Renowned journalist Abby Martin talks to The Real News about her recent time in Venezuela, where she became the target of a rightwing harassment campaign for covering the opposition’s violent actions in the country’s ongoing unrest.
Sharmini Peries: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. Violent protests between opposition demonstrators and police forces in Venezuela have been going on for over two months now with an average of almost one dead per day. Most of the international press portrays it as being the result of police state repression. However, a detailed breakdown from the Attorney General’s Office, which has recently been increasingly at odds with the government of President Maduro, shows that of the 73 people that died, 11 were the responsibility of state security forces, 21 of them has been attributed to the opposition, 13 due to looting, and two due to government civilian protests, and 26 are still under investigation. One of the victims of the protests was Orlando Figuera, who was burned alive last month when opposition demonstrators accused him of being a thief or a Chavista. He died from his wounds last Monday. This is what his mother had to say.
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Sharmini Peries: Obviously, his mother considers this the responsibility of the leadership of the opposition. Joining us to discuss the latest developments in Venezuela is Abby Martin. Abby is the host of the teleSUR English documentary program Empire Files that Abby and Mike Prysner independently produce, and they recently returned from a trip to Venezuela, and they were caught up in the midst of opposition demonstrations. Thank you for joining me, Abby.
Abby Martin: Thanks so much, Sharmini. It’s great to be on.
Sharmini Peries: So Abby, you went to Venezuela to … I spoke to you before you left, and you were going there on an inquiry to figure out what was going on. You found yourself in the midst of opposition demonstrations. Describe how you got there, why you were there, and what happened.
Abby Martin: Sure. My partner, Mike Prysner, and I wanted to go to Venezuela, of course, with a country that’s been in the crosshairs of the U.S. empire for the last decade, plus, obviously, since the Bolivarian Revolution. It’s even been deemed the greatest threat to the Western Hemisphere, of course, amidst all of these threats, and of course, regime change calls from Trump himself, and of course, this bill from Marco Rubio offering to give $10 million to the opposition, which would turn into exponentially more on the black market there. Of course, we wanted to go and check out what was going on. We actually had planned the trip before all the unrest popped off, so we were kind of scared … I had seen all this footage of the crackdowns, what I thought was really harsh repression based on the footage and news that I was seeing from here, so I was going with a completely open mind.
I was going there as an independent, fiercely independent, investigative journalist with the show, as you said, produced completely independently from teleSUR, to tell exactly the reality that I was seeing, and I even told teleSUR management that I was going to report exactly what the truth was that I uncovered. So when we went there, I was very surprised to see that the reality was vastly different than what we are being told, Sharmini. I mean, yes, you hear all these horrific stories, right, from on the ground, amidst these protests, and you keep hearing 60 dead, Maduro kills 60 protestors, Maduro’s forces. And what you realize when you get there is, the country is pretty much split in two.
It’s heavily divided between Chavistas and the opposition, and of course, amidst such economic, such a horrible economic crisis, people are going to have really strong opinions, but there are certainly huge marches on the ground on both sides. Tens of thousands of people marching for the government, for the opposition, and these are peaceful marches, jubilant atmosphere. Things are very calm, and then what you realize is, when you see these violent statistics and casualties and the death toll that’s rising, and the harsh quote unquote “repression” from government forces, it’s not happening at these marches. It’s happening at something called guarimbas. It’s a sustained blockade that a small contingent of protestors create to provoke a response from government officials, so we actually followed one of these guarimbas one night. We were almost attacked just simply for being there.
We got accosted by a hyped-up group of protestors who were saying, “What are you … Who are you with? Who are you with?” Demanding to see our press credentials, and I was scared for my life, knowing that if we admitted that we were from teleSUR, we could have gotten lynched, burned alive, beaten to death by the mobs that you see happening all too often, so we, of course, said that we were independent journalists, that we were from America, and then they immediately said, “Okay, great. We can use you, essentially, for propaganda.” They said, “Do not film anything that we do. Just film what the government does to us,”
Sharmini. So we saw that night what these people do on the quote unquote “front lines” at these protests. I mean, they pulled out giant 16-wheeler trucks. They pulled people out of the trucks, moved the trucks onto the highway to block entrances and exits.
They were pulling huge piles of trash and burning them, pouring gasoline on the front entrances and exits of these highway overpasses, and erupting in flames, and so trucks and cars were trying to frantically get out of the way, and this is how a lot of people have died. This death toll that you see being kind of parroted, regurgitated mindlessly by MSM does not account for the actual breakdown that you mentioned in the intro, which is the vast majority has been caused by either indirect or direct violence by the opposition.
Sharmini Peries: In what form did you see these threats launch against you about lynching, about attacking you? Is that Twitter attacks, or did you actually hear it on the ground?
Abby Martin: Well, yeah, good question, Sharmini. This has been translated, actually, into real-life actions now. It started off on Twitter, and a lot of people can say, “Oh, just turn off your Twitter.” It’s not as easy as that when you have hundreds of death threats coming and you have to take it seriously, especially when these people do act on it there, and there are teleSUR journalists risking their lives to still be on the ground at these protests, and now have a target on their back. It started off on Twitter, of course, Instagram, Facebook, which are all manageable until it translates into real life.
