If You Want to Explain Venezuela, You Need to Go There

A French journalist who has covered several war zones around the world (and is on her way to report on the upcoming American elections) tells us how her time in Venezuela introduced her to a country that’s key for the continent

Going deep into how Venezuela really is today

Photo: Fabiola Ferrero

Before the world turned into the pandemic headquarters and not much more, I had lunch with Claire Meynial in Madrid. I had met her the previous year in Paris and I was surprised by both her perfect Spanish and her ability to analyze what was going on in Latin America with much better information about my country than what I had.

At the time, I didn’t know I was speaking to a correspondent of Le Point, a specialist on African affairs and our continent, Ouest-France Jean Marin award winner at the Bayeux war correspondent’s festival (2014), and winner of the Albert Londres award (2016), who also covered Hugo Chávez’s last election and the Maduro’s first one.

This week, with Meynial about to leave for the upcoming elections in the USA, one where Venezuela will have some bearing on the voters, we centered part of our conversations on those topics.

What exactly makes a war reporter?

To be honest, I don’t consider myself a war reporter! I didn’t go to Mosul, like many of my generation did, for instance. I’ve covered Africa and Latin America. I wrote a lot about Boko Haram, in Nigeria, Niger, Chad… I was in Somalia, in Libya for migration issues. I went to Venezuela several times, which isn’t a war zone, but it’s very dangerous for journalists. The work is always the same, but sometimes it’s carried out in more exposed areas. It’s a difficult situation to explain, which doesn’t necessarily interest readers. You have to give them comprehension keys with human stories and analysis. It’s not easy because, as Venezuelans have seen, people aren’t spontaneously interested in things that aren’t in contact with them. During these eight months after our first conversation I went to Lesbos, because of the refugees, Sweden, Denmark, Brazil, Martinique… none of these places are war zones. But they’re places of tension. These last few months, for instance, since I had COVID-19 in Lesbos in March, I’ve had to go out more than many other reporters.

Is it common for women to be in this line of work?

Yes, it’s common now. I have friends, journalists or photographers who do it. There’s something basic that explains it: bosses in media outlets are still men, being in the field entails less responsibility… the Albert Londres award was created in 1933, and I won it in 2016, the fifteenth woman to win it (for written press). While there were female reporters before, they were fewer, and less known. Martha Gellhorn, for example, was an exceptional war correspondent who covered all the major conflicts in the 20th century, she’s known as “Hemingway’s wife”.

It was amazing in 2013, during Maduro’s campaign, how people gave their backs to him as he was talking. Then, with Guaidó, there was enthusiasm, but not fanaticism.

How did you get into journalism? I noticed that you studied Literature and Political Science.

I always wanted to be a journalist, but truth be told, I hadn’t the faintest idea of what it meant, I had a more romantic vision. In France, I studied the hypokhâgne and after that two khâgnes: classic literature, philosophy, latin, Golden Age Spanish, history… and then I did poli-sci (Political Science) and a master’s in Spanish at The Sorbonne. I did internships in editorials and newspapers, and I made my way to Le Point. There, I worked in almost every section, until one day they thought I could be useful covering Latin America, because the correspondent retired. That’s when I realized that what made my engine run was indignation. I saw terrible things happen and I thought: “No one knows about this, I have to let it be known.” But if you want to explain things well, you have to go there. If you don’t go days trying to figure out how to get across this path that’s right next to jihadists, if you don’t spend the night without electricity, where they fear the sound of motorbikes, if you don’t see the farms where they burn everything down so Boko Haram can’t supply themselves… you may write a report, but it won’t be journalism.

What are the differences and the similarities between Africa and Latin America?

The only thing they have in common is that I miss them when I’m in France! There’s the colonial past, yes, but in Africa the memory of France is still quite strong; in Latin America they talk about the USA, but not that much about Spain. You also have to remember that in Africa, Rwanda and Mali are as different as Denmark and Spain, or Chile and Cuba. But there’s a warmth in their humanity that I miss in Europe; the direct contact, both in Africa and in several Latin American countries. There are also historical connections, the Caribbean is like a transition between both worlds. You have oil rich countries (Nigeria!), you have huge corruption (Nigeria!), you have crime. There are also fundamental differences: in Africa, ethnic groups are key; in Latin America, everything is about politics.

Where have you encountered more danger in your line of work? Where do you find it more difficult to access information or to move around?

