Alejandro Marcano stared into the camera and read the day’s news to millions of Venezuelan viewers on Globovisión’s 24-hour network. Suddenly, the studio’s windows erupted in a rain of glass. Gunshots ricocheted through the room. A militant colectivo that supported the government circled the lot and threw tear gas into the building. Marcano realized he had two choices: sprint through the gunshots or die of asphyxiation.
On that terrifying morning of January 1, 2009, Marcano chose to run and barely escaped the brazen attack on the TV station. But his career as a journalist in his homeland was over; nearly four months later, Marcano left Caracas for Miami.
His story is far from unusual. As Nicolás Maduro’s repressive regime tries to consolidate power despite rising protests, independent journalists face even more danger than the average Venezuelan. Amid government crackdowns and violent threats, more than 100 reporters have fled to Miami in recent years, according to Sonia Osorio, resident of the Association of Venezuelan Journalists Abroad (APEVEX).
Many like Marcano have now set up shop in South Florida, where they fight from abroad to keep telling the story of their country’s desperate struggle. “We need to be participants of history so this doesn’t happen again in another country,” Marcano says in Spanish.
From the moment he seized power in 1999, Hugo Chávez faced accusations that his Bolivarian Revolution violently stifled dissent. But it wasn’t until 2002 that Chávez really began to crack down on the media. As the press reported ever more critically on his government’s power grab, Chávez threatened to revoke broadcasting licenses from TV and radio stations. After suppressing a coup in 2002, Chávez blamed adversarial media and launched an all-out assault on the free press.
Technically, Venezuela’s 1999 constitution guarantees freedom of expression. But in 2004, Chávez pushed through a law forbidding stories that “incite or promote hatred,” “foment citizens’ anxiety or alter public order,” or “disrespect authorities.” News organizations could comply or shut their doors. Meanwhile, the government began revoking broadcast licenses and acquiring media outlets, eventually controlling 13 television networks, more than 65 radio stations, one news agency, eight newspapers, and a magazine.
After Chávez died in 2013 and his acolyte Maduro took power, violence against journalists became commonplace. Instituto de Prensa y Sociedad, a Venezuelan organization that fights for freedom of speech and the press, reports 279 journalists have been attacked for their work between March and June of this year alone. Five journalists have been killed since the Bolivarian Revolution.
Marcano lived through that bloody history firsthand. A native of Carúpano, an eastern coastal city of 200,000, the TV reporter joined Globovisión, a station that had long been a critical check on the government, in 1995. But after Chávez grabbed power, the network began practicing a degree of self-censorship.
“The directors started putting on lighter programming,” Marcano says. “They started lowering the tone.”
Still, Globovisión didn’t stop critiquing the regime. That’s why the colectivo attacked the station in 2009 — an assault that Marcano and his colleagues were certain was authorized by Chávez’s government.
In recent years, journalists who buck the party line can face violent backlash. Orian Brito, an online and TV reporter, was visiting Miami in January of 2012 when he found a photo of children back in Caracas armed with heavy machine guns. He discovered the children were given the weapons by colectivos, with support of the government, and published his findings in Reportero 24, an online paper. Suddenly he faced the worst week of his life.
First, a state TV network, Venezolana de Televisión, began attacking him and airing his personal information. His bank accounts, Facebook and Twitter accounts, email, and phones were all hacked. His family received threats and was interrogated about where Brito got his information and photos.
Brito decided he couldn’t risk returning to Venezuela. “My family told me, ‘Don’t come back,’?” he says in Spanish. “?‘Don’t come, because there’s no guarantees. Something happens to you, and who responds? Who cares?’?”
Other reporters say their families became targets when the government didn’t like their work. Miguel Mundo was a reporter at Las Noticias de Cojedes, a Caracas newspaper, when he began writing about ties between a group of narcotraffickers and the government. After several stories, Mundo’s paper was bombed with Molotov cocktails. Then, in January 2012, Mundo’s wife was kidnapped from a gas station, beaten, and tortured until Mundo agreed to leave the paper. A few weeks later, he and his wife hopped a late-night flight to Miami with their children and applied for asylum.
“There are still many professional Venezuelan journalists that maintain the will and the disposition to keep working amid everything that’s happening in Venezuela,” Mundo says in Spanish. “Meanwhile the regime… does everything to try to violate and force the journalists that try to do an ethical job in the country.”
As mass protests have shaken Venezuela this year, the reporters who remain say the threat of violence is omnipresent. Miguelangel Caballero, a freelance journalist, says all journalists there take a risk.
“Your life and physical integrity are in danger before the attacks of the government, the security officials, and the paramilitaries, called collectivos, that attack and rob the professionals of the press,” Caballero says in Spanish.
José Raúl Güerere, a 21-year-old journalist, has been producing stories through social media channels while working as a salesman at a mall. Güerere says it isn’t always easy to get accurate information with all the commotion of the protests.
“It is complicated and difficult, but in spite of everything, one must be extremely firm in the face of constant criticism, threats, or whatever they wish to do,” Güerere says in Spanish.
Back in Miami, the journalists who have left say they feel an obligation to keep reporting. APEVEX, founded by Osorio and two other colleagues in 2013, helps reporters like Brito get back on their feet when they arrive. Osorio says they have 50 official members in Miami today.
Some have found work at ex-pat publications, like Mundo, who became a reporter at El Venezolano in Orlando. But that paper recently closed, so he’s looking for work in Miami.
“I came here a little reluctant to work in journalism,” says Mundo in Spanish. “I was stressed with what had just happened.”
As for Marcano, he’s made a new career in Miami out of reporting on the daily crisis unfolding in Caracas on Martí Noticias, the U.S.-government funded station that broadcasts into Cuba.
On a recent Thursday at the Martí studios in Doral, Marcano stands in a dressing room in a lilac button-down, patting the sweat from his shaved head under vanity lights. The makeup artist makes casual conversation with the two interviewees getting prepped for their time on camera.
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“How long have you been here?” he asks. They’re both from Venezuela. In this dressing room, Miami becomes a cemetery for the lives and professions left behind.
Once in the studio, Marcano can barely stay still as he directs his crew at lightning speed. He recounts stories before the recording begins, making his guests comfortable under the glare of a dozen white lights and three cameras.
The producer counts down in his earpiece, loud enough to emanate throughout the quiet room: “Three, two, one.” Marcano does the sign of the cross before he begins recounting the latest protests and crackdowns in his homeland.
“Bienvenidos a Venezuela en crisis,” he says.