And this one woman, Angie Perez, a quote unquote Emmy award-winning journalist from Miami, was tweeting out coordinates where Mike was going to be speaking in LA when we got back, and about 20 right-wing anti-communists came out with giant signs saying that Mike and I were spies for the dictatorship, and narcotraffickers, and … So you see this actually being translated into real life, where now we’re getting harassed in person by the same people who are inciting people to lynch us, so we have to have security now. I’m contemplating legal action against this woman, at least, in the U.S., who’s doing this. I mean, it’s just completely insane that these people can perpetuate such an audaciously fake myth, knowing that our lives are on the line and that other journalists’ lives are on the line instead of actually just denouncing the violence, which would be a lot easier.
Sharmini Peries: Abby, one thing I’ve noticed when it comes to Venezuela is that all of these international watchdogs, like Human Rights Watch, the Organization of American States, particularly their Committee on Human Rights, and freedom of expression, and so on, as well as so many other mainstream organizations that, if this was happening anywhere in the world, they would be on it. And when it comes to Venezuela, very little is reported from these organizations. I’m wondering what your thoughts are and what’s not getting reported here.
Abby Martin: Yeah, and to give some context to this, I mean, to really explain the violence that the opposition is carrying out and the complete absence of commentary on this violence from these watchdogs, Sharmini, I mean, we’re talking about these protestors that have attacked hospitals, burned down government buildings. They burned down the Housing Ministry, which has provided 1.6 million homes for poor people over the last decade. Political assassinations. I mean, directly assassinating Chavistas, attacking communes. We visited one building that was, all the windows were broken. It was just simply an art commune that gave out free dance lessons and music lessons to local kids. I mean, it’s kind of sick when you see on the front lines what is being attacked and why, what is the political motivation behind these lynch mobs. Before I get into the story that happened to us and what’s going on to journalists, I mean, you mentioned that young man, Orlando Figuera, that was burned alive.
This is the third Afro-Venezuelan who has been lynched, attacked by a mob during these protests, black, and the clip with his family being interviewed, and even him before he tragically died from his severe burns. He said that they said, “Hey, black guy, are you a Chavista?” And they threw a Molotov cocktail on him. I mean, they have pulled bus drivers out of the buses and torched the buses. They, throwing explosives at people, so it is just quite astounding not only is that happening, but then when you look at what happens to journalists there. Before we went, of course, we heard even Reuters journalists had been attacked by these people, but we know how dangerous it is to be a state-run journalist there, Sharmini, which is why we didn’t say that we were openly with teleSUR.
But we didn’t know how bad it was until after we were there on the ground reporting, because once the photos came out that we were there and started circulating and tying us back to teleSUR, then things got really, really bad. A complete fake propaganda campaign, we basically became the center of a fake news viral campaign in Venezuela started and fomented by major opposition leaders, and the media, major academics there, that were propagating a theory that Mike and I were actually spies infiltrating the protest to collect intelligence for the GNB, the Venezuelan intelligence services, based on absolutely nothing, based on me doing my job as a journalist going there and actually trying to get the truth, to cover all sides. I mean, I put my life on the line. We all put our lives on the line to get this story from these people creating these barricades, and the peaceful marches on all sides, average Venezuelan from the streets.
So it was so shocking and disheartening to see this campaign being subjected against us simply because we brought up opposition violence. Here we are looking at a country that kind of opines about how all the press is controlled by the state, how the government has a lockdown on all press, how you can’t be safe as a journalist reporting on the street, that there’s a total police state there. It was the complete opposite. I mean, I had no problems filming anything. The clear assault on the press is from the opposition who doesn’t want you to report the truth. I mean, they put up free press as this beacon, but they don’t want you to report anything that contradicts their narrative, even when it’s completely proven by the Attorney General herself, who was even at odds with Maduro, as you mentioned. So when we dare to bring up the fact that the opposition was responsible for half the deaths, because half of the story’s been omitted by the Western media and these human rights watch organizations, we became subjected to a lynch mob.
Not only was this fake news perpetrated around about us, but it incited hundreds of death threats, actual lynch threats. I’ve never been subjected to actual lynch threats before, and it was just all the same thing. “Lynch them. Lynch them. Burn them. Throw Molotov cocktails on them. We know what to do to infiltrators. Do to them what we’ve done to the other infiltrators,” saying like, “Burn them alive.” I mean, basically, if we were still there, Sharmini, we would have a target on our back, and we’ve seen that play out in the wake of us leaving, where a teleSUR journalist actually just got attacked with Molotov cocktails, nails, and shot in the back by opposition protestors when she was clearly marked press and standing with cameramen. This is not the first time journalists have been attacked. Someone else from Globovisión was doused with gasoline and luckily escaped before they were burned alive.
If this was happening to journalists in any other part of the world, there would be a huge outcry from international watchdogs, but unfortunately, because it’s Venezuela, and because the U.S. empire wants regime change there, this is completely obfuscated, and in fact, these people are painted as peaceful, democracy-loving freedom fighters, and it makes me sick, because I see the same thing played out in Ukraine, Syria, time and again, and I was there. We risked our lives and were getting a lynch mob incited against us, and there’s not a peep from these people. Instead, you see Ken Roth from Human Rights Watch actually calling for a violent coup and has the audacity to just completely marginalize the real situation, Sharmini.
Sharmini Peries: All right, Abby. I know you just got back, and you’re still recovering from that experience. I thank you so much for joining us just after your return, and as the situation unfolds and you are able to reflect on what happened, we would love to have you back to continue to report this very important story.
Abby Martin: Thanks so much, Sharmini. Real News is definitely the best place to get your news on the front lines of this story. Thanks for your coverage.
Sharmini Peries: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.
Abby Martin is the creator and director of “The Empire Files” on teleSUR English. Previously she hosted “Breaking the Set” on Russia Today. She founded the independent media site Media Roots and is a board member of Project Censored.