There are two conditions British foreign correspondents must meet before they can be considered old hands. The first is having one’s work savaged by John Pilger; the second is spending time inside a cell somewhere abroad, preferably somewhere exotic and hot.

It so happens that it was during a trip to sultry Venezuela that I came of age as a reporter and achieved the rare double. Not only did Mr Pilger describe my television work as a “one of the worst, most distorted pieces of journalism I have ever seen,” but I was also locked up, ordered to strip to my underpants, accused by a military prosecutor of espionage and threatened with over thirty years in a Venezuelan jail.

20 chavez blog My Venezuelan jail hell

The editor has kindly acceded to a long-cherished whimsy of mine and headlined this piece  “My Venezuelan Jail Hell”. In fact, it wasn’t hellish at all; being stripped to my “cojones” in Caracas  proved a good deal more pleasant than the verbal abuse from Mr Pilger when my clothes were back on.

My alleged crime was to have “broken in” to a Venezuelan military base to spy on secret operations undertaken by the Bolivarian Socialist Republic, but in journalistic terms it was far worse than that. I had been waved through the gates of this so-called base one weekend afternoon, not quite comprehending I was entering a military installation at all.

Western wanderer

Lurking beneath some trees were Venezuela’s Home Guard, planning the counterinsurgency they intended to mount once the United States had invaded. Earnest young men and women in red berets, prepared to die for Hugo Chavez and his people’s revolution, if he didn’t die for it first.

It was a bad time for a westerner to wander into a Venezuelan army base. Chávez had become convinced that the CIA was plotting to kill him – which wasn’t an entirely paranoid thought. In 2006, the year of my run-in, US-Venezuelan relations had reached a new low. Not only had George Bush invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, but his defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, had compared Chávez with Adolf Hitler.

The US already stood accused of backing a failed coup against Chavez in 2002. In return,  Chavez called George W Bush “a donkey, a coward, a murderer, a genocidal killer, a drunkard” on “Alo Presidente”, his weekly television show .

When he fell ill with cancer, the former paratrooper and coup leader known as “El Comandante” took this assassination theory even further, claiming the US could have “developed a technology to induce cancer” after the Argentinian, Paraguayan and Brazilian leaders had all mysteriously succumbed to the same illness as the President  himself.

‘My name is Bond. James Bond’

After I was detained, things didn’t look too good at first. My prosecutor, in army uniform, dusted down his copy of the country’s penal code and informed me and my camera team that espionage was a very serious offence. The offence was so serious that a British diplomat was called for and arrived with the standard photocopied sheet of consular advice for Britons in distress. This advice was written on the assumption that anybody in trouble in Venezuela was probably a South American drug mule and would therefore be in jail for decades.

“Now would be an excellent opportunity for you to improve your Spanish,” it said, or words to that effect.

That night, after we were locked in prison cells and while I was trying to work out the Spanish for “terrible mistake”, a doctor visited us every few hours to carry out medical checks. This  involved being told to undress to our underpants and was, I was assured, merely to observe that we had not been tortured.

At about two in the morning, the doctor once again ordered me to strip for a torture check and asked me what my name was. “Bond. James Bond,” I replied as I searched for my trousers. He seemed to accept this.

After about 30 hours, we were released, thanks to the efforts of my ITN colleagues, the Foreign Office, the Venezuelan ambassador to London and, I was told, Hugo Chavez himself.  A copy of my passport was reproduced in a Venezuelan magazine which again suggested we had been spying, but the Venezuelans had decided not to embroil a team of British journalists in their undiplomatic standoff with Washington.

Chavez to be idolised & demonised

Nearly seven years later, it seems likely that the ailing president might pass away pretty soon – though he’s a mere 58. Even Fidel Castro, at 86, could outlive his star pupil, and it is a toss up as to which Comrade will be read the Rosary in the Cuban capital first.

My television report in 2006 had begun with the words “Hugo Chavez: in danger of joining a rogue’s gallery of dictators and despots. Washington’s latest Latin nightmare.” None of my reports before or since has provoked such a torrent of complaining emails, and it sent John Pilger into paroxysms of fury.

I predict that when the obits are written, they will idolise and demonise Hugo Chavez in equal measure. To his critics, he’s a demagogue who used his personality cult to cement his grip on power. To his “Chavista” admirers including Mr Pilger, he diverted Venezuela’s oil revenues to the poor in the boldest social experiment his Continent has seen.

Both happen to be true. He won four times at the ballot box, yet made no secret of his plan to stay in the Miraflores palace until  2031. Though “El Comandante”  didn’t steal an election, he didn’t have to, and now we will never know if he would.

Franklin D Roosevelt supposedly remarked of one Latin American dictator that “he may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch”. Hugo Chavez’s chief crime in his critics’ eyes was surely that he had failed to sign up for the right team.

And while the Right vilified him, the Left believed that they had found the Robin Hood they were looking for. In fact, his ideology was often cloaked in such humour and Latin charm that he never quite became the despot he sometimes appeared.  Cancer could be depriving him and us of that final verdict. Rather like my experience in one of his jails,  it has often been hard with Hugo Chavez to tell how much was comedy, how much deadly serious.

A shorter version of this piece appears in this week’s Spectator

Follow @jrug on Twitter