Man looking for food on the streets of Caracas courtesy of EFE/Miguel Gutiérrez via Al Día News
The deterioration of democracy in Venezuela has recently peaked the international community’s interest for a new reason: the impediment of American free press in Venezuelan territory. On the 25th of February and then, again, on the 6th of March, journalists reporting for American news outlets (of both American and non-American nationalities) were detained, had their equipment confiscated, and were then held in custody for several hours by the Nicolas Maduro’s administration.
In a video uploaded on the day , seven journalists working for Univision, an American news outlet that reports predominantly on American and Latin American affairs, were detained, stripped of their equipment, and held in a dark room several hours on the 25th of February. Interviewer Jorge Ramos claims the crew was detained after they upset the Venezuelan leader by showing him video footage, taken by Ramos the day before the interview, of Venezuelans eating out of a garbage truck on the streets of Caracas. Ramos reports that Maduro “just couldn’t stand [the video]” and immediately called off the interview, at which point “their Minister of Communications, Jorge Rodriguez, told us that they didn’t authorise the interview and they confiscated all our cameras… all of our video, all of our cell phones, and we were thrown out of the Presidential Palace”, (emphasis made by speaker).
According to Maria Martinez-Guzman, an executive producer who was also detained, Maduro “denied” the state of crisis and starvation that Venezuelan people face daily “up to the moment that Jorge showed him that video”. After Ramos was “thrown out of the room”, Martinez-Guzman “got into an argument” with Maduro’s security staff, telling them they “can’t treat [them] like that, [they] are the free press, this is not how you treat the free press. This is Journalism”. They were then taken to a dark room where they “couldn’t see who approached [them] from behind” and where a woman “stuck her hand inside [Martinez-Guzman’s] bra [and] inside [her] pants to see if [she] had taken anything out [of the Presidential Palace]”. Ramos recounts that they “didn’t know what was going to happen to [them]” until they were released hours later without being given any of their equipment, footage, or cell phones back.
Presumably, the journalists’ quick release can be attributed, at least in part, to the United States’ State Department’s tweet. This tweet highlighted mounting international pressure on the regime whose repressive tactics have resulted in a human rights crisis and whose legitimacy has recently been challenged by self-declared president, Juan Guaidó, who is now widely recognised by the United States and many other countries as Venezuela’s interim president until democratic elections can be held. However, this did not stop the regime from using clandestine tactics to temporarily abduct a local reporter covering the Univision crew’s detainment.
Maduro has staunchly defended his legitimacy as the leader of Venezuela and discredited Guaidó. However, his government goes further than that and has recently taken more extreme measures, such as expelling the German ambassador for “interference in internal affairs” and detaining freelance journalist, Cody Weddle, who was covering Guaidó’s controversial re-entry to Venezuela earlier this week.
Weddle and his assistant, Carlos Camacho, were detained “after Venezuela’s Military Counterintelligence, DGCIM, raided [Weddle’s] home in Caracas’ and ‘their equipment [was] seized”. Having the DGCIM get involved, as opposed to using clandestine tactics (such as those aforementioned ), suggests a level of seriousness to the threat to the American journalist which may be a response to weekly sanctions delivered by the United States. Weddle says they “put a ski mask on [him]” and transferred him to several rooms before telling him “he was being investigated for espionage and treason because of a story he filed on the current mood of the Venezuelan military who seem to be turning against the Maduro regime”. However, he does affirm that they did not harm him “physically or psychologically”. Weddle and his assistant were released twelve hours later and Weddle was deported to the United States the same day.
Weddle and the Univision reporters are two of the “36 cases of journalists held” in Venezuela so far in 2019. However, because of their ties to the United States and the parallel deterioration of relations between the two countries, it has been their stories which have caught the attention of major news outlets and international bodies.
Scenes such as the one filmed by Jorge Ramos, with the people eating food out of the garbage truck claiming that “we have to change presidents, man— we can’t live like this”, are widespread in Venezuela. The current food and medicine crisis in the country has resulted in a daily exodus of around 5,000 people, with a total of 3.4 million refugees fleeing the country since 2014. However, Maduro’s government has insisted on blocking aid into the country and continues to blame “American Imperialism” for power shortages and the country’s economic crisis in general. Though there is no clear resolution to the crisis so far, the detainment of international journalists reflects an increase in paranoia and tension within Maduro’s regime, which, alongside the blocking of humanitarian aid, represent a serious deterioration in the regime’s power as it resorts to increasingly drastic measures to keep its control of the country.