Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has a lot on his plate these days. He faces a full-fledged economic crisis, with growth slowing and inflation sharply rising. Experts are forecasting that the looming slowdown in China could well cause a drop in oil prices, which would also spell doom for his Socialist Revolution. It's also becoming increasingly clear that Nicolás Maduro is no Hugo Chávez. Ever since winning a contested election last April, his legitimacy has been called into question.
On top of all that, Maduro now also has to deal with a nascent "birther" movement. Even since before the election, fringe elements inside the opposition have argued that Maduro was actually born in Colombia, thereby making him ineligible to hold the country's highest office.
Maduro has responded by asserting he was born in the Los Chuagarmos district of Caracas. The foreign minister said he was born in El Valle. Adding to that, but not really helping, is the governor of Táchira state, hundreds of kilometers west of Caracas and bordering Colombia, who says that he was born there. Fueling the controversy is the fact that Maduro's official Venezuelan birth certificate has never been produced.
The scandal hit fever pitch in the last few days when Guillermo Cochez, the former Panamanian Ambassador to the Organization of American States, presented what he claimed was Maduro's Colombian birth certificate. The Colombian Civil Registry has denied the document's authenticity, but this has done little to dispel the doubts.
Skeptics even question the nationality of Maduro's parents. According to the Venezuelan Constitution, if Maduro had been born in Colombia he would still be Venezuelan as long as one of his parents was Venezuelan and he had taken up residence in Venezuela. However, even in that case, Maduro would have two nationalities (Colombian and Venezuelan), and would therefore be ineligible for the Presidency.
The "birther" movement would have probably remained a mere curiosity were it not for the fact that, a few days ago, opposition leader Henrique Capriles tacitly joined their ranks. "Where were you born, Nicolás?" Capriles asked during a press conference. "Venezuelans have their doubts. Are you going to lie? Show your birth certificate."
Even if Maduro had been born in Colombia, this would not matter much. With the state's institutions firmly in his hand, there is absolutely no chance that Venezuela's courts would question his election, let alone overturn it. If one judges it by its stated goal of repealing Maduro's presidency, the "birther" movement is at a dead end.
However, as a long-term political strategy, it just might work.
Ever since claiming Maduro and the chavistas stole last April's election, the opposition has focused on framing the government elite as a gang of liars and crooks. They constantly talk about how the government lied about Hugo Chávez's health, about the frail state of the economy, and about the extent of Cuba's influence on the Venezuelan government.
Birthers play right into this strategy. By casting doubts about Maduro's place of birth, they call his honesty into question. Given the fact that many Venezuelans still don't know Maduro very well, this could be harmful for the President.
The strategy of questioning his honesty seems to be working. According to pro-government pollster IVAD, only 45 percent of Venezuelans believe Maduro actually won the election and 65 pervent of Venezuelans believe the country is moving in the wrong direction. If the election were held today, Capriles would beat Maduro by six points. Four other polls show similar results.
However, the government could swiftly put birthers in their place by producing Maduro's birth certificate. Just like their counterparts in the United States, calling into question someone's place of birth can backfire quickly. The people engaged in gossip-mongering could end up coming across as petty, or worse.
Regardless of the outcome, the opposition should focus on other, more pressing issues. The government has recently impeached a member of the National Assembly in clear violation of the Constitution. It has threatened to do the same to popular opposition leader Maria Corina Machado. It has also made alarming moves against the written press, by freezing the bank accounts of the owner of Venezuela's most prestigious newspaper.
It remains to be seen whether the "birther" accusation remains an interesting footnote in Venezuela's complicated political chess game, or whether it will have any relevance in the medium term.