Owner and CEO of Venezuela’s last independent newspaper, El Nacional, Miguel Henrique Otero, speaks at the 14th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks.
On bringing Chavez to power and seeing him become a dictator:
“I met him numerous times, and at first, it didn’t seem like anything was terribly wrong. He was charming, charismatic, a great communicator.”
“But by 2001, he’d changed. He was obsessed with staying in power and he lashed out at anyone who challenged him.”
“The last time I ever spoke to him, he called me screaming about an article we’d published. He insisted that our reporting was a lie – that his police hadn’t murdered four innocent people.”
On Maduro’s efforts to silence him:
“The Venezuelan army seized our building & removed every last person inside.”
“Our journalists can continue their work no matter what Maduro tries.”
“In February 2022, the government blocked our website – and our Venezuelan readership dropped to nothing.”
On his dream for Venezuela:
“Our country is on the brink of collapse. It could explode at any moment. But I believe, when it does, that democracy will prevail. And that I’ll be on the first flight back to my country, back to my children, and back to my people.”
In May 2015, I was in Israel with my wife when I got a call from my lawyer. Do not come back to Venezuela, he said, they will arrest you immediately. I figured it would be over soon, that in a just a few days I could go home. I was wrong. It’s been 7 years.
Today, I live in Spain and I run Venezuela’s largest independent newspaper remotely. El Nacional was founded in 1943 by my father, a journalist, and my grandfather, an entrepreneur, in 1943. And we’ve always been an opposition paper – so when Hugo Chávez first ran for president in 1998, we backed him. He won in a landslide. I met him numerous times, and at first, it didn’t seem like anything was terribly wrong. He was charming, charismatic, a great communicator. He was on record, defending our right to free speech.
But by 2001, he’d changed. He was obsessed with staying in power and he lashed out at anyone who challenged him. He used his Sunday Night “Hello President” news segment to attack newspapers & journalists personally. He told the country that I wasn’t worthy of my father’s legacy. The last time I ever spoke to him, he called me screaming about an article we’d published. He insisted that our reporting was a lie – that his police hadn’t murdered four innocent people. I stood my ground, and told him that if he wanted to talk to the reporter he could. I handed her the phone & she agreed to take Chávez to their graves. It didn’t change his mind.
After the 2002 coup attempt against him, he put new exchange controls in place to skyrocket the price of paper. What once cost X now cost 10X. I knew that most newspapers couldn’t survive under these conditions – and many went under. Luckily, publishers in other countries came to our rescue – we received shipments of paper from Mexico City & from Bogotá. And we kept publishing – even when our journalists were harassed, even when they threw rocks at our building, and even when one of his supporters set off a bomb outside our office. The bomber was arrested, but released a day later without a charge.
Chávez knew that to stay in power, he needed to follow Cuba’s model. So he cosied up to Fidel Castro & called for “Communication Hegemony.” He strengthened ties with China & Iran and he made a $2.9 billion arms deal with Russia. Of course, all these countries – Cuba, Russia, China, Iran – are world-famous for their propaganda.
I knew things were really bad in 2007, when Chávez he shut down Radio Caracas Television, RCTV. At the time, it was Venezuela’s largest independent TV station with 10 million viewers – nearly half the country. Thousands of protesters took to the streets – but it didn’t matter. His administration launched their own propaganda channel in its place the following day.
In a few short years, Chávez’s regime effectively destroyed independent TV & radio. And while his people starved, he used state money to buy up media outlets. A year before his death, his administration asked me to sell the paper – and I refused.
In 2013 Chávez died & Vice President Maduro took over. By then, Venezuela no longer had an independent judicial system. It was almost like the president had every judge on speed-dial. It didn’t matter whether a judgment was constitutional or not. When the president’s administration calls, you do as you’re told.
In 2015, we republished an article from ABC Spain about Diosdado Cabello, a high-ranking military general & the president of National Assembly. The article reported that the U.S. Government was investigating Cabello for trafficking cocaine in coordination with the FARC, Colombia’s guerrilla army. And yes, all of this is true – if you go on the The U.S. Department of State website right now, you’ll see a $10 million reward for information leading to his arrest. But it doesn’t matter what is true or not under Maduro’s reign. Cabello sued our paper & two others for slander. And it was then that I received a call from my lawyer – don’t come back to Venezuela.
I was shocked – but I never once doubted our decision to publish. And I never once considered stopping. So I continued to run the newspaper from abroad. And in 2017, the judges reached a decision – we owed Cabello 1 billion dollars. Yes, 1 billion dollars – but with hyperinflation, that amounted to about 12,000 USD. Cabello wasn’t happy with that decision either – he ordered the Supreme Court to open a new trial. They changed the verdict from 12,000 USD to 13 million USD. We asked them to justify that number – and they couldn’t. So, the Venezuelan army seized our building & removed every last person inside. They said the building belonged to Cabello now – it was part of his repayment.
Luckily, our reporters were already accustomed to working from home by this point in the pandemic. All our servers were offshore. We stopped printing physical papers in 2018 because of the lack of newsprint. So everything is online, our servers are in the U.S., and our journalists can continue their work no matter what Maduro tries. In February 2022, the government blocked our website – and our Venezuelan readership dropped to nothing. So, we educated our readers on how to use a VPN to evade their internet service provider.
I’m proud of the work we’ve done, and the work we’ll continue to do, at El Nacional. Chávez and Maduro have tried everything they can to destroy independent journalism, but we will not let it happen. Because what they’ve done to this country, the level of suffering, of destruction, it’s like a war. They’ve driven 6 million people to leave the country, they’ve destroyed our economy, they’ve let our people starve. Today 95% of the population lives in poverty. The average Venezuelan family lives on $20 a month. Not an hour, not a day, a month.
For too long, we Venezuelans looked at other countries and we said, “Venezuela is not Cuba.” What happened to them cannot happen to us. But it did. And now, perhaps you are looking at Venezula, and thinking “What happened to Venezula can’t possibly happen to us.” But I’m telling you it can. Right now, several Latin American countries are courting politicans just like Chávez – [examples]. Do not follow in our path.
Our country is on the brink of collapse. It could explode at any moment. But I believe, when it does, that democracy will prevail. And that I’ll be on the first flight back to my country, back to my children, and back to my people.