I’d say that when I went to Chibok, Nigeria, after Boko Haram kidnapped those 276 girls. There were no domestic flights, and inside the state of Borno there are few roads, very dangerous, because they’re close to the Sambisa Forest, where jihadists hide. We slept, photographer Bénédicte Kurzen and me, in a town in the middle of nowhere. There’s no electricity and we knew that Boko Haram attacks at night. In the morning, they told us that the town was filled with infiltrators, so we had to get back. But I had time to talk with the families, with some girls that ran away, and I had seen the town, the poverty, the total lack of opportunities for young men, which explains why some end up following Boko Haram. Covering the Ebola outbreak in Liberia was tough too. It wasn’t COVID-19, the death rate is almost 90%. A very real and tangible death.

How did Venezuela become one of your main sources?

I was working for a newspaper in 2002. My job ended in July and I wanted to put my vacation time to good use. The editor-in-chief told me that Cuba was a long term investment, “Fidel is going to die someday and it’s worth seeing the island before that happens.” But in the short term, it was possible that Venezuela would worsen. I decided to go to Venezuela, with my boyfriend. I had time to cover a couple of protests, before the special correspondent arrived. Afterwards, I travelled across the country. When I began work at the international service, Chávez was almost gone, but I was sent to report the election because of my Spanish and because I already knew Venezuela. After that, I returned to cover Maduro’s election (2013), and I went back a few more times. Between these jobs, I’m always following what’s happening, I talk to my contacts… I feel a kind of love for that country that I don’t feel for any other. I know a lot of people, it has a high intellectual level in political analysis which makes conversations passionate. I think that’s key for the continent.

To call Maduro a socialist, with the same word we use to describe Tony Blair or Denmark, is frankly surreal. History has made socialism in Latin America something very different from what it is here.

Why is it key?

Because of migration flow to neighboring countries and because it has led to organizing against (Lima Group) or in favor (Grupo de Puebla) of Maduro. In Colombia, the consequences of the presidential elections in 2018 have been obvious. In Cúcuta, where I covered the elections, who would vote for Gustavo Petro? A former guerrilla member and friend of Chávez, when they saw Venezuelans cross the bridge, running away from hunger? I think the Duque vote was around 78% in the Norte de Santander region. Ironically, Maduro gave the uribista candidate and Bolsonaro their best campaign. The threat of the economic failure in Venezuela is an unstoppable political weapon.

Can you tell me about your experience in the campaigns you covered in Venezuela?

2012 was an incredible election. I followed Capriles to Puerto Cabello, he got there on a boat because road access had been cut off, it was terribly hot that day, girls were passing out, they had banners: “Henrique, my mom wants you as her son-in-law,” “You can see it, you can feel it, Capriles for president.” I wondered why people said he had no chance of winning. A few days later, I went to a Chávez rally in Catia (western Caracas, where Chávez was hugely popular) and I was amazed. I think we walked two hundred meters in five hours and there were people all over the place. They cried, yelled, some women threw pictures of their sick children to him, begging for them to be cured. I had never seen anything like that. In Harare, Zimbabwe, when Robert Mugabe stepped down, people cried and danced in the streets, but it wasn’t like this. They thought they had freed themselves from a dictator, there was hope, illusion, lots of love. But the fanaticism, the faith in someone, the certainty that that person loved them and protected them, it was very special in Venezuela. It was amazing in 2013, during Maduro’s campaign, how people gave their backs to him as he was talking. Then, with Guaidó, there was enthusiasm, but not fanaticism. I interviewed him in the Universidad Central de Venezuela in February 2019 and in Paris in January 2020 (and HCR in Caracas, 2019). Between those two dates, the situation with Guaidó changed completely. For the first interview, he was filled with hope, he would step out of a sold out amphitheatre, I would spend entire days in Petare (a big Caracas slum) and people supported him. In January 2020, everyone had realized that chavismo could resist more than they expected.

Months ago you told me that people in the Venezuelan opposition changed in a way that you wouldn’t have imagined ten years ago. Why?

I think you can tell all over the continent, because it’s very polarized and it goes for both sides. It’s like there isn’t leadership between Fidel and Pinochet, between Maduro and Bolsonaro. In Brazil, many refuse to understand what’s going on in Venezuela. They support the system of Cuban doctors without wanting to know about a system that’s almost a slaver. On the other hand, some Venezuelans, particularly those living abroad, consider the Left as a whole thing, without paying attention to the differences. I’m European, socialism was born in my continent. At school we learn about how, in the Tours Congress of 1920, they divided socialism and communism. They’re different parties, as history can show you. To call Maduro a socialist, with the same word we use to describe Tony Blair or Denmark, is frankly surreal. History has made socialism in Latin America something very different from what it is here; it became intertwined with the military, with drug trafficking. Some Venezuelans have suffered so much that they just don’t want to hear about it. Chavismo managed this: to reduce political thought to just “them” against “us”. And this “us” favors support to questionable politicians like Bolsonaro or Trump.

