Three days of a massive blackout plunged Venezuela into darkness. Power outages are common there, but never do they last so long. From Brazil, where I live, I checked the Twitter account of Gustavo Ocando Alex, a journalist based in Maracaibo, my hometown and Venezuela’s second-largest city. “At least 80 neonatal patients have died in the Emergency Room of the University Hospital of Maracaibo, Zulia, since the national blackout started on Thursday, March 7, until the early hours of Sunday the 10th.” It was startling news—80 dead babies in three days—and got lots of attention online. In a second tweet, Ocando made an even more staggering claim: that 216 adults, teenagers, and non-infant children had also died in the hospital’s emergency room.
As it happens, my sister-in-law Elbia, a nurse, works at that hospital. I texted her, asking what had gone on there after the lights went out. She didn’t reply immediately—she was saving the battery on her phone (there was no way to charge it) and her cell signal was spotty. When she did eventually answer, Elbia said that she didn’t know anything. Since there was no public transportation, she couldn’t get to work. Since there was no independent reporting, she would have to wait until she could assess the situation for herself. She stayed home with her son, hoping that the lights would come back on.
After two days, when electricity was partially restored, Elbia returned to the hospital. Authorities published a press release with their own death toll, saying that seventeen adults and seven children had died during the blackout, but none from causes associated with the loss of power. Among hospital workers, there were doubts. “There were a lot of rumors, but no one was keeping track of how many people really died in there,” Elbia told me.
How could we know what the true story was? In the past two decades, under Chavista rule, most traditional media outlets have been sold or closed. Social media has provided information—and misinformation—yet only 59 percent of Venezuelans have reliable access to the internet, even fewer during blackouts. The government blocks websites that it deems objectionable; in May 2017, officials released an executive order proclaiming their power to police the material that Venezuelans see online. For most people, news is delivered via state apparatuses; everyone else has come to rely on calls from relatives abroad or learned to accept that there is simply a lot they won’t be able to know.
It wasn’t always like this. In 1992, when Hugo Chávez, as a young army officer, surrendered after leading an unsuccessful coup d’état, he was keenly aware of the power of television. Facing news cameras, he took responsibility for the coup in a 70-second speech that catapulted him from unknown to national hero. Within six years, he ran for president and won, thanks in part to his media courtship.
After only three months in power, Chávez launched Aló Presidente, a live, unscripted weekly television show on which he sang, danced, told stories, took calls from his supporters, nagged his ministers, and, of course, made official announcements. His “revolution” must be televised, he believed, and he went on to create a network of community outlets—small radio stations and local newspapers run by residents of poor villages—that showcased his social programs.
At the same time, Chávez and his ministers withdrew government advertising from independent newspapers, economically suffocating them. He also canceled broadcasting licenses for dozens of radio stations as well as one of the country’s main television networks. Journalists and their employers endured judicial pressure and personal attacks from Chávez and his administration. By the end of his first decade in power, most traditional outlets had been dismantled. Several years ago, Andrés Izarra, a former minister of communication who was head of a state-run cable news channel, described to me the government’s approach toward the media: “We’re at war.”
Only 59 percent of Venezuelans have reliable access to the internet, and the government blocks websites that it deems objectionable.
To a significant extent, the government has won. My 79-year-old aunt Rosa is one of many Venezuelans who depend on state-run TV. Last year, when international outlets were covering the mass exodus of Venezuelan refugees—thousands of people walking hundreds of kilometers in search of food and medicine—I was in San Cristóbal, near the western border with Colombia, at her house. Rosa watches VTV, the main state channel, which was running a story focused on a few dozen people returning to Venezuela on a government-sponsored flight after an isolated outbreak of violence against refugees in Peru. “Migrants choose to return to their country after being victims of violence,” the chyron read. The screen flashed images of the refugees arriving back in “the beloved homeland.”
By that time, in Brazil alone, some 700 Venezuelans were crossing the border each day. I told Aunt Rosa what I knew. But she kept pointing at the television and saying, “Look, people are, in fact, coming back.”
I call my aunt frequently to hear how she is getting by. “Everything is okay in here, darling,” she told me in March, after five days without electricity or water. “I just watched the news. The power is back. It was a sabotage, but the government fixed it.” The truth, for her, is whatever state TV broadcasts.
For years, journalists have been among the millions of Venezuelans fleeing the country in search of a better life. A few of my colleagues and friends stayed. Some of them developed online initiatives to meet the demand for news. But the government, which fell to Chávez’s handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, tightened the “revolutionary” policy of intolerance toward independent media. This year, according to the National Union of Press Workers, there have been at least 43 arbitrary detentions of journalists in Venezuela; the Institute for Press and Society reports that there have been 196 acts of aggression against journalists, who have been accused of terrorism, violent actions, public incitement, criminal association, and incitement to hatred, among other charges.
Apart from the international press, what Venezuela has now is a small group of local journalists—most of them in Caracas, the capital—who are trying to keep humble online efforts going in a place with precarious internet and electricity, even as they are faced with scant funding, zero government transparency, and a barrage of technical, personal, physical, and legal attacks from the state. Armando.info—whose three founders and one reporter had to flee the country after being sued by a Colombian businessman allegedly tied to Maduro’s government—is the most recognizable example. Small cities are news deserts.
In the absence of independent journalism, we tend to collapse under extremes.
Journalists stay in touch with one another through messaging apps, trying to keep track of what’s happening: arrests of political figures, activists, and journalists; electricity failures; announcements on political leaders’ Twitter accounts. In February, a group of media professionals living in Chile, Argentina, the United States, and elsewhere launched a newsletter called ¿Qué está pasando en Venezuela? (What Is Happening in Venezuela?). A bullet-point list of information collected primarily from Twitter, it’s distributed in a basic text format to ensure that Venezuelans with poor internet service can receive it. Within a month, the newsletter had racked up some 12,800 subscribers on Telegram, just one of the applications used to distribute it.
As a journalist, I have sometimes recommended the websites or Twitter accounts or Facebook pages of friends whose work I trust to help keep my family informed. My mom, at least, started to listen. A couple of years ago I gave her an iPad; scrolling through social media, she would correct my aunt on government versions of facts. “Liars!” my mother would say, refuting her sister’s references to state TV. Yet she soon found her own sources, and at some point she reached the conclusion that everything on television—which she linked to the government—was fake, while everything on the internet was fact. In the absence of independent journalism, we tend to collapse under extremes.
Venezuela lurches on. After Gustavo Ocando Alex’s controversial tweet on the alleged death of newborns at the emergency room in Maracaibo, my sister-in-law told me about rumors she’d heard of what had gone on in other hospitals during the blackout. “There were even more deaths in other places, my colleagues were telling me,” she said. “But since there was no news, we don’t have a way to know.”