Doug Robinson: Venezuelan journalist flees threat

Published: Monday, Aug. 15 2011 11:42 p.m. MDT

In the prime working years of her life, Mary Ramirez is cleaning houses, pulling weeds and tending gardens for $15 an hour. It's a different life than the one she planned and started as a journalist in her native Venezuela, but she can sleep better at nights and walk the streets without having a gun held to her head.

That's worth the trade. At 27, she is starting over.

In America, the worst thing journalists have to worry about, other than a tanking industry, is a grumpy editor or having to interview cranks like Bobby Knight and Dick Cheney. Mary was told about those things in journalism school, but nobody said anything about flying bullets and threats on her life.

Mary quit the job she loves and came to America and Utah nearly a year ago to escape the near-anarchy of her homeland. "I couldn't do it anymore," she says. Instead of standing in front of a camera and talking into a microphone, she vacuums floors and dusts furniture.

After graduating from a private college with a degree in journalism, Mary immersed herself in the profession for three years, reporting simultaneously for TV and radio stations and a newspaper. She worked long hours, sometimes from morning until midnight. "I loved it," she says. "I didn't care if I had to work all day." It paid off. She won several regional awards for her reporting.

Her career was off to a fast start, but there were problems. The political climate made it difficult and dangerous to do her job.

"You cannot report what is true without putting your life at risk from the government," says Mary.

She witnessed the police attack citizens — women and children included — during a ceremony for public housing and watched in dismay as the governor fled the scene and did nothing to stop the violence. She returned to her office and began to work on her story; her boss got wind of it and told her the governor had called about her potential news report and to back off.

"I was writing what really happened," she says. "We were supposed to support the government, but I didn't." The newspaper and TV station refused to run her story. She threatened to quit, but she was convinced to remain.

On another occasion she was following the governor one night at a political event when she saw him exit his car "with white stuff on his nose. My camera guy told me, 'Don't get too close.' I didn't care. I went to him anyway and asked for an interview. He was acting weird. He was doing drugs. I was so disappointed. A lot of the political leaders do drugs. I know this."

She encountered her most frightening moment while covering a prison riot. "The prisoners are allowed to have guns, phones and drugs because the military gets bribes," she says. "The prisoners were mad. They started shooting at the military. I was on the floor just outside the prison. The walls of the houses by us had bullet holes in them. I crawled on the ground. I was shaking. One of my journalist friends was shot in the stomach."

She reported the event on TV. This time it wasn't her boss who called; it was a military official who threatened her.

Under the Hugo Chavez regime, radio and TV stations are being controlled or shut down. "If I wanted to get a job at a national TV station, I had to support Chavez and dress in red – that's his color," says Mary. "I had to say good things about him." One of Mary's peers was dragged in the street by her hair after making an unfavorable report about the government.

A journalist couldn't win. On one hand, the government told Mary she couldn't print the truth; on the other, citizens demanded that she write the truth or else.

"It was a nightmare," says Mary. "My life was threatened for what I reported."

Life in general had deteriorated in Venezuela, as well. Mary hardly knew anyone who hadn't been robbed or beaten. A man held a gun to Mary's head outside her home one night and threatened to kill her. For the third time, the family's car was stolen and 24 hours later the thief offered to return it for $1,000.

Nobody dares to be outside after dark. Every night, Mary heard gunfire on the streets outside her home. "My mom would tell me to get under the bed," recalls Mary.

Mary resigned from her job. She saved her money and exchanged it for American dollars on the black market, eight bolivars for one dollar. She traveled to Utah and moved in with friends.

"I wanted to live in a free country," she says.

When she arrived in America she was stunned to see that TV and newspapers could criticize and lampoon President Barack Obama. "They can do that?" she asked a friend. She was equally surprised to see women wearing shorts on the street. "You would get attacked if you did that in my country," she says.

She is not sure she will ever return home. "If you fly back there, someone will know about it and you'll be robbed because they want American dollars," she says. She hopes to return to journalism some day, but her tourist visa will not permit it.

Meanwhile, she marvels at her new life. She used to hide behind a closed front door and four locks at night. Now she can venture outside anytime without fear. "It's so calm and quiet here," she says.

email:drobinson@desnews.com

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