- By Kavitha SuranaKavitha Surana is a fellow at Foreign Policy. She has reported from Italy, Germany, and Senegal and her stories have been published in the past by the Associated Press, Quartz, Al Jazeera, CNN, GlobalPost and OZY. She holds a joint master’s degree in journalism and European and Mediterranean studies from New York University.
Venezuela’s president Nicolás Maduro paid a visit this month to Villa Rosa, a pro-government neighborhood on Margarita Island, expecting to be greeted with cheers. Instead, he was chased through the streets by protesters calling for his ouster, beating pots and pans and shouting, “we are hungry!”
A prominent opposition journalist, Braulio Jatar, caught the confrontation on his cellphone camera and quickly posted it online. International news outlets picked up the story and soon Venezuelans, suffering from extreme shortages of food, basic supplies and life-saving medicine, were reveling in the sight of their apparently humiliated president. Twitter users shared cartoonish memes of the president under the hashtag #VillaRosa.
— YOR (@y0r78) September 3, 2016
But the very next morning Jatar, who holds both Chilean and Venezuelan citizenship, was detained on his way to host a radio show. He was charged with money laundering and trying to fund a terror attack. Meanwhile, the government, trying to downplay the grainy video, said it was manipulated and released footage of their own showing Maduro cheered by supporters during his visit.
Now the Chilean government is demanding to know the reporter’s whereabouts and to allow visits from his family, his lawyers, and Chilean representatives. Initially Jatar was held in a detention center on Margarita Island, but he was recently moved to an unknown location and hasn’t seen his lawyers for a week.
His family and advocates say the charges against him are false, simply a means to target a pesky journalist who embarrassed the president. In 2007, Jatar founded the investigative news website Reporte Confidential, which frequently denounces government corruption, and he has ties to former Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, a high-profile critic of Maduro who was arrested on conspiracy charges last year.
“If Venezuelan authorities have any credible evidence to support the trumped-up charges against Braulio Jatar Alonso, let them present it immediately or free the journalist without delay,” Carlos Lauría, of the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a statement.
So far, Venezuela is refusing to budge, arguing that Chile should respect their legal process and accusing the country of “unacceptable meddling, false assumptions and lack of diplomatic circumspection,” according to a statement from Venezuela’s foreign ministry. They also smeared Chile as caving to pressure from “the most reactionary sectors of the Pinochet bourgeoisie and the international elite, allied to the coup-plotting Venezuelan right.”
Brazil’s foreign minister, José Serra, also released a statement, expressing concern for Jatar’s detention and the rise in arbitrary arrests in Venezuela. “This is a development that further complicates the dialogue between government and opposition, indispensable for overcoming the dramatic political, economic, social and humanitarian crisis affecting Venezuela,” he said.
Just a day before the pots-and-pans protest in Villa Rosa, thousands of Venezuelans from all over the country flooded Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, in one of the biggest anti-government protests this year, calling for a popular referendum. Polls show Maduro would probably lose such a referendum—indeed, the outburst in Villa Rosa may be a telling sign. In the past, both Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, won the area easily.
Photo credit: RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images