Nicolás Maduro stole my television crew’s cameras and expelled me from the country, all because he was afraid of an interview.
I was expelled from Venezuela on Tuesday after a contentious interview with Nicolás Maduro, the country’s strongman. He stood up in the middle of our conversation and his security agents confiscated our television cameras, the memory cards and our cellphones. Yes, Mr. Maduro stole the interview so nobody could watch it.
We got the interview the old fashioned way: by making a phone call and requesting it. A producer from Univision — the television network where I’ve worked since 1984 — contacted the government’s communications minister, Jorge Rodríguez, and asked if Mr. Maduro wanted to do the interview. The leader said: “Come to Caracas.” And so we did, with official entry papers in hand.
The interview started on Monday evening, three hours late, at the Miraflores Palace. Mr. Maduro had spoken a few minutes before with Tom Llamas of ABC News, and he seemed to be in a good mood. The humanitarian aid that the political opposition — with the help of an international coalition — had tried to get into the country over the Colombian and Brazilian borders had been largely stopped, and Mr. Maduro felt emboldened. This was supposed to be a good day.
But it wasn’t. The first question I asked Mr. Maduro was whether I should call him “Presidente” or “Dictador,” as many Venezuelans do. I confronted him about human rights violations and cases of torture that have been reported by Human Rights Watch, and with the existence of political prisoners. I questioned his claim that he had won the 2013 and the 2018 presidential elections without fraud and, most important, his assurances that Venezuela was not experiencing a humanitarian crisis. That’s when I opened up my iPad.
The day before I had recorded on my cellphone three young men looking for food on the back of a garbage truck in a poor neighborhood minutes away from the presidential palace. I showed those images to Mr. Maduro. Each frame contradicted his narrative of a prosperous and progressive Venezuela 20 years after the revolution. That’s when he broke.
About 17 minutes into the interview, Mr. Maduro stood up, comically tried to block the images on my iPad and declared that the interview was over. “That’s what dictators do,” I told him.
A few seconds after Mr. Maduro left, Mr. Rodríguez, the communications minister, told me that his government had not authorized the interview and he ordered his security agents to confiscate my team’s four cameras and other equipment and the video cards on which we had recorded the conversation.
Somebody shouted to take me out of the presidential palace immediately, but instead two security agents escorted me to a little room where they ordered me to give them my cellphone and its password. They were concerned that I had recorded the audio of the interview and they didn’t want any leaks. But I refused.
Soon after, my colleague María Martínez, one of the best producers in the country, was thrown into the same room. María, to the security agents’ frustration, managed to make a quick phone call to Univision News’s president, who warned the State Department and many news organizations about what was happening. The rest of our team, I later learned — five Univision employees — were taken to the press room, and then out to a government bus.
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In our little room, someone turned off all the lights, and a group of agents came in and forcefully took away my cellphone and my backpack. They furiously went through all my personal stuff. They patted me down from head to toe. María went through the same humiliating experience with a female officer. I asked if we were being detained. They said no — but still they didn’t let us leave the room.
Finally they told María and me to join our colleagues on the bus. They said they wanted to take us to our hotel. But we refused again. At that point we were very concerned about our safety and the possibility of being taken to a detention center or an even darker place.
We were taken to the street, where Mr. Rodríguez came out to complain about the interview and the way we had conducted ourselves. I told him that our job was to ask questions, and that they had stolen our interview and our equipment. By then, we later realized, the first reports about our detention were already being published. They couldn’t keep it a secret anymore. It was about 9:30 p.m., more than two hours after the end of the interview.
Our driver, who had been waiting all this time on one of the side streets, suddenly appeared. At that point, the same people who had detained us wanted us to leave. Fast. And so we did.
We piled into the car and went back to the hotel. Members of the government’s intelligence agency cordoned off the hotel so we couldn’t leave. A few hours later, an immigration official came to inform us that we would be expelled from the country in the morning. Around 1 a.m., a self-described “captain” — one of the men who had detained me at the presidential palace — came to my room and returned my cellphone in a plastic bag. All of its contents had been deleted. I assume they had first hacked into whatever they could.
We experienced only a taste of the harassment and abuse that Venezuelan journalists have been suffering for years. We have two Venezuelans in our crew — the correspondent Francisco Urreiztieta and the cameraman Edgar Trujillo — and they would have faced terrible risks if they stayed in their own country. Luckily, we all made it safely back to Miami. But our cameras and the records of our interview remained behind.
What is Mr. Maduro so afraid of? He should release the interview for the world to see. If he does not, all he has proved is that he is behaving exactly like a dictator.