If You Want to Explain Venezuela, You Need to Go There

If You Want to Explain Venezuela, You Need to Go There

Going deep into how Venezuela really is today. Photo: Fabiola Ferrero


A French journalist who has covered several war zones around the world (and is on her way to report on the upcoming American elections) tells us how her time in Venezuela introduced her to a country that’s key for the continent.

By Caracas ChroniclesSandra Caula

Sep 29, 2020

Before the world turned into the pandemic headquarters and not much more, I had lunch with Claire Meynial in Madrid. I had met her the previous year in Paris and I was surprised by both her perfect Spanish and her ability to analyze what was going on in Latin America with much better information about my country than what I had.

At the time, I didn’t know I was speaking to a correspondent of Le Point, a specialist on African affairs and our continent, Ouest-France Jean Marin award winner at the Bayeux war correspondent’s festival (2014), and winner of the Albert Londres award (2016), who also covered Hugo Chávez’s last election and the Maduro’s first one.

This week, with Meynial about to leave for the upcoming elections in the USA, one where Venezuela will have some bearing on the voters, we centered part of our conversations on those topics.

What exactly makes a war reporter?

To be honest, I don’t consider myself a war reporter! I didn’t go to Mosul, like many of my generation did, for instance. I’ve covered Africa and Latin America. I wrote a lot about Boko Haram, in Nigeria, Niger, Chad… I was in Somalia, in Libya for migration issues. I went to Venezuela several times, which isn’t a war zone, but it’s very dangerous for journalists. The work is always the same, but sometimes it’s carried out in more exposed areas. It’s a difficult situation to explain, which doesn’t necessarily interest readers. You have to give them comprehension keys with human stories and analysis. It’s not easy because, as Venezuelans have seen, people aren’t spontaneously interested in things that aren’t in contact with them. During these eight months after our first conversation I went to Lesbos, because of the refugees, Sweden, Denmark, Brazil, Martinique… none of these places are war zones. But they’re places of tension. These last few months, for instance, since I had COVID-19 in Lesbos in March, I’ve had to go out more than many other reporters.

Is it common for women to be in this line of work?

Yes, it’s common now. I have friends, journalists or photographers who do it. There’s something basic that explains it: bosses in media outlets are still men, being in the field entails less responsibility… the Albert Londres award was created in 1933, and I won it in 2016, the fifteenth woman to win it (for written press). While there were female reporters before, they were fewer, and less known. Martha Gellhorn, for example, was an exceptional war correspondent who covered all the major conflicts in the 20th century, she’s known as “Hemingway’s wife”.

It was amazing in 2013, during Maduro’s campaign, how people gave their backs to him as he was talking. Then, with Guaidó, there was enthusiasm, but not fanaticism.

How did you get into journalism? I noticed that you studied Literature and Political Science.

I always wanted to be a journalist, but truth be told, I hadn’t the faintest idea of what it meant, I had a more romantic vision. In France, I studied the hypokhâgne and after that two khâgnes: classic literature, philosophy, latin, Golden Age Spanish, history… and then I did poli-sci (Political Science) and a master’s in Spanish at The Sorbonne. I did internships in editorials and newspapers, and I made my way to Le Point. There, I worked in almost every section, until one day they thought I could be useful covering Latin America, because the correspondent retired. That’s when I realized that what made my engine run was indignation. I saw terrible things happen and I thought: “No one knows about this, I have to let it be known.” But if you want to explain things well, you have to go there. If you don’t go days trying to figure out how to get across this path that’s right next to jihadists, if you don’t spend the night without electricity, where they fear the sound of motorbikes, if you don’t see the farms where they burn everything down so Boko Haram can’t supply themselves… you may write a report, but it won’t be journalism.

How did Venezuela become one of your main sources?

I was working for a newspaper in 2002. My job ended in July and I wanted to put my vacation time to good use. The editor-in-chief told me that Cuba was a long term investment, “Fidel is going to die someday and it’s worth seeing the island before that happens.” But in the short term, it was possible that Venezuela would worsen. I decided to go to Venezuela, with my boyfriend. I had time to cover a couple of protests, before the special correspondent arrived. Afterwards, I travelled across the country. When I began work at the international service, Chávez was almost gone, but I was sent to report the election because of my Spanish and because I already knew Venezuela. After that, I returned to cover Maduro’s election (2013), and I went back a few more times. Between these jobs, I’m always following what’s happening, I talk to my contacts… I feel a kind of love for that country that I don’t feel for any other. I know a lot of people, it has a high intellectual level in political analysis which makes conversations passionate. I think that’s key for the continent.

To call Maduro a socialist, with the same word we use to describe Tony Blair or Denmark, is frankly surreal. History has made socialism in Latin America something very different from what it is here.

Read More: Caracas Chronicles – If You Want to Explain Venezuela, You Need to Go There

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