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The Fugitive

Some media analysts believe that Poleo's role as an opposition activist harms her reputation as a journalist. She contends politics is behind the accusations against her
Jacqueline Carini

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.

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.

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.

Chávez declared three days of "national pain" in the wake of the bombing. Flags were flown at half-mast. Anderson was posthumously awarded medals of honor from the state, and a foundation was formed in his name. A mural was painted on a wall adjoining a sanctuary for contemplating the martyr's ideals; it featured a portrait of Anderson with a dove.

The state-run television channel, VTV, broadcast Anderson's flag-bedecked funeral, a somber narrator intoning a soundtrack whose grace notes were bravery, liberty, justice, and commitment to the fatherland. In the footage, a barrage of roses rains over the flag-draped coffin as it is carried through Cemeterio del Este. Crowds of mourners sing and weep. As the sun sets, military cadets fire a salute over the open grave, and an eruption of nearby car alarms wails as the smoke dissipates.

The romance was short-lived. "The first thesis was that it was a political assassination," says media watchdog Ewald Scharfenberg. "But then journalistic investigations started to find very curious things." Anderson might have been on the take, extorting bribes, Scharfenberg says, "in exchange for certain people not to be prosecuted."

It turned out that Anderson, with his Rhett Butler mustache and populist flair, had a fondness for Tommy Hilfiger apparel and Jet Skis. Six months before his death, the prosecutor — who came from humble roots — confessed to loving the good life. "I wear Tommy, my suits are by Fabiano," the stalwart comrade of the Bolivarian Revolution said in a magazine interview headlined "I Don't Want to Return to Being Poor." "Everything I have on, from my shoes to my toothbrush, is brand-name. I like to dress in brands and live well."

When interviewer Elizabeth Araujo asked Anderson how he afforded such luxuries, he pointed out that his mother was dead, he did not have children, and he was single. But after his murder, journalists began probing, and his good life seemed too good to be true: On a modest government salary, Anderson possessed $8000 in Tommy Hilfiger clothing, two Jet Skis, an upscale condominium, the yellow Toyota Land Cruiser Autana, and an even larger SUV, a Toyota Machito.

At the time of his death, Anderson was heading to the mall to buy an overcoat at Zara for an upcoming trip to Spain. The friend who was to meet him there, lawyer Sócrates Tiniacos, later told investigators about a large stash of cash in Anderson's apartment. Anderson's roommate, Julio Farias, told criminal investigators that he and Tiniacos acted on long-standing instructions to remove the cash from a safe in the apartment. "I opened it, took out all the money that was in there, put it in a suitcase, and left the house," Farias told investigators. About 120 million bolivares — $56,000 — was packed inside shoeboxes.

Both men said they saw Anderson being handed cash by lawyers of bankers implicated in the 2002 coup, presumably in exchange for immunity from prosecution. In early January 2005, Interior Minister Chacón admitted that the government was investigating an extortion ring within the attorney general's office. One prominent banker had even complained to the government about the blackmail prior to Anderson's murder, Chacón confirmed.

Patricia Poleo immersed herself in the journalistic fray and broke several major stories about the murder. Her theory is that the government knew about the bombing. "In the area where the accident happened, there are businesses all around, including a restaurant that sells parillas [Venezuelan barbecue]. I went and spoke with a man who worked there and he said that [the Venezuelan political police] had ordered them to close. This seemed odd to me. An explosion as large as this one, and nobody had been affected? It's a zone of heavy transit."

 

Poleo also implicated a number of prominent lawyers in the corruption. One of them, Yoraco Bauza, was assigned to prosecute Anderson's killers once they were found. Bauza claimed innocence and promised criminal reprisals against Poleo in a press conference. On January 28, 2005, police raided Poleo's apartment with a search warrant and turned it upside down, digging through files and poring through her computer's hard drive. "They said my information was ötoo exact,'" Poleo remembers primly. Prosecutors demanded she reveal her sources. She refused.

Over the next six months, Attorney General Isaías Rodríguez continued to promise a vigorous inquiry into the extortion ring, but in reality the investigation slowed to a halt. Three former policemen with connections to Anderson were arrested as the crime's "material authors," tried in court, and sentenced to 30 years in prison. All three, members of the same family, claimed they were innocent. Two other suspected material authors were killed in what the government claimed were "shootouts" with the country's political police. The opposition media suggested they were murdered.

