The website of the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional was packed one recent day with stories about the shortages plaguing the economically stricken country. One covered a lack of medicine for diabetes patients. A second reported on multiplying lines at gasoline stations in Caracas and other cities. A third recounted the government’s failure to supply international airlines with the $3.6 billion in hard currency they are owed, which has caused a reduction in flights to Venezuela.
Unmentioned on this day was the case of El Nacional itself: Because of the government’s refusal to allow the paper to import newsprint, one of the last independent sources of news in the country may soon exist only in cyberspace. “To get newsprint in Venezuela, you need an authorization,” the paper’s publisher, Miguel Henrique Otero, told us during a recent visit to Washington. “For one and a half years we have not gotten the paper. We can’t inform the public because we don’t have the paper.”
The discrimination against the 71-year-old newspaper is part of a broader campaign by the government of Nicolas Maduro to eliminate the last independent media in the country. Since 2013 two other big newspapers and a television network have been sold by longtime owners to investors linked to the regime or to shell companies whose principals are unknown. The result has been the shutdown of critical coverage of the Maduro government even as it presides over an economic collapse and mounting political repression, including the arrest or prosecution of top opposition leaders.
Otero told us his newspaper was also offered a buyout but refused it. The denial of paper soon followed. El Nacional has been forced to reduce its print run, which was once 220,000 papers on Sunday, by more than half, and to cut its daily edition to 16 pages, compared with 60 to 70 pages several years ago. Other independent newspapers around the country have also been affected; a dozen have been forced to stop printing. But El Nacional’s case is particularly important because it is the last large national paper to fairly cover the political opposition and report aggressively on problems like the mounting shortages.
That it is still appearing at all is due to an extraordinary campaign of solidarity by other Latin American newspapers, which have been shipping their own newsprint to Venezuela to supply El Nacional. Among those participating are publishers in Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, Peru, Brazil, Argentina and Puerto Rico.
The backing is particularly impressive considering that governments in the region have abandoned any effort to intervene against the Maduro regime’s repression, despite a 2001 treaty that commits them to act when democracy is threatened.
The Obama administration, too, has mostly steered clear of the Venezuelan crisis.
Last week Congress passed legislation mandating sanctions against senior Venezuelan officials involved in human rights violations; after resisting the measure for most of this year, the White House now says it supports it. Pulling the visas and freezing U.S. assets of the Maduro regime’s enforcers is a worthwhile step, but it won’t save Venezuela — or El Nacional. “How long can we last? I don’t know,” Otero said. “How long can Maduro last?”