Venezuelans have been suffering one calamity after the next, but in recent weeks, much of Venezuela has had to go long stretches without electricity.
New York Times journalist Nicholas Casey was in Maracaibo, Venezuela, in March when the country was hit by a six-day blackout, considered at the time the worst in Venezuela's history. He says people initially assumed that the outage had been planned and that power would be restored after a few hours. But as hours stretched into days, the country fell into chaos.
"By the fourth day of the power outage, that was when you started to hear shots getting fired in the street," Casey says. "People were beginning to loot, and the store owners were coming out to defend their stores."
As Andes bureau chief for the Times, Casey has been covering the deepening economic and political chaos in Venezuela. He says the current crisis in the country is "almost unimaginable."
"This is an oil-producing country. This was one of the most wealthy countries in Latin America," he says. "And now this is a place where there are shortages of food, shortages of medicine. People's daily lives are spent trying to figure out how they're going to get basic things like eggs or coffee."
Casey notes that Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, who took over after the 2013 death of Hugo Chávez, has become increasingly authoritarian, imprisoning political rivals and cracking down on protesters. Maduro has also cut off access for journalists, including Casey.
"The government doesn't allow me to live in Venezuela anymore. I lived there in 2016, and by the end of the year, my visa was revoked," Casey says. "Their reaction to the stories that I've had — it's been terrible sometimes. Anything that they see that doesn't line up with their view of what's happening in the country they consider to be a lie."
On Venezuelans leaving their country because of the chaos
The U.N. estimates that it's upwards of 3 million people who have left. Now remember, this is a country of 30 million people. So we're talking about 10 percent of the population that has gone. And you see this when you walk around the streets of Caracas, which I have, or Maracaibo, which I did just a few weeks ago. There are areas which are completely empty. You walk down streets and you see that there's two or three people in one house, and then another house is gone, or another house has got a family of what looked like squatters, because they've just moved into the place.
On what the journey to leave Venezuela is like
So when you decide to leave, you usually say goodbye to your family, but there's no way of getting a flight, because you can't afford that. So for the most part, people take a bus using the bolívar, the currency that they have. Now the bolívars are worth money in Venezuela, but once you cross the border, they are almost worth nothing. So you're essentially bankrupt the moment that you cross into Colombia. ...
And at that point you have to figure out how you're going to get somewhere. And that usually means you're going to walk, and often Venezuelans will spend a few days on the border, but then they keep moving, because there are so many Venezuelans in these border towns. There's no jobs for them there, so people set off on foot. They have usually a suitcase, backpacks, but they're trying to travel very light, because they know that they're going to have to carry everything on their backs that they're bringing, and hitching rides occasionally. Sometimes they can save a little bit of money to take a bus ride a short distance, but basically they are trying to put as many footsteps between them and Venezuela as they can. And it can be an extremely long process to try to travel these countries; these are very mountainous countries on foot.
On how neighboring countries are responding to the millions of migrants
On one end, these countries are trying to pressure [President] Maduro now to step down, because they know that this migrant crisis is going to get even worse the more politically unstable the country gets. Countries like Colombia understand that Venezuela used to be a country that took their immigrants, especially during the darkest days of the paramilitaries and the guerrilla fighting, but at the same time, they understand they can't take every Venezuelan that comes.
And not only that, because of this crisis that's getting worse and worse, because of lack of medicine mainly, people are coming into these countries with diseases that should be controlled in Venezuela — diseases like diphtheria, malaria, tuberculosis have made a huge comeback in Venezuela. So if you're a neighboring country like Brazil or Colombia or a country like Ecuador or Peru, who are farther away but are also taking immigrants, this is a very scary situation that's right on your doorstep.
On how President Maduro forced visiting Cuban doctors to use access to medicine as a way to gain votes for Maduro right before an election
They would start by going house to house to people. ... The way that it was being described to me was that essentially you would start by handing people medications that they needed, especially seeing if they had chronic illnesses that they really needed medication for on a regular basis. And then after you start to get their trust, you would start to bring up Maduro. You'd start to bring up politics. You'd ask them, "Are you registered to vote?" And then actually start to make a much harder pitch, like "You need to vote for Maduro. This is where this medicine is coming from," and ultimately at the end of this there would be a threat, which is that "If you don't vote for Maduro, there is a possibility that you will lose your medication. You will lose your free health care." And this is what all of the doctors that I talked to said. ...
The further along that you got, the less popular that Maduro was becoming, the more that you began to see that he was leaning on this medical system to try to drive votes. In one election in 2015, there was a doctor who said that when it appeared that the opposition was ahead in a legislative vote, that they actually not only saw the doctors out that afternoon to try to get people to go vote, [but] they also dressed other people up, who were not doctors, as doctors and gave them medicine to go get people to vote, to try to get them to trust these doctors to go and vote.
In the last elections that were taking place in 2017 and 2018, there was a doctor who was explaining to me about how he was in a small town and wasn't able to give medication to certain patients that were from the opposition and also was told to withhold things like oxygen tanks and not put them out early in the year because they wanted to bring out all the medicine and the oxygen tanks, which were largely in shortage, just before the election, just before people were going to vote, essentially to give the impression that Maduro had solved this medical crisis before people had to