The Fugitive

Patricia Poleo, a Venezuelan journalist and political activist, is accused of murder. She's in exile in Miami.

Poleo's younger sister, Helena, is a reporter for El Nuevo Herald. Their father, Rafael Poleo, is one of Venezuela's most polemic figures, an outspoken conservative and media impresario. In a November 2005 interview with the newspaper El Universal, he said he "has never offended [the Communists] by calling Chávez's regime Communist." Asked what he would call them instead, he replied, "They're Nazis." Just before Chávez's re-election on December 3, Rafael Poleo was a guest on the TV show Hello Citizen (the opposition's alternative to Hello President), where he challenged the armed forces to "decide if they are going to continue forcing the Venezuelan opposition to put up with this embarrassing regime." Patricia has followed in her father's footsteps, working for his publications and courting controversy in her political coverage.

She has not always hated Chávez. Poleo briefly supported him when he was a political prisoner in the early Nineties, after his first attempt to seize power landed him in jail. Upon his 1994 release, Chávez traveled to Havana, where he adopted Fidel Castro as his political mentor. Poleo dates her disillusionment with Chávez back to a speech he gave at the University of Havana during that visit. "He practically said everything he wanted to do for the country, and everything followed a Communist theme. So from the time of that speech in Havana, I began to confront him as a journalist, to question him," she says.

Since then, Poleo and the Venezuelan government have butted heads on a number of stories.

Patricia Poleo
Jacqueline Carini
Patricia Poleo

The most famous humiliation Poleo inflicted on the Chávez government came in 2001, when she reported that Venezuelan security forces were protecting a wanted fugitive from Peru. Vladimiro Montesinos, the former head of Peru's intelligence police, had a five-million-dollar bounty on his head in his native country for alleged corruption and human rights abuses. Venezuelan higherups denied they were harboring him. Poleo named the security agents protecting Montesinos and showed photos of the wanted official before and after plastic surgery was performed in Venezuela to alter his appearance. The story won Poleo the King of Spain journalism prize in 2001. In a June 28, 2001 speech, Chávez stated, "Some women journalists here ... are helping this conspiracy to try to make the world believe that Venezuela is a criminal state, that Hugo Chávez is a criminal president, that he protects narcotraffickers."

Skepticism of her journalistic practices is rampant. "She has been quite a character," says Andrés Cañizález, a media researcher at Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas. "She identifies herself as a journalist, yet she also identifies — as is her right of course — with a political militance typical of the most radical anti-Chávez sectors.... She would watch with acquiescence whatever it takes to make Chávez leave."

John Dinges, who recently published an article about the Venezuelan media for the Columbia Journalism Review, is more blunt: "Her actions go way beyond what a journalist should be involved in. She is not someone who should be held up as a journalist persecuted by a dictatorial government."

Poleo's detractors also cite her role in the 2002 coup that created the 48-hour presidency of Pedro Carmona as proof that her objectives are political rather than journalistic. Although she was active in the opposition, she called the coup "undemocratic." In subsequent columns, Poleo contended the government takeover was highjacked by conservative financiers at the expense of the civilian opposition. Neither she nor her father signed the decree that installed Carmona as president.

In 2004, after showing video footage of Cuban soldiers training in Venezuelan military barracks, Poleo was charged with inciting rebellion against the government, but the charges were dropped. The next year, however, she was convicted for defamation and injury against then-Interior Minister Jesse Chacón after she published a photo of a soldier standing over a dead body and falsely named Chacón as the soldier in the caption. Poleo served six months' parole.

Poleo's younger sister, Helena, explains that like many journalists, her sister felt forced into becoming politicized. "Journalists were fighting for survival," says Helena. "They were afraid the profession was going to end. They had to make the choice to put up a fight."

For the most part, Poleo spent the year after Anderson's death on two projects: investigating his case, and organizing opposition voters to boycott the December 2005 parliamentary elections.

The explosion had incinerated Anderson's body beyond recognition. Before forensic tests could identity him conclusively, his sister Lourdes did so through the few personal effects that remained: belt buckle, two cell phones, class ring, gold chain, wallet, a photo of his girlfriend, and a 9mm pistol.

In the immediate aftermath of his death, Anderson was treated as the first Chavista martyr. He had been preparing a case against 400 members of the opposition accused of signing the so-called Carmona Decree, the document that had declared the provisional presidency of Pedro Carmona in the 2002 coup. The list included some of Venezuela's most powerful and wealthy elite — Chávez's favorite villains.

At first they seemed the most obvious suspects in Anderson's murder. "There is no way to describe this other than terrorism," Jesse Chacón said the morning after the explosion.

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