By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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At the moment the bomb was attached to the undercarriage of his canary-yellow Toyota Land Cruiser, Danilo Anderson was one building away, studying criminalistics at a nearby police academy. The unguarded lot where he had parked was outside the coroner's office in the Caracas neighborhood of Bello Monte. It was after 6:00 p.m. November 18, 2004.
Anderson, a 38-year-old prosecutor with the Venezuelan attorney general's office, finished class around 9:30 p.m. He dropped off his bodyguard at a bus stop and drove down La Avenida de las Ciencias de los Chaguaramos toward the Sambil Mall, where he was supposed to meet a friend. At 9:36 p.m., someone made a cell phone call.
Danilo Anderson blew up.
The impact sent the truck spinning. It skidded down the block and crashed into the storefront of a local business. The gas tank exploded as if on cue. Residents of the apartments that lined the street began calling the fire department. The bombing hit the news an hour later.
Patricia Poleo was asleep by then. A colleague's page awoke her. "It seems a car exploded on Los Chaguaramos," she later recalled the message reading. "And it seems that it belongs to Danilo Anderson."
Poleo went back to bed. One year later, she was charged with planning Anderson's assassination.
Patricia Poleo is a journalist. She is also a political activist who wants to overthrow the government of Hugo Chávez. In the United States, these two roles might be difficult to reconcile. In Venezuela, they often coexist.
Chávez likes to remind his citizens of this lack of objectivity in the media. It has been cited as a rationale for launching three state-run television channels during the course of his nine-year presidency. He pointed it out in March 2005, when he increased the penalty for insulting a government official to a maximum sentence of 30 months in jail. And Chávez brought up media bias again this past December, when he announced that the broadcasting license of Venezuela's oldest private television network, RCTV, would be revoked in May. Left unchecked, he contends, the privately owned media outlet would incite anarchy and violence.
Chávez took office in 1999 after a landslide electoral victory. He had run on a platform of socialist democracy. His promises to bridge the gap between Venezuela's rich and poor inspired optimism. Supporters lauded his programs funding free health care and subsidized food with profits from Venezuela's nationalized oil company. Since then, however, Chávez has become more autocratic, dismaying many of his initial proponents. His favorite villain is the United States, which he claims is plotting to overthrow his government, in spite of the fact that Venezuelan oil exports at least $27 billion to the States in the past year alone fund most of his social initiatives.
He has waged war on the media since the beginning of his presidency. In recent years, his prosecutors, armed with the newly potent defamation penalties, have hounded journalists. Organizations such as Reporters Without Borders have placed Venezuela under watch, particularly after the announced closing of RCTV, which that association named a "serious attack on editorial pluralism."
Opposition journalists, in turn, say their lack of objectivity is a reaction to this oppression. During the failed 2002 coup that briefly ousted Chávez, private television networks aired cartoons and cooking shows instead of covering his return to leadership. RCTV often surrounds footage of the president with digitally rendered flames.
It's difficult to get a straight story in Venezuela, says Ewald Scharfenberg, director of the Caracas office of the Institute of the Press and Society. "There are a lot of flaws and a lot of weaknesses in our media. There's not a very rigorous practice in the sense of checking sources, comparing and contrasting facts, and validating accounts with documents." Most news in Venezuela represents one of two sides: one that favors the government, and one that doesn't. Neither is particularly satisfying. The same holds true in the case of Danilo Anderson and Patricia Poleo.
Poleo openly expresses her opinion that violence "lamentably" might be the only way to rid her homeland of Chávez. But she considers the charges against her baseless and politically motivated.
The 41-year-old Poleo is pretty in the sharp-edged manner of TV news anchors and female politicians. She dresses in accessorized business chic, her chin-length hair blow-dried into neat layers, and she exudes a brassy intelligence.
During her voluntary Miami exile which has lasted more than a year Poleo has worked as a consultant and producer for a political talk show, Polos Opuestos, on local Spanish-language channel Mega TV. She frequently appears as an analyst on all things Venezuelan, and was particularly active leading up to Hugo Chávez's December 3 re-election.
She occupies a tiny desk area in Mega's Coconut Grove newsroom, a gray and fluorescent-lit honeycomb of cubicle dividers. Spanish-speaking anchorwomen babble silently on TV sets hanging from the ceiling. Producers bustle to and fro with stacks of paper in hand, stopping periodically to greet co-workers with kisses. In the back, wan techies sit in the glow of digital editing machines. Poleo's workspace is plastered with color photocopied portraits of her twelve-year-old daughter, Germania, a small clone of her mother. Considering Poleo's status in Venezuela, where she regularly appeared in the national media, the space is humble. To call it a cubicle would be generous.