February 25, 2003

I’ve been thinking more and more about these little stories, these stories that are rarely seen as important enough to get reported abroad, but that underlie the climate of tension in Venezuela. It’s hard for people abroad to quite understand the feel of the crisis here, in large part because stories like these just fly under the radar screen of the foreign press. But they’re important, so I’m going to write about them.


It’s 3 am. You hear some strange noises outside your house. Half asleep, you crack the blinds open. You see a man, standing in the middle of the street right in front of your house. He’s looking straight at you. He has a gun in his hand. He points it up into the air. Suddenly you’re very much awake. He’s staring straight at your window. He shoots once into the air, then again, then four more times, quickly. Once he’s emptied his gun he climbs onto a motorcycle and speeds away.

That’s the worst of it, but only part of a broader pattern. Every day you get death threats on the phone. On email as well. And by fax. They know everything about you. They know where you live. They know where you work. They know your wife’s name, and your kids’. They’re following you. When you park somewhere unusual – a restaurant you don’t usually go to, say – you find notes on your windshield. “We’re following you.” This happens again and again.

Fiction? Not fiction. Just a peek into the daily life of a high-profile opposition activist in Venezuela. (I won’t reveal his identity for obvious reasons.) It’s not an isolated case.

The Chávez government has always hung its claim to respect human rights on the fact that no opposition figures have been murdered or imprisoned in Venezuela. The latter claim collapsed with Carlos Fernández’ arrest last week. The former, thankfully, still stands. But what these claims – and too much foreign reporting – gloss over is the systematic campaign of threats, intimidation and harassment government supporters have launched against all sorts of opposition figures.

The campaign is extraordinarily broad – most opposition politicians and pundits are under threat. Many journalists as well, and almost all private media owners. The threats are sustained, personal, delivered in a variety of ways. They target opposition moderates and radicals equally. Few have so far been carried out, but it’s hard to overstate the way this drip-drip-drip of intimidation poisons the political atmosphere here.

It’s important to keep this in mind when analyzing the private media’s behavior in the crisis. Media owners feel under threat. Personally. It’s not that their ideals are on the line, or their livelihoods. It’s their skin they’re worried about. Together with the high-stress nature of their jobs, the intimidation seem to be pushing some of them over the edge.

“I love my boss,” a friend of mine who works for a major media outlet tells me, “he’s a standup guy who’s taught me a lot. The problem is, he’s out of his mind.” He describes the way the mixture of the president’s threats to move against his company, together with the anonymous threats he keeps getting, have created this kind of siege mentality at the company. “He’s worked his whole life to get to the point where he can run a company like this,” my friend says “and he’s convinced that Chávez is going to take it away from him. He might be right, but the thing is that the pressure’s gotten to him. He’s just not thinking straight anymore.”

That doesn’t excuse the absence of balance in a lot of the media here, but it does help to explain it. They don’t call it psychological warfare for nothing. The unending personal threats, together with sporadic attacks against opposition newspapers and TV stations, are actually driving these people crazy. A lot of media people here have lost their ability to examine the situation in a cool, rational, detached way. The way they see it, it’s not just their livelihoods that are on the line. It’s their lives.

The threats, the torrent of well-orchestrated threats, can’t possibly be a matter of a few rogue chavistas striking out on their own to spook their political enemies. The campaign is too broad for that, too carefully run. If the government had any problem with it, it clearly could have cracked down long ago. Many here are convinced that the state security apparatus is behind it. And as the political violence escalates around the country, most are convinced it’s only a matter of time until these threats start turning into real attacks.