Detained U.S. journalist back in Miami after release from Venezuelan custody

A U.S. freelance journalist detained for several hours by the Venezuelan government arrived at Miami International Airport on Thursday following calls for his release by Florida lawmakers, press-rights groups and the leader of Venezuela’s opposition movement.

Cody Weddle, a 28-year-old native of Virginia, said the public outcry following his detention was critical to his release, as he felt his captors were feeling the pressure.

“I just want to say thank you to everybody,” he said. “They started becoming anxious and I think it’s because people were speaking out.”

He was detained Wednesday morning following a raid of his Caracas apartment by the country’s Direccion General de Contrainteligencia Militar (DGCIM), or Military Counterintelligence. Weddle’s assistant, the Venezuelan citizen Carlos Camacho, was also detained and their equipment temporarily seized, according to the National Union of Journalists.

Weddle was released Wednesday evening after 12 hours in custody. He had most recently been reporting on the fracturing of the Venezuelan military alongside political lines and the return of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who had been barred from returning to the country by Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro. Guaidó, the president of the National Assembly, is attempting to unseat Maduro and has received support from the U.S. and Lima Group member states, who recognize him as interim president.

“There’s a lot of tension right now,” Weddle told gathered media after his American Airlines flight touched down just before 2:30 p.m. “Because of the political crisis, I think there’s a lot of paranoia.”

Weddle, a Venezuelan resident with a valid visa, has lived in Venezuela since 2014. He has worked with South Florida’s WPLG Local 10, the Miami Herald, ABC, CBC and the Telegraph, among other news outlets.

Weddle said the Venezuelan government accused him of treason, espionage and removing military artifacts. He was detained for several hours with a ski mask covering his face and interrogated about his work while guards searched through his phone and computer. He was unharmed but went without food or water during the detention. He was later released to Venezuelan immigration officials at an airport.

He was asked about his contacts in the military and he was threatened with arrest. He fought back tears thinking of the anguish his mother was feeling.

At one point, he said, an officer videotaped him and asked him questions about the politics of Venezuela. The officer said he would role play as a “journalist.” Weddle said he believed the officer would attempt to manipulate his answers and perhaps use the video as a form of propaganda.

“It was a lot about politics,” he said. “They said I was a mercenary.”

The government officials eventually returned Weddle’s equipment and released him. Camacho was also released, but he remained in Venezuela, Weddle said.

Weddle is unsure of his legal status there.

“At no time did they say I was prohibited from returning,” he said. “One officer said I was being deported.”

Florida lawmakers, including Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart and Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, condemned Weddle’s detention and repeatedly called for his release.

“They do this for one reason alone, to intimidate journalists from reporting on & on conditions in ,” Rubio wrote on Twitter. Rubio said Weddle had been held for 12 hours before being deported.

Scott wished Weddle a “safe return home,” and Diaz-Balart posted the hashtag “#freecody.

“Maduro and his thugs need to know: the U.S. will not stand for threats against journalists,” he said on Twitter.

The Maduro administration did not comment on or confirm Weddle’s detention. Guaidó had joined Florida lawmakers Wednesday in calling for Weddle’s release.

“We demand the release of U.S. journalist Cody Weddle, who was kidnapped by a regime that is usurping powers and tries, unsuccessfully, to hide what’s truly happening in our country,” he wrote on Twitter.

Espacio Publico, a media advocacy group, has documented at least 38 reporters being detained in January and February.

Violent clashes between government forces and opposition protesters have become routine in the weeks after Guaidó declared himself Venezuela’s interim president on Jan. 23, claiming that Maduro’s reelection in 2018 was far from free or fair.

Last month, the government blocked high-profile deliveries of humanitarian aid through Colombia. At least four people died and 280 were injured in Colombia, according to Colombian Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo, advocacy groups and field medics. Aid trucks were set ablaze during violent outbreaks at an international bridge that links Venezuela to Colombia. Protesters threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at the front line. Law enforcement tossed tear gas and fired plastic pellets.

On Feb. 25, Venezuelan forces detained Univision Noticias reporter Jorge Ramos during an interview with Maduro. He was subsequently released and deported. He arrived the following day at MIA, but the network said his equipment and footage of the interview were confiscated.

Weddle left the airport with the clothes on his back and two bags of reporting gear. He said he plans to see his mother and coordinate with friends abroad to gather up the rest of his belongings left behind. Before long, he plans to return.

“I want to be there,” he said. “I want to keep doing my job there.”

Martin Vassolo covers the politics and government of Miami Beach for the Miami Herald. He began working for the Herald in January 2018 after attending the University of Florida, where he served as the editor-in-chief of The Independent Florida Alligator. Previously, he was a general assignment reporter on the Herald’s metro desk and a political reporting intern.