Covering the death of Hugo Chávez

It was March 5, 2013. I’d woken up early that morning and visited a small chapel outside the military hospital where Hugo Chávez was being treated. There wasn’t any great reason for going that morning; I just felt it was always good to be on top of things and see what was happening. I then interviewed Venezuelan comedian Laureano Márquez at his office for a feature about how comedy was dealing with the political crisis, a rewrite for Reuters of a story I’d done weeks earlier for GlobalPost which Andy Cawthorne, Reuters’ bureau chief in Caracas, had enjoyed.

Rumors had been swirling every day for weeks—Chávez was dead; Chávez was about to renounce the presidency. It was hard to take them seriously. When I got back to the Reuters office around lunchtime, Maduro, now Vice President, appeared on state television and the day became somewhat surreal—and newsworthy—as he said Chávez’s illness was caused by an “enemy attack” and announced the expulsion of two U.S. diplomats. I wrote up the story for various outlets and spoke to others for radio and TV. “What a day,” I wrote to one editor just as we tied up a final edit. It was the sort of busy day I liked, and I’d already made a thousand dollars so was done.

Around 5 pm, I grabbed my bag and said goodbye to Andy, ready to cross the road to the Renaissance gym—though given how late it was, I’d likely just swim or lie in the sauna. Just as I was about to leave, Maduro appeared on state television again and, given no one else on the English team was still in the office, Andy asked me to stick around for a few minutes just in case the vice president said anything newsworthy. Andy was at his usual spot and I looked over his shoulder at his screen as he pulled up the draft alerts. I still had my gym bag in hand, ready to leave the moment Maduro was done. Surely there was no more news he could make that day.

Maduro was clad in white and backed by ministers and senior military leaders; this wasn’t abnormal but it was clear from their somber expressions that something was up. I dropped my bag. “We have just received the most tragic and awful information,” Maduro began. “At 4.25 pm today March the Fifth, President Hugo Chávez Frías died,” he said, visibly distraught. “Comandante, thank you so much on behalf of these people whom you protected.” The draft alerts, prepared months earlier, were up on Andy’s screen.

“VENEZUELA’S HUGO CHAVEZ DIES FROM CANCER—VICE PRESIDENT,” read one. When Andy hit send, this would be the first the world would hear of Chávez’s death. At news desks across the globe, from CNN in Atlanta to the BBC in London, editors would interrupt programming and announce the news, based upon our alert.

“Is that right?” Andy nervously asked, of himself more than me.  I wondered how I’d got into this position of disseminating such a big news event. Of course, there was no real journalistic skill to this; it was the rote task of a machine. But, at least with the technology we had, someone had to do it and it felt a big deal. “Yup, send it,” I said with misplaced confidence, knowing that it wasn’t my head on the line. 

Andy pressed enter on his keyboard. At home in southern England, my mom happened to be watching BBC News. She called me within a couple of minutes of us having sent the alert. “Did you hear Chávez died?” she said urgently, knowing what a huge moment it would be for me. The news had come full circle. I didn’t have time to consider that in any depth. Emails were coming in every few seconds from editors I knew, and who I’d prioritize, and many I didn’t, who hadn’t planned ahead and needed someone urgently. But I knew what I had to do: go out and find out what was happening on the ground. What were supporters and detractors saying? That reporting would help fill out the first articles from Reuters and many other news outlets I was working with.

A few minutes after that first alert went out, I jumped on a motorbike with Edwin, a Reuters driver, and we sped down to the Dr. Carlos Arvelo military hospital, where I’d been early that morning. I curtly responded to editors’ emails while on the bike, taking care not to drop my phone. I turned on my Iridium satellite phone and secured it into my backpack, its aerial pointing to the sky; I knew that Venezuela’s already fragile mobile network would soon collapse. I set an auto-responder for all my emails: “Call +584242601653 or +881623419878 or email if not urgent. Chávez dead.” My desire to go to the pool or sauna had vanished. I was full of energy and could feel my heart racing. What were we going to find? Where would this leave me—and Venezuela? 

The news was beginning to filter to Venezuelans. I saw people on the street glued to their phones as I sped past, getting the latest from friends and from Twitter. Twitter was the news source in Venezuela and people were scrolling through to find something. Chávez was dead; there’d be an election; and, likely, Maduro would win and take over. But no one quite knew how to react to this. This was Venezuela’s JFK moment. The country was paralyzed.