Some Venezuelans have suffered so much that they just don’t want to hear about it. Chavismo managed this: to reduce political thought to just “them” against “us”. And this “us” favors support to questionable politicians.

I saw your TEDx talk about African migrations and I know you are very familiar with Venezuelan migration. What sets them apart?

Venezuelan migrants that I’ve seen are in a worse psychological, but not economical, state than Africans (except those from Aruba and Curaçao, since they have a Venezuelan migrant tradition that resembles the African migration). African migrants from the west (Mali, Senegal, Gambia…) sometimes take two or three years to make it to Europe, they have nothing and they work to pay for the next stretch of their journey. They sometimes only have a backpack and a phone to contact the coyote and talk to friends through WhatsApp, sometimes they don’t even have their papers and carry fake documents, because their nationality isn’t good enough to ask for asylum. That’s why it’s so difficult to identify dead bodies on the coasts of Libya. To get across the Sahara, you need some cheap sunglasses, a rag to cover yourself from the sun and sand, water, and a stick to stay on your feet in the back of the pick-up truck, which won’t stop if the “merchandise” falls off. That’s it, because they don’t have much and they know that at every checkpoint the police will rip them off. It’s an individual migration, the oldest son usually has the responsibility to “take on the adventure,” and send money from Europe. It’s his fate, a duty, a kind of rite of passage. They see it in a fatalistic way. It’s in God’s hands. It’s a migration that’s been happening for centuries. They know where they’re going, they have networks, they sometimes know where to get a job. They find family members or people from their old town that took the same trip twenty or two years ago. They leave a country so poor that leaving can only be better and allows them to help. They send money and in some areas they do what the state doesn’t: roads, wells, solar panels, clinics, maternity units. The Venezuelans that I saw on the borders with Colombia and Brazil were entire families, with huge suitcases, where they had tried to fit their entire lives in. They lived in a country they thought was the best in the world. A family I met came from Margarita island, from a house with a swimming pool in a gated community that was worth nothing and they didn’t have food to eat. Many don’t know where to go, nor do they know the visa policies from one country to the next. I found a family that was going from Margarita to Peru, but they didn’t know why, that was the bus that was leaving, so that was it. Everyone talks about politics and many used to be chavistas, so they leave because the CLAP boxes aren’t coming in and they can’t survive. Africans aren’t even disappointed. They’ve been convinced by generations that no politician will help them. I remember Cherif, a young man from Guinea I met in Agadez, Niger, the hub for crossing the Sahara. I asked him: “They have elections in your country today, aren’t you interested?” He began to laugh. “Madame, in which African country have you seen that a president calls for elections and doesn’t win it? It makes no sense to vote.”

Let’s close with Trump. What do you think about the fanaticism that many Venezuelans feel towards the President, given his migration policies, for example?

First, it makes no sense, because according to Homeland Security, only 2% of Venezuelans who seek asylum actually get it. For Cubans, it’s very hard too. I was at the Mexico-U.S. border, in El Paso/Ciudad Juárez, and I went to the migration’s court. Most of them are Cubans that escaped through Nicaragua, or Trinidad and Tobago. Very few are granted asylum. They give them their “appointment” for a year later and they have to wait in Juárez where, in less than twenty minutes after I arrived, I heard a shootout two blocks away. A lawyer told me that some have unexisting dates assigned, like September 31st. A client of hers was kidnapped by drug dealers in Juárez, and when she asked for the trial date to be moved, the judge said: “The rule is that the person seeking asylum has to be present, asylum denied.” Cubans who are denied asylum are deported back to Havana. Imagine going back to Cuba branded a “traitor”. No matter how much Trump says that powers in Venezuela and Cuba are authoritarian, he doesn’t do anything concrete to remedy it. The only thing are the sanctions, which have never worked; not in Cuba, not in Iran, not in Zimbabwe, because in the end they affect the people and not the leaders. I was in El Paso when Trump gave his State of the Union speech, where Guaidó was present. For a couple of days I was stunned, the speech sounded familiar, but I couldn’t figure out why. The way he threw out numbers, lies that no one bothers to fact-check because it doesn’t matter anymore, hatred towards the press, the division in the Assembly… and then it finally hit me: it reminded me of speeches by Maduro. Guaidó had to clap, looking for support in Florida. But for a section of the international community, the impression was that it was a support to an opposition that isn’t Venezuelan. Many don’t know about the 2007 generation of Venezuelan politicians, and that contributed to the speech where Maduro was elected and Guaidó was created by Yankees. Add to this the fact that Venezuelans who support Trump now even have a nickname: Magazuelans. Venezuela had always seemed different, less classist and racist than other countries in Latin America, but I think the greatest achievement by chavismo has been to create hatred that seems very hard to put aside. It’s taken from Machiavelli’s manual: divide and conquer.