Venezuelan journalist Miguel Henrique Otero Castillo, president and director of the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional, is living between a dream and a nightmare.
Committed to his unrelenting struggle to exercise journalism with freedom, he dreams that the day will come when the ruling regime in his country will fall and that, across its front page, the newspaper will publish: “Venezuela returns to democracy.”
Faced with the daily reality of an empowered and unshakable political structure, he fears that the day will come when the Venezuelan government achieves one of its goals: to completely extinguish freedom of expression and of the press in Venezuela.
“We will continue to resist,” said Otero, 74, from Madrid in an interview with El Universal. He describes the drama of El Nacional due to the permanent harassment of Diosdado Cabello, the number two man of the Bolivarian revolution installed in 1999.
Venezuela’s Supreme Court, loyal to and controlled by Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro, sentenced the morning newspaper on April 16 to compensate Cabello with $13.3 million dollars for slander.
Cabello sued the newspaper for libel in April 2015 for reproducing a story from the Spanish newspaper ABC. The article reported that the powerful politician was under investigation in the United States for alleged ties to drug-trafficking.
The ruling of the Supreme Court was on civil proceedings, because the criminal one is still pending. Cabello, a legislator and lieutenant, confirmed that if “El Nacional” refuses to compensate him, he will claim the company’s assets.
Founded in 1943, El Nacional suspended its print edition in 2018 due to a lack of paper and due to the acute political, institutional, and socioeconomic crisis in Venezuela.
“I left Venezuela, and I have not returned, at the time Cabello filed the lawsuit. I was outside when (in May 2015) they dictated preventive measures. That is Venezuelan justice: someone from the Government initiates a trial and they immediately impose preventive measures,” he recalled.
The measures, still in force, include freezing assets, prohibition of leaving the country and to report weekly to an authority.
Do you think that the ruling precedes Venezuela copying Cuba’s communist system and prohibiting all types of free press?
Miguel Henrique Otero: That is the objective, but it is not the same mechanism of the Cuban dictatorship. The regime seeks communication hegemony in the long-term, which is Cuban model, and has been closing the windows of freedom of expression and the press.
They shut down television stations, then radio, then printed newspapers. They took away the paper [to print El Nacional] and now they are going against digital pages. They are buying media outlets with public funds and harassing and attacking the media outlets and end up closing them.
We have resisted and will continue to resist. We are and will continue to be bulwarks of information resistance.
They can take away our building, the printing press and whatever they want, but they cannot take away the website, which we can do from Australia if I want. The most they can do is block it and not totally, but partially and on occasion. There is no way that they will shut us down for good.
They could take everything from us, except our quest for freedom in Venezuela. We will continue to inform. I am sure that one day they will fall, and we will publish a great headline: “Venezuela returns to democracy.”
Will you pay compensation?
They can go to collect. We will tell them that we have no money and they will seize assets. We will put up legal obstacles. I foresee it to be very fast or medium fast and not to last for years.
This decision is from a court without an appeal process and that is controlled by Cabello. It is his court. We will try to discredit a process completely flawed with unconstitutional irregularities. It is hard to turn that around.
What was shown of Cabello-drug trafficking link?
The information he sued us for came from news agencies about him being investigated for drug trafficking by a federal prosecutor in New York.
Cabello’s head of bodyguards showed evidence and three years later the DEA (US antidrug agency) accused Cabello of drug trafficking with a reward of more than $10 million dollars on his head.
This showed the story to be true. If Cabello said that we libel him because we said they were investigating him and three years later, they appear with a charge against him and the reward. The news was true.
That is why the criminal trial does not advance. What can be done about the reality so frightening for him, that what he said was a lie was proven to be absolutely true?
We published a true fact, that he was under investigation, not that the drug trafficking was false or true. Cabello cannot leave Venezuela. If he leaves, he will be sought after because the reward is a lot of money.
How do you envision the future of the newspaper?
We are only on the web. But the future is not that, it is rather that once the regime falls, we will rise like the Phoenix. We will have our print version and they cannot prevent the future or that we will continue to do critical journalism.
What can the international community do for the newspaper?
We are explaining to the world the arbitrariness of Venezuelan judges. Of a court that works under instructions of an official with no connections to the judicial system and of the non-separation of powers. We call on international, multilateral and inter-American organizations to adopt precautionary measures.
Nor is the execution of the sentence prevented. They may not implement it if there are internal fractures in the Government and if the Constitutional Chamber of the Court realizes the large number of irregularities.
Do you think that the conviction exacerbates the Venezuelan crisis?
They have met with private entrepreneurs to invest in Venezuela and give them legal security. But the case against El Nacional knocked down their legal security.
If a court orders a compensation for that amount, without justification and because the Government called on them to do so, another company will say: “The same thing could happen to us. They could go to court and introduce a compensation that will break us.”
With what happened to El Nacional, their legal security claim crumbles and that has big-time repercussions for them.
This article was originally published in El Universal of Mexico.