At the hospital, I realized I’d never seen a Chávez-related gathering so quiet. Women crowded the entrance, sobbing. Grim-faced men looked on. Many stood in stunned silence while motorbikes streamed by, their horns honking in salute. When I approached, some of Chávez’s supporters burst into tears. I wasn’t one of them and so interrupted their narrowed down reality at that moment. Normally boisterous and impassioned, they were now at a loss. “Our president is dead,” cried Sirleny Sosa, a fifty-year-old homemaker. “He’s done so much for this country.” I spoke to many others who echoed Sirleny’s sentiments and sent their quotes and descriptions of the scene to all my clients—from the New York Times to USA Today, and of course Reuters. I whizzed around the city, to the presidential palace, the central squares, the slums, the bars, and spoke to as many people as I could as the night unfolded. I took photos, videos, recorded audio, and wrote lines and paragraphs on my phone, which I sent straight into editors. They’d mesh them together on my behalf.

While out, I also spoke on the phone with countless TV and radio networks describing the scene around me. Having someone right in the middle of things on the ground made them look like they were on top of the world’s news—and earned me one to two hundred dollars for each call. Given the phone lines did go down, my satellite phone was paying for itself with every call. As I darted around and then got back to the office, I continued to do two or three of these hits every half hour all night. I valued my sleep, but knew this time it was worth staying up, both to speak to Venezuelans and understand their reaction but also to get myself out there and earn money. The adrenaline still pumped through me. I was the go-to person every hour or so for half a dozen major news networks—the BBC, CBS, Canada’s CBC, France 24, Radio New Zealand, Australia’s ABC. They’d all want me at the top of the hour or half-hour so I’d just pick up the phone to whoever called first and ignore the others for a couple of minutes, blaming it on the bad phone lines, while the presenter padded in preparation to speak with me when I was done. I juggled well and received wonderful feedback; I was in my element. 

Despite the flow of adrenaline and money, I stuck to my principles and didn’t work for anyone for free. “We typically do not pay reporters,” wrote a producer at Canada AM and another similarly at India’s giant NDTV. I didn’t argue and moved on quickly. They weren’t worth my time.

The streets near the Reuters office were eerily deserted. I attempted to pop into the Renaissance across the road, which housed the gym, to get some food—for myself and for the office—but they were only letting guests in. Only one restaurant was open, a pizza place around the corner. I went to an ATM to get some cash, knowing the POS machines at the pizza place would likely be down due to the country’s fragile communications infrastructure. I pulled up in a car and walked towards the ATM. Someone was using it, and I signaled that I’d wait. But then the man looked back at me, worried, and ran off, without having finished his transaction. He might have been scared that I was going to mug him. There was a real tension in the air, more so than usual in this fragile city, a legacy of Chávez himself. Who knew what would erupt.

It was tough to know where to go, and the streets were getting dangerous. “They nearly just killed a photographer because they thought he worked for Globovisión (an opposition TV network),” Sebastian messaged me near midnight. I loved working with such a great team, but I also had complete autonomy to do my own thing; it was the best of both worlds. 

Tim Padgett had already written an obituary for TIME. They’d publish that and also wanted an on-the-ground piece from me. Despite my exhaustion, I knew I wanted one flagship piece on Chávez’s death, knowing it would be something I’d want to look back on in years to come. The TIME piece would be it, I decided. Reuters had its myriad articles on the death already out and there was little I could add there. TIME was my most prestigious outlet. The editor wanted it by 6 am on March 6, the morning after the announcement of the death.

Around 4 am, I slept for around half an hour on a curved yellow sofa in the Reuters office, took some calls and then set aside forty-five minutes from 5.15 am during which I wouldn’t take any calls or check any emails—and I wrote. On the hour, I hit send, and the lightly-edited, 650-word piece was published a few hours later and led the website. I didn’t look at it again for days, though when I did, I was proud; I’d caught the right tone, helped along by the many people I’d spoken to over those first twelve hours following the announcement—and over two years since I’d arrived in Venezuela. I’d started outside the hospital with sobbing women and grim-faced men, and I’d ended with a quote from Carlos Rivero, a forty-two-year-old engineer I’d gotten to know in recent weeks. “A very, very popular leader has died,” Carlos messaged me. “Whether we liked him or not is not the point. He was revered by more than half the country.”