Rodríguez promised that the investigation into the "intellectual authors" would be relentless and thorough.

On November 4, 2005, around 7:00 p.m., Patricia Poleo was teaching a journalism class at the University of Santa María in Caracas. "The lecture I was giving was about how to distinguish truth from falsity," she says. Suddenly students began appearing at the door of her classroom. "They told me that the attorney general had just announced that I would be charged as one of the intellectual authors" of the bombing, she remembers. "They said, öWe have to get you out of here because they have just announced a measure to detain you.' They got me out of the university. I had left my apartment at 6:00 a.m. that morning and I never went back."

The link between Patricia Poleo and the murder of Danilo Anderson was based on the testimony of a single witness, a Colombian named Geovanny Vásquez, who spun a story of international intrigue worthy of an appearance by Arnold Schwarzenegger in fatigues.

According to El Nacional reporter Laura Weffer, who compiled Vásquez's story from Venezuelan media accounts in a book called El Testigo y Sus Verdades (The Witness and His Truths), Vásquez was a shadowy figure with little credibility — a weak peg on which to hang a murder allegation.

His story began in 2003 in the tiny town of Fundación, on the border between Colombia and Venezuela, where he claimed to have served as a psychiatrist and a commander of a local group of right-wing paramilitaries. He described a mission to organize a highly secret meeting deep in the remotest jungles where Panama borders Colombia. It was here, Vásquez later told the state-run television channel, VTV, that the conspirators of Anderson's murder first met to hatch their plans. Poleo was there, he said, in a leadership capacity. Also supposedly in attendance were the CIA, the FBI, and a member of Cuban exile group Comandos F-4. At a subsequent meeting, Vásquez charged, Poleo suggested Anderson's assassination.

The Venezuelan media began investigating Geovanny Vásquez's background. They found that not only was he not a psychiatrist — his diploma from John Hopkins University was a fake — but also he had been in jail in Colombia at the time of the first meeting for pretending to be one. Among other roles in a varied career as a con artist, Vásquez had also claimed to be a black belt in karate and tae kwon do, a certified English teacher, and an ex-FBI agent. His alleged coconspirators declared they had no connection to the man.

Even four of Anderson's six siblings held a press conference together to declare they thought the government was lying to them. "This is just another lie from the attorney general," said Anderson's sister Marisela. His brother Juan José Menéndez Anderson openly expressed his cynicism. "Look, nobody can get it out of my head that the government knows who paid for Danilo's death," he told TV news show El Observador. "That they don't want to say it, and for what reason, I can't tell you, but the government knows who killed Danilo." Attorney General Rodríguez claimed the siblings were being paid by the opposition.

In January 2006 the government reacted to the media's revelations about their star witness by declaring, through a federal judge, that the media would not be allowed to discuss any aspects of Vásquez's private life. The directive was largely ignored, and only stoked further international claims of media censorship. On August 13, 2006, Rodríguez admitted to Weffer that Vásquez had lied to them. "He told us a story," said Rodríguez. "He wooed us, we believed him, we followed him with both feet."

 

After she was charged with plotting Danilo Anderson's murder, Patricia Poleo spent nearly a month hiding in a location she says she cannot reveal. To her the charges were absurd. "I don't know any of the other three accused," she says. "This meeting never happened; I've never been to Panama in my life. They didn't even bother to look up our movements through immigration. They didn't check with the other countries to see if we had entered them or not. They even claimed I had used a body double, because I'm on television and in the media all the time in Venezuela."

For a month she tried to determine her legal options. She says her lawyers presented documents in her defense that prosecutors refused to accept. The other three people charged with planning the crime turned themselves in and spent three weeks in prison, but Poleo refused. "I knew my case was different," she says, "and I knew they wouldn't have let me go. If I had been there, none of us would have gotten out. I was the one that interested them." She accepted exile as on option. On December 9, 2005, Poleo boarded a boat to Curacao and then flew to Miami. Her daughter joined her two days later.

