On Monday afternoon in Caracas, Nicolás Maduro’s government detained and harassed Univision journalist Jorge Ramos. Maduro lost his temper after the journalist showed him dramatic footage that Ramos had captured of young Venezuelans rummaging through scraps in the back of a garbage truck near the presidential palace of Miraflores just a day before the interview. According to Ramos, Maduro tried to cover the iPad on which the video was playing and then stood up to leave. Surprised, Ramos reminded the Venezuelan strongman that his behavior was more akin to a dictator than a self-professed democrat.
Though entirely true, his point was not well taken. Ramos and his team were escorted to what the journalist described as “a security room,” where Maduro’s people demanded the group hand over their belongings, including their cellphones, for which they were ordered to disclose the necessary passcodes. When Ramos refused, Venezuelan security turned off the lights and left the team of journalists in almost complete darkness. Their backpacks and phones were eventually taken, and the team’s equipment was confiscated. Crucially, Venezuelan security also seized the interview’s memory cards. “They stole our work,” Ramos said afterward. “They don’t want the world to know what’s happening in Venezuela.”
After more than two hours, the authorities freed the journalists and escorted them back to their hotel, where they were kept under surveillance and informed of their imminent removal from the country. “Their crime: asking questions that Nicolás Maduro did not like,” said Daniel Coronell, Univision’s president of news in the United States.
The episode offers a perfect snapshot of the Venezuelan regime’s intolerance of dissent and freedom, of the press and otherwise. “If they do this to foreign correspondents, you can just imagine what they do to Venezuelans,” Ramos told his colleague Patricia Janiot from his hotel in Caracas. “They are capable of anything.”
The Venezuelan regime tried to dismiss the incident as a stunt. Without directly referring to Ramos, Jorge Rodríguez, Maduro’s communications minister, shrugged off the journalist’s account as “a cheap show.” But it won’t be that simple. Ramos has a well-earned reputation as a stern, incisive interviewer. Over the past decade, Ramos has faced off with a long list of politicians — including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Hugo Chávez and Donald Trump — with the same unflinching, prosecutorial style. He is widely respected and followed in both the United States and Latin America. He is, arguably, the world’s most influential Spanish-language television journalist.
The outrageous intimidation of Ramos and his team will also represent a formidable challenge for one of Maduro’s few allies in the region: the new government of Mexico, led by Andrés Manuel López Obrador. He is a sympathizer of Venezuela’s so-called Bolivarian revolution. (He once told me, for example, that Venezuelan democracy was superior to Mexico’s, an indefensible statement.) Despite widespread criticism, López Obrador extended Maduro a formal invitation to his inauguration in Mexico City. A few weeks later, in his own investiture in Caracas, Maduro effusively thanked Mexico for its generosity. The friendship has endured. Once the crisis in Venezuela exploded, Mexico chose to stand on the sidelines, refusing to recognize Juan Guaidó as the country’s interim president or censure Maduro’s fraudulent reelection. Mexico has insisted on negotiations while declining to call for new elections in the country, a position even Uruguay, which at first had also taken a more neutral position, now espouses. Mexico is now the only Latin American democracy not to take a firm position against Maduro’s despotic regime.
Will Ramos’s ordeal in Caracas change that? It seems unlikely.
On Monday evening, Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs put out a brief statement expressing concern over the detention and requesting the release of Ramos’s equipment and material. Mexico’s embassy in Caracas also assisted Ramos after his exit from the Venezuelan presidential palace. (Back on Twitter after landing safely in Miami, Ramos thanked Mexican authorities.)
Still, it is not enough.
Ramos and his cameraman, Martín Guzmán Monroy, are both Mexican citizens whose rights as journalists were summarily violated. Ramos feared for his safety and his team’s. While embassy personnel seemed to have behaved diligently and Mexico’s foreign ministry checked all the formal boxes in its diplomatic response, it is up to López Obrador to finally take a stand against Maduro’s abuses.
Unfortunately, the region should not hold its breath. On Tuesday morning, after news of Ramos’s troubles had gone around the world, Mexico’s president took to the microphone in his daily news conference and timidly went through the motions. “We sympathize with freedom of expression and the respect needed for the exercise of journalism in Mexico and around the world. That’s all I can say”, López Obrador said, in detached monotone. “I don’t want to get involved in such a polarized issue.”
In Caracas, with Jorge Ramos’s interview in his pocket, Maduro probably smiled. ¡Que viva México!, indeed.