“If the devil offered me an interview, I’d go to hell.”
— Julio Scherer García, Mexican editor and journalist
I interviewed Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas recently. Unfortunately, it’s quite possible that nobody will ever see the footage. Just 17 minutes into our conversation at the Miraflores presidential palace, Maduro stood up and called the interview off.
“That’s what dictators — not democrats — do,” I said.
A few seconds later, Maduro’s communications minister, Jorge Rodríguez, who had arranged our entry into the country, showed up, claiming that the government had not authorized our interview. He ordered his security agents to seize our four cameras and our other equipment, as well as the memory cards on which the video footage was stored. We were then held at Miraflores for more than two hours.
My producer, María Martínez-Guzmán, and I were taken to a small surveillance room and ordered to hand over our cellphones. We refused. Shortly after that, the lights were shut off and a group of officers came in and forcefully searched us, taking away our phones and my backpack.
The other five Univision journalists in our group were also stripped of their phones. Maduro’s administration was doing whatever it could to prevent us from leaking the interview.
Government officials then demanded that María and I get on a bus, which would supposedly be taking us to our hotel. But we didn’t believe them, and refused to board. Fortunately, by then the news of our detention had started to circulate on social media, thanks to a call María had made to Daniel Coronell, our boss in Miami, before her cellphone was confiscated. Maduro’s agents had taken notice of this, so we were released and allowed to leave in our own car; we headed straight back to our hotel. Later that night, an immigration officer informed us that we would be expelled from the country.
All this just because we had asked hard questions in an interview.
Neither the cameras nor the recorded interview have been returned to us. Only I was given my cellphone back, and all of its contents had been deleted.
The big irony, of course, is that in suppressing our footage so people can’t see Maduro answering questions about being a dictator, the administration only proved that he is one. Yes, the interview was tough, challenging and direct — like all interviews with authoritarian leaders should be. But it would have faded away after one or two news cycles. Instead, by confiscating our equipment, and detaining and deporting us, Maduro’s agents turned the interview (which no one has yet seen) into an international incident — since almost all of the members of my crew were foreign journalists — and showcased the dictatorial nature of the Venezuelan regime.
As I tend to do after any interview with a powerful person, I’ve been thinking hard about whether my team and I could have done things differently. Yet none of us could have imagined that we would face such extreme censorship and brutality. Luckily, no government agent is a match for the resourcefulness of a good journalist, and one of our producers, Claudia Rondón, managed to take accurate notes during the interview of all the questions and answers.
That transcript has been prepared. Here’s a small preview of its contents.
During the interview, I asked Maduro about the rigged elections of 2013 and 2018, and described the accusations against him made by his former intelligence chief, Hugo Carvajal, who says Maduro has “killed hundreds of young people in the streets.” I handed the president a list with the names of 402 political prisoners being held, out of a total of 989 people currently in Venezuelan jails, according to the human rights organization Foro Penal. I showed him the Human Rights Watch report documenting 380 cases of abuse, including torture, committed since 2014. I also showed Maduro footage I had shot the day before, of three young men criticizing him as they sifted through a garbage truck looking for food. At that point, Maduro lost his composure and stopped the interview.
He had agreed to speak to us for 30 to 40 minutes; we only got 17. So there were several important topics we weren’t able to cover. For example, I wanted to ask Maduro about the 46,000 Cubans who are in Venezuela as “an occupation army teaching torture and repression,” according to Luis Almagro, the secretary-general of the Organization of American States. My brave producers, María and Claudia, both of Cuban descent, have assured me that Maduro’s security team included many Cuban agents.
And for my last question, I had wanted to ask Maduro, quoting Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, “Why don’t you leave? Why are you willing to cause so much pain only to hold on to a power that does not belong to you?”
Sadly, I didn’t get the chance.