A year later, more than two years after Anderson's murder, Attorney General Isaías Rodríguez declared the "conclusive action" to the case: The three intellectual authors who had remained in Venezuela were exonerated for lack of evidence. Poleo, however, remains a "fugitive of justice" and is still charged. If she were to return to Venezuela, she says she would surely be thrown in jail: "The attorney general said there was no proof against me but that he was not going to close the case. It is a political thing."

Rodríguez says charges will be reopened against all four suspects if and when the justice department receives new evidence. He recently named a new witness, a Colombian paramilitary named Rafael García. Not only is García currently in a Colombian jail, but also, in an April 2006 interview with El Nuevo Herald, he denied knowledge of any plan to assassinate Anderson.

Helena Poleo, who is in Miami by choice, says both she and their father lobbied for Patricia's departure. They are sure she would have remained in jail had she stayed. "The destiny of an effective resistance is exile or hiding," Rafael Poleo told Venezuelan newspaper El Universal after she was charged. "I don't want for Patricia to be like Mandela; I want her to be like Betancourt," a reference to Rómulo Betancourt, often called "the father of Venezuelan democracy," who spent much of the 1950s in exile.

But Helena says the separation has hit their father particularly hard. "He is a big influence on her, and she is very, very close to him," Helena says of Patricia. "Everything that happens to her affects him. It was like hitting two birds with one stone."

Poleo has accepted that she will remain in South Florida for a while, and recently moved her family from an apartment to a house. (She asked that the location not be disclosed.) On a recent weeknight, she could be found there, cooking up a hasty dinner amid still-unpacked boxes, her somewhat aggressively friendly cat demanding attention from visitors helping with the move. Poleo dragged out three large filing boxes filled with scrapbooks of Venezuelan newspaper articles documenting the course of a career's worth of confrontation with the government.

If there is a positive aspect to living in Miami, she believes it is drawing attention to her country's situation. In addition to still publishing her daily column in Venezuela, she appears often in the local Spanish-language media, most notably during the expatriate vote at the Orange Bowl during the December 3 elections. Poleo denounced the election as fraudulent. She contends that it is not the voting itself but the list of registered voters that has been tampered with. Chávez was re-elected by a two-to-one margin that day.

Following reinauguration, Chávez declared the end of the "transition period" of his socialist program. In recent weeks he has actively consolidated power: nationalizing key industries, asking the national assembly to let him make laws by decree for one year, and appointing his brother to overhaul the public education system. He has created the Ministry of "the Popular Power for Participation and Social Development" to oversee the creation of "communal councils" and the construction of new, planned "socialist cities" in the Venezuelan interior. Many of the members of the opposition believe that after RCTV's broadcast license is revoked this spring, Globovisión, another anti-Chávez network, will be shut down too.

Given the circumstances, many Venezuelans understand why Poleo would remain in Florida rather than attempt a legal battle. "The courts in Venezuela really have no independence," says Venezuelan media analyst Andrés Cañizález. "And then there are the conditions of incarceration: Venezuela's jails are the most violent of Latin America. To be in jail in Venezuela is to really put your life at risk, especially if you are a person of her social class." And Poleo also had her daughter to consider.

 

Poleo says she believes that Venezuelans have been backed against a wall. When asked how she feels about the possibility of violence to overthrow the government, Poleo reluctantly admits that it might be the only way to make change. "I would do what it takes," she says. "I know the country does not want the type of government they are imposing. If I were sure that it was a majority decision and that the Venezuelan people want to live this way, that they want the Cuban model, I would stay here quietly in this country and I would accept that this is what my compatriots want and I would have to take it. But it is not that way."

After so many promises, speeches, and recriminations, Anderson's murder remains unsolved. According to Cañizález, that is just the way things go in his country. "In Venezuela there is sometimes a great deal of scandal, and then it passes and people forget and lose interest and move on to other issues. What happened with the Anderson case is something like that."

For now Poleo can only hope that her compatriots will not forget about Danilo Anderson. If they lose interest, the case will remain unsolved. Without exoneration, Poleo must remain in exile, waiting and watching — for political winds to shift; for a country to change its collective mind; for the government of one man to topple.


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