My Interview With the Dictator

How should you interview a dictator? That was the question I asked myself before my conversation with Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela in Caracas on Feb. 25.

I had watched Maduro’s interviews with other journalists and decided I wanted to do something different: I would ask tough questions right from the start, forcing Maduro to engage in back-and-forth conversation and be less long-winded. That’s exactly what I did.

I’ve been saying for years that the primary responsibility of journalists is to challenge those in power. (You can watch my 2017 TED Talk on the subject here.) In this case in particular, when I’m talking to someone who has been accused of fraud, corruption, murder and torture, I have an obligation to be true to my principles and ask hard questions.

The purpose of my first question was to set the tone. “You are not the legitimate president,” I said to Maduro. “So how should I address you?” (Venezuela’s opposition has its own name for the president: “Usurper.”)

My job during the interview, which was held at the Miraflores presidential palace, was to expose Maduro as a dictator. Maduro’s task, on the other hand, was to explain why we should consider him the legitimate president of Venezuela. Confrontation was inevitable.

That’s the interview I had planned. Other people had wanted me to ask more respectful questions, or so I’ve read on social media. But I firmly believe that dictators should be treated as such. “Presidents do not go around killing their people,” I said to Maduro.

Let’s forget for a moment the myth of journalistic neutrality. When we’re dealing with discrimination, racism, corruption, lies and human rights violations, we have to take a stand. Journalists act as critical counterweights to those in power. Reporters should by no means interview a dictator the same way they would a victim of that dictator.

What makes Maduro illegitimate? He took office following two fraudulent presidential elections (in 2013 and 2018), and has since abused his powers, with terrible consequences. According to Foro Penal, a Venezuelan human rights organization, 793 political prisoners are locked up by the Maduro regime; Human Rights Watch has documented 380 cases of abuse, including torture. Hugo Carvajal, the former head of Venezuelan military intelligence, who has since turned against Maduro, said in a statement that the president has “killed hundreds of young people in the streets for trying to claim the rights you [Maduro] stole.”

I had come to the interview armed with this evidence and more, to show that Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution has been an utter failure. Maduro, of course, saw things differently. First he tried to discredit my sources; then he resorted to insults and intimidation. “If you were a Venezuelan you would be brought before the authorities,” he told me. Then he added: “You’re going to choke on your provocation, with Coca-Cola.” If members of the international press receive these kinds of threats, imagine the risks that Venezuelan journalists face.

As you now know, just 17 minutes into our conversation, Maduro called off the interview. His communications minister, Jorge Rodríguez, seized our cameras and the memory cards on which our exchange had been stored. The other six members of the Univision crew and I were then held for more than two hours, before being deported the next day.

Recently, however, we were able to get our hands on some of the footage from that interview. This material, which we received via confidential sources, isn’t the footage we recorded, but what Maduro’s officials were recording at the same time, with their own equipment (such additional recording is a common practice in many countries). That’s why, as soon as the video stops, the words “Palacio de Miraflores” appear on the screen.

In recovering our interview this way we managed to defeat Maduro’s censorship. And yes, it belongs to us. In the end, no interview is the property of the interviewee. (You can view the footage here.)

This episode also shows that people from Maduro’s inner circle are willing to betray their boss. This regime is crumbling from within.

In speaking with me, Maduro completely failed to present himself as a democratic leader. It is impossible to do when you detain journalists, take their cameras and censor their work.

Just after he stopped our interview, I said these words to Maduro’s face: “That’s exactly what dictators do.” Is there anyone out there who disagrees?

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Jorge Ramos has been the anchorman for Noticiero Univision since 1986. He writes a weekly column for more than 40 newspapers in the United States and Latin America, and provides daily radio commentary for the Radio Univision network. Ramos also hosts Al Punto, Univision’s weekly public affairs program offering analysis of the week’s top stories, and Fusion’s AMERICA with Jorge Ramos, a news program geared towards young adults. Ramos has won eight Emmy awards and is the author of ten books, most recently, STRANGER - The Challenge of a Latino Immigrant in the Trump Era.

A survey conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center found that Ramos is the second most recognized Latino leader in the country. Latino Leaders magazine chose him as one of “The Ten Most Admired Latinos” and “101 Top Leaders of the Latino Community in the U.S.”