The World

The Interrogator

Jorge Ramos’ tense confrontation with Nicolás Maduro should come as no surprise. He’s spent his career getting under the skin of the powerful.

Jorge Ramos
Univision anchor Jorge Ramos. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Jorge Ramos spent the past few days running through the list of questions he had prepared for Nicolás Maduro, the leader who has sunk Venezuela into an abyss of unprecedented proportions. Ramos, Univision’s main news anchor for more than 30 years, was particularly focused on his first query, which would set the tone for the interview. He knew he had to put Maduro on the defensive to contain the Venezuelan strongman’s penchant for long-winded, empty rhetoric. “I wanted him to face a dilemma,” Ramos told me over the phone from Miami. He asked Maduro whether he should refer to him as Venezuela’s president or merely as a dictator, “which is what millions of people think of him.” It proved to be a brilliant journalistic choice.

Confronted with the growing assertions of his illegitimacy, Maduro grew irritable. The interview had run for 17 tense minutes when Ramos took out an iPad and showed Maduro a video he had shot hours before of a group of hungry Venezuelan men digging through trash in search of food scraps. “He couldn’t go on,” Ramos recalls. “He broke down and stopped the interview.” Maduro then “stupidly” tried to cover Ramos’ iPad and finally stood up and left, fuming, leaving Ramos behind.

Ramos would soon learn just how acutely he had gotten under Maduro’s skin. Venezuelan security forces detained the anchor and his team, and confiscated all four Univision cameras and every memory card on which the interview had been recorded. They seized the crew’s personal belongings and even forced Ramos to surrender his personal phone. For a while, Ramos and his producer were held in a dark room, where they were searched. Twenty-four hours later, Maduro’s government summarily deported the group. By then, word of Maduro’s despotic reaction had spread to every news outlet in the world.

Those unfamiliar with Jorge Ramos’ interviewing style might have been shocked by the incident. I wasn’t. As a colleague of his (I have worked with him for eight years at Univision), Ramos’ courageous and astute journalistic provocation of the Venezuelan leader comes as no surprise. Maduro’s reaction is just another notch on Ramos’ belt, one more remarkable episode on a long list of historic clashes in the three decades since he took over Univision’s network newscast.

A firm believer in confrontational journalism, Ramos has chosen the interview as his weapon of choice. His style is not without its critics. He has been accused of being an activist in the guise of a journalist. It’s a claim Ramos doesn’t shy away from. Especially in the age of Trump, he does not believe in detachment, so much so that his brand of forceful journalism has become a personal banner of sorts. “When it comes to racism, dictatorship and human rights, we cannot remain neutral, we have to take a stand,” reads his Twitter cover picture. What makes Ramos unique, though, is that his appetite for confrontation is almost universal. He is a relentless interrogator of power, no matter who wields it.

Take Maduro’s mentor, the cunning Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez. A shrewd communicator in the model of Fidel Castro, Chávez could talk for hours on end, spinning weary reporters around. He could be beguiling and intimidating, utterly convinced of the socialist experiment he had unleashed in Venezuela. Ramos faced Chávez during very different, yet crucial, moments in his career. In 1998, before the elections that would first bring him to power, Ramos proved prescient, asking a deceptively subdued Chávez about his commitment to the rule of law. “He lied three times,” Ramos recalls, running through the list of what proved to be Chavez’s empty promises to respect Venezuela’s democratic institutions.

Two years later, Ramos went back to Venezuela and sat with Chávez, surrounded by a group of the president’s ardent sympathizers. “They booed my questions and applauded his answers,” Ramos remembered. Despite a noticeable nervous quiver in his voice, Ramos refused to be intimidated by the scene and pushed Chávez repeatedly. Dressed in full military garb, Chávez faced Ramos with a cynical smirk, growing increasingly upset by his antagonist’s insistence. “You’re parroting trash,” Chavez said, trying to dismiss the journalist. He couldn’t: Ramos kept pushing. “My role is to ask questions”, Ramos said, undaunted.

It was not only dictators who got the Ramos treatment. He used this same doggedness to interview Barack Obama in 2012, during a Univision town hall conversation. Ramos pushed Obama on his failure to keep the promise of immigration reform in his first term in office. Visibly irked, Obama tried to justify the lack of reform for the country’s undocumented population. Ramos would have none of it. “A promise is a promise. With all due respect: You didn’t keep that promise,” Ramos insisted. Two years later, Obama met Ramos again. This time, Ramos went after Obama on deportation. “They called you deporter in chief,” Ramos told Obama, who pushed back immediately, glaring at the interviewer. The exchange is still one of the few times Barack Obama has betrayed a hint of genuine discomfort during a formal television interview.

Ramos’s pièce de résistance came in 2015, when he faced Donald Trump, a man diametrically opposed to everything Ramos has stood for as a Hispanic journalist. In a controversial moment, Ramos stood up during a press conference in Iowa to repeatedly ask Trump a question on immigration. When Trump tried to ignore him, Ramos remained standing, repeating his query like a mantra. Trump, who had been on the campaign trail for just a couple of months, lost his cool. “Sit down. Go back to Univision,” he said, in an astonishing rebuke. But Ramos wouldn’t move. “I have the right to ask,” Ramos insisted. Trump’s security detail then pushed Ramos out of the room, in an indelible moment that, if read correctly, should have been interpreted by American media as a sign of things to come.

To this day, Trump has not agreed to sit down across from Jorge Ramos. Can you blame him? The man has questions.