are nearly impossible to effectively execute without the right expertise. This particular crisis was navigated and resolved with the early help of The David House Agency, influential people in Hollywood, well connected Venezuelan friends of Tracy, and and former US Representative Bill Delahunt.
After graduating from Georgetown University, Tim Tracy moved to Los Angeles to enter the film industry. He was a story consultant on the 2009 documentary American Harmony. He also produced the Discovery Channel show Under Siege and the History Channel’s series Madhouse.
Tracy spent many months in Venezuela shooting for a documentary he was making about the tense political situation in the country. He was on his way back to Michigan for his father’s 80th birthday when Venezuelan police detained him at the airport. President Nicolas Maduro had directly ordered the arrest of Tracy. The Venezuelan Interior Minister described Tracy as a “spy” and accused him of paying opposition groups to hold violent demonstrations in order to destabilize the country after the contested presidential election. However, it is widely believed the deteriorating economy and waning popularity of Maduro was the real reason behind the arrest.
Tracy was formally charged with conspiracy, association for criminal purposes, and use of a false document. He was transferred to the notorious El Rodeo prison on May 29, 2013. The prison is most notable for the armed standoff between prisoners in 2012 that left twenty-five people dead, including a visitor.
“Even Venezuelan Attorney General Luisa Ortega made a statement asking for the case to be dropped.”
Many called Tracy’s detainment unwarranted including President Obama, Awareness Venezuela, and thousands of Venezuelans who signed the petition for his release. Even Venezuelan Attorney General Luisa Ortega made a statement asking for the case to be dropped.
It was not until the Tracy family hired former U.S. representative Bill Delahunt that a glimmer of hope emerged. Delahunt had long worked to improve U.S.-Venezuelan relations. It was through Delahunt’s contacts that he discovered Venezuela’s foreign minister, Elias Jose Jaua, wanted to speak to U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry. Delahunt spent hours with Kerry’s chief of staff convincing him Tracy’s release must be a condition of any meeting between Kerry and Jaua. On June 3, 2013 it was announced that Kerry and Jaua would meet in Guatemala. That very same day Tracy was released and expelled from the country soon after.
Tim Tracy returned to the United States on June 5, 2013. Analysts believe Tracy was released as a show of good faith by the Venezuelan government. At the same time as his release, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Venezuela’s Foreign Minister met in Guatemala for an international summit.