Watching Hugo Chávez rebuke the press—baseball mitt in hand
Just before midnight on September 28, 2011, I and the other journalists covering Venezuela saw that El Nuevo Herald, a fiery Spanish-language sister to the Miami Herald, had published a story claiming that Chávez had been rushed to hospital with kidney failure and wasn’t likely to survive. Like most El Nuevo Herald stories, it wasn’t particularly well-sourced, but, of course, it said what a significant number of vocal, anti-government people wanted to hear. Mainstream news outlets like the Financial Times and Bloomberg repeated the story, based solely on the El Nuevo Herald article. I mentioned it to a few editors just so that they were aware, though I wasn’t convinced it was something we should follow up on yet. They agreed and, like Reuters, preferred to wait for either more solid sourcing or for a reaction from the president.
It didn’t take long. Around 8 am the next day, Chávez called into state television. “I'm fine, having my first coffee of the day,” the fifty-seven-year-old said with a bounce. “Those who don't love me and want me ill? Bad luck!” Andy was on that morning and had a story out by 8.45 am. I felt satisfied that I’d not prematurely jumped on it, and proud to be working with Reuters who’d made that same decision. Chávez kept us on our toes and that was exciting for a reporter. Who wanted scripted press releases and boilerplate statements?
At 11.33 am, a communique from Miraflores, the presidential palace, arrived to all accredited journalists, inviting us to be at the palace by midday. “Please confirm attendance before 11.30 am,” it said. I responded affirmatively.
A trip to Miraflores always involved a long wait and I’d learned to take a lot of water, food, and my Kindle, a Christmas present from my mom. Félix drove me east across the city and waited patiently outside while I scrambled through palace security: a metal detector and X-ray machine watched over by unfriendly teenage soldiers. Thankfully, I had that accreditation. Alongside other reporters, primarily locals, I was ushered into a holding area by nervous press handlers and eventually, after an hour or two waiting, we were led outside behind a roped-off area. It was typical of the dozens of visits I would make to Miraflores those years—sometimes to see Chávez accompanied by U.S. pariahs such as Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko. His enemy’s enemies were his friends.
Five years earlier, Chávez had stood at the lectern at the United Nations and theatrically sniffed the air, a day after U.S. President George W. Bush had spoken from the same spot. “The devil was here yesterday,” Chávez had begun, to awkward applause. “It still smells of sulfur.” It had been a beautifully-delivered speech that cemented Chávez’s position as the United States’ primary enemy in Latin America, superseding Fidel Castro in Cuba. I remembered seeing news of it while at college. I had been impressed by his courage and bombast. Now, though, I was living in Venezuela and seeing him up close and, more importantly, the country his policies were destroying.
Outside Miraflores’s ornate entrance that afternoon in September 2011, camera operators assembled their tripods and equipment; photographers got into position and checked the light; and those reporting for “text” waited patiently. I always had my camera on me which meant I could pick where I wanted to stand with more freedom than others, flitting between “photos” and “text” as I deemed most advantageous. Eventually, Chávez emerged, clad in a red tracksuit. On his right hand was a baseball mitt. To prove he was not only alive but very much kicking, the president theatrically played ball with his cabinet for a few minutes. Our shutters clicked furiously as Chávez came to the pre-assembled podium. He removed the mitt but continued to toss a ball up and down. In the other hand, he held a copy of El Nuevo Herald and proceeded to rebut the article line by line. I stood around five meters from the president, alongside other reporters. We were all glued to him. When he was done with the article, he stared at us silently, before bellowing, “What is it you want?” He paused again, like a stern schoolteacher.
Chávez’s antagonism toward us was intense. Most of us hadn’t reported the story, and El Nuevo Herald wasn’t even present. But that didn’t matter. He was using us as a prop to shore up his base. We were the enemy. By lumping us all together, he undermined good journalism, and it allowed him to control the narrative. It was the playbook of many an autocrat—and he did it in style.
Like Donald Trump in years to come, Chávez was playing not to us but the crowd watching at home.