What it’s like to work in journalism in a country engulfed in chaos.
In international journalism, a local journalist hired by foreign reporters for his or her special knowledge of the local area, culture, and language is called a fixer. This series explores the untold stories behind their largely unrecognized work. You can read about fixing in China here, Mexico here, Belarus here, Afghanistan here, and the Philippines here.
Venezuela is engulfed today in both an economic and political crisis. Now in its third year of recession, Venezuela holds the world’s highest inflation rate and most of the economy depends on its dwindling oil production. Food supplies and medicine are scarce. President Nicolas Maduro rules the once-thriving democracy as an autocrat, local media has been stifled, and dozens of protesters have been murdered.
Roads & Kingdoms recently spoke with Ana Vanessa Herrero, a fixer and former investigative journalist, about the state of the media, food security, and the dangers of being a reporter in a country in chaos.
Roads & Kingdoms: How long have you been a fixer?
Ana Vanessa Herrero: Over two years ago, I decided to be a full time fixer for international media.
R&K: What was your career like before you started fixing?
Herrero: I was the chief of investigative journalism at a famous Venezuelan news website called Noticias24. As a reporter, I covered both presidential campaigns and the death of Hugo Chavez. After this [site] was bought by the government, I resigned and started as a reporter and investigative journalist at Colombian news channel NTN24. I also did radio and TV.
R&K: Can you describe the current situation in Caracas?
Herrero: In one word, chaos. That is what it means to be living in or coming to Caracas. Not for nothing, a lot of people call the city Carakistan. With the protests, the city is now covered in tear gas all day long; streets are in bad shape, insecurity is on every corner, and people look for food in the garbage. What used to be one of the prettiest cities in Latin America, with lots of green around it and many places to see, is now a shadow of what it was.
Anyone that comes to Venezuela needs to have someone with experience on the street and a good security team.
R&K: What’s going on in the local media?
Herrero: National media have been destroyed by the government. Most of the newspapers and TV have been bought by people that support the government and, if not, [independent] media that shows what’s happening is often punished. Social media is now the key element to a lot of journalists. Even though it is more difficult to follow the news, this is the only way we can be informed of what’s going on. Most journalists are beaten and robbed on the streets while covering protests, sometimes by the National Guard, so covering the news here is not like it used to be. Now everything is dangerous and to be in the field you need to have a lot of experience.
R&K: What type of stories do you normally cover?
Herrero: Life-changing stories that can really show the world the truth about the country. Mostly, I cover the health crisis in Venezuela, which has thousands of stories inside of it.
R&K: What are some projects you’ve worked on that were particularly challenging?
Herrero: Venezuela is really special. Even getting an interview here with a doctor can be a risk. Hospitals are full of armed groups paid by the government to scare media, for example. Since I’ve been covering hospitals for four years, you can imagine…
But I think entering the psych hospital El Pampero for the New York Times was one of the biggest challenges I had to face. I remember I spent a month trying to fix an interview with the people in charge, talking, explaining what we wanted to do. Once in the hospital, the reality of the situation made me understand that the Venezuelan crisis is deeper than anyone can imagine. This was one of the toughest, most sad situations I covered, and I have seen a lot.
R&K: Have you ever felt unsafe or been threatened?
Herrero: I have a lot of experience as a fixer, so I know where to go and how to react. I’ve had tough situations—armed groups chasing me in a hospital, National Guard trying to get my equipment, government threatening me—but because I know how to handle myself in this country, nothing bad has ever happened. One of Maduro’s Food Ministers not only threatened me, but published my pictures, face, and personal details on the official Twitter account of the Ministry, calling on people to catch me if they saw me. Anyone that comes to Venezuela needs to have someone with experience on the street and a good security team, that’s the key. I have friends and colleagues that have been wounded, robbed, arrested, threatened: all because they were doing their jobs.
R&K: Can you tell me about some common international misconceptions about Venezuela?
Herrero: Chavez’s socialism helped the country get better: this is a very common misconception. First, all those who surrounded Chavez now have more money than most businessmen and corruption is everywhere. This is something Chavez started.
[The price of] an oil barrel was up to 100 U.S. dollars when Chavez was alive; that helped him build this idea of wellness that he later sold to the international media. The kind of politics that Chavez started created a culture of paternalism that got worse with time. Now that economic crisis has touched everyone, most people don’t have a job and social programs have run out of money. That is why the humanitarian crisis is so deep. Venezuelans are used to getting it all from the government, and this government doesn’t have anything left after years of corruption.
Shortages started years ago, with things like toilet paper and soap, even toothpaste. But then it got worse.
R&K: Can you tell us more about the food shortages that have been occurring?
Herrero: It’s not only food, it’s food and medicines. Shortages started years ago, with things like toilet paper and soap, even toothpaste. But then it got worse.
Food started to flow slower into the supermarkets and [long] lines to buy things started being normal. Now, if you can find food, then it’s too expensive; but most times, you can’t even find it. There is meat, yes, and imported goods, but there is no rice, no oil, no milk, and when you find it, it either costs way too much or you have to wait in a five-hour long line to buy it. So Venezuelans are now thinner and malnourished, and if that makes you sick, then there are no medicines to treat you.
R&K: How is the food crisis handled by the media?
Herrero: Local media—especially outlets owned by the government—basically don’t cover that kind of news. If they do, they dedicate only one minute on the air, but that is not a priority for that kind of media. As for the rest of the local media, they try to get as much information as they can to put them on a news website or a tweet, but nothing on TV is like it used to be.
R&K: Are there any advantages for those covering the crisis?
Herrero: Not at all. We have to stand in the same lines, buy the little food there is left at the same price. If anything, media people are not very friendly with the government.