Back in the second half of 2002 just getting to the vice-president’s office was an ordeal for journalists in Venezuela. Polarization had reached such an extreme that downtown Caracas was a kind of continuous riot, with pro-government and anti-government groups clashing day after day and weary cops doing what they could to pull them apart.
One especially tough day, I remember, my colleague Valentina Lares rushed through clouds of tear gas to get to the vice-president’s office. Not going wasn’t an option: José Vicente Rangel had become the main spokesperson for the government, and if she couldn’t make his press conferences she couldn’t cover the government’s version of events.
The government lied with total abandon, and its lies could not be ignored.
Once inside, her lungs still burning, Lares listened in astonishment as Rangel denounced the media for fabricating the stories of a riot outside, accusing them of using tall tales to destabilize the government.
Valentina struggled to take down notes about how she hadn’t just been tear-gassed since, you know, it’s hard to take notes when you’ve just been tear gassed.
“Thinking back on it now, it still makes me just as mad as it did then,” she tells me as I reach out all these years later. Rangel, she recalls, “said it with complete sang-froid. With a smile, even: his affability was disconcerting.”
It’s a memory that came flooding back this weekend as the day-old Trump administration turned to the same kind of gaslighting tactics I experienced first-hand back home all those years ago.
I heard Valentina’s anecdote at “Los Del Medio”, the NGO we’d joined to push back both against government aggression toward the media and against the alarming polarization and hysteria in our own ranks. Each Wednesday, about fifteen of us would gather at Laura Weffer’s little apartment in La Campiña, sprawl out on beanbags, and passionately discuss the week’s events.
The problem was clear: the government lied with total abandon. Worse its lies could not be ignored. “The narrative was clear: ‘this is our version, and since it’s official, you have no choice but to run it,’” Lares recalls.
And we recognized the danger. Rangel’s offensive and the media’s reaction to it were stifling even the possibility of objective truth in the Venezuelan public sphere. We knew that, as journalists from a cross-section of Venezuelan media, we were ideally placed to raise our voices against this danger. So we came together, we organized, we wrote our manifestos and published our open letters and organized our workshops.
And still we failed.
I’ve spent much of the last few days in a fetal crouch, checking and rechecking Twitter in a silent panic, not so much reading the news from Washington as remembering it.
Maybe it’s not that surprising that we failed. Because much as you want to wax poetic about the need to sidestep polarization, but it’s just not that simple.
As a journalist, when a government spokesperson tells you that you haven’t seen what you’ve just seen, your primary responsibility is to stand up for the truth. You may not want the truth to become a political football, hustled over by hucksters with an ulterior motive, but it’s not like that’s your choice to make: the government can force your hand, just by doubling down on falsehood.
And now you have a problem: if you stand up for the truth —which is your job— you antagonize a government openly at war with it, feeding into the polarization dynamics you understand you need to disarm. But if you prioritize fighting polarization, then you end up tacitly endorsing the edifice of lies power is building up around itself.
Either way, you lose.
Which is why I’ve spent much of the last few days in a fetal crouch, checking and rechecking Twitter in a silent panic, not so much reading the news from Washington as remembering it.
I wish that I had a reassuring answer for people who ask me how our experience can inform the struggle they now face. I don’t.
Fifteen years ago, I witnessed the essential powerlessness of the truth against a government willing to weaponize its cynical contempt for it.
Today, as I see the U.S. take the first step along a road I know all too well, I keep having to remind myself that there are no inevitabilities here. That the traditions of press freedom and constitutional rule are much older and deeper in the U.S. than they ever were in Venezuela.
None of it deadens the shock of recognition as I think about Valentina’s press conference 15 years ago, and replay Sean Spicer’s briefing again and again and again.
Because, in Venezuela, destroying the entire conceptual category of facts-that-we-all-agree-are-facts was the first step. It was the necessary precursor to all that came next: the slow-motion dismantling of the free press; the judicial persecution of dissident media; the creeping self-censorship that slowly, ever so slowly over a decade and a half, turned into outright censorship; the complete collapse of transparency and accountability and, in the end, of democracy too.