Magazine article The Spectator

My Venezuelan Jail Hell

Magazine article The Spectator

My Venezuelan Jail Hell

Article excerpt

There are two conditions British foreign correspondents must meet before they can consider themselves old hands. The first is having one's work savaged by John Pilger; the second is spending time inside a cell somewhere abroad, preferably somewhere exotic and hot.

It so happens that it was during a trip to sultry Venezuela that I came of age as a reporter and achieved the rare double. Not only did Mr Pilger describe my television work as a 'one of the worst, most distorted pieces of journalism I have ever seen', but I was also locked up, ordered to strip to my underpants, accused by a military prosecutor of espionage and threatened with over 30 years in a Venezuelan jail.

The editor kindly acceded to a long-cherished whimsy of mine and headlined this piece 'My Venezuelan jail hell'. In fact, it wasn't hellish at all; being stripped to my cojones in Caracas proved a good deal more pleasant than the verbal abuse from Mr Pilger once my clothes were back on.

My alleged crime was to have 'broken in' to a Venezuelan military base to spy on secret operations undertaken by the Bolivarian Socialist Republic, but in journalistic terms it was far worse than that. I had been waved through the gates one weekend afternoon, not quite comprehending I was entering a military installation at all.

Lurking beneath some trees were Venezuela's Home Guard, planning the counterinsurgency they would mount once the United States had invaded: earnest young men and women in red berets, ready to die for Hugo Chavez and his revolution, if he didn't die for it first.

It was a bad time for a westerner to wander into a Venezuelan army base. Chavez had become convinced that the CIA was plotting to kill him - which wasn't an entirely paranoid thought. In 2006, the year of my run-in, US-Venezuelan relations had reached a new low. Not only had Mr Bush invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, but his defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, had compared Chavez with Adolf Hitler. In return, Chavez called George W. Bush 'a donkey, a coward, a murderer, a genocidal killer, a drunkard' on his weekly television show. And the US already stood accused of backing a failed anti-Chavez coup attempt four years earlier.

After I was detained, things didn't look too good at first. My prosecutor, in army uniform, dusted down his copy of the country's penal code and informed me and my camera team that espionage was a very serious offence. The offence was so serious that a British diplomat was called for, and turned up with the standard photocopied sheet of consular advice for Britons in distress, written on the assumption that anybody in trouble in Venezuela was probably a South American drug mule and would be in jail for decades. …

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