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 Chávez 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. Chávez 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 Chávez with Adolf Hitler. In return, Chávez 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-Chávez 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. ‘Now would be an excellent opportunity for you to improve your Spanish,’ it said, or words to that effect.
That night, after we were locked in prison cells and while I was trying to work out the Spanish for ‘terrible mistake’, a doctor visited us every few hours to carry out medical checks. This involved being told to undress to our underpants and was, I was assured, merely to observe that we had not been tortured.
At about two in the morning, the doctor once again ordered me to strip for a torture check and asked me what my name was. ‘Bond. James Bond,’ I replied as I searched for my trousers. He seemed to accept this.
After about 30 hours, we were released, thanks to the efforts of my ITN colleagues, the Foreign Office, the Venezuelan ambassador to London and, I was told, Mr Chávez himself. A copy of my passport was reproduced in a Venezuelan magazine which again suggested we had been spying. After we were released, I began my television report with the words: ‘Hugo Chávez: in danger of joining a rogue’s gallery of dictators and despots. Washington’s latest Latin nightmare.’ None of my reports before or since has provoked such a torrent of complaining emails, and it sent John Pilger into paroxysms of fury.
Nearly seven years later, it seems likely that the ailing president might pass away pretty soon — though he’s a mere 58. Even Fidel Castro, at 86, could outlive his star pupil.
I predict that in the obits, Venezuela’s leader will be idolised and demonised in equal measure. To his critics, he’s a demagogue who has used his personality cult to cement his grip on power. To his admirers, including Mr Pilger, he’s a champion of the poor who diverted oil revenues into a bold social experiment — and was, after all, democratically elected four times. In fact, Chávez’s ideology was often cloaked in such humour and Latin charm that he never quite became the despot he sometimes appeared. Cancer could be depriving him and us of that final verdict. Rather like my experience in one of his jails, it has often been hard with Hugo Chávez to tell how much was comedy, how much deadly serious.
Jonathan Rugman is foreign affairs correspondent of Channel 4 News.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 19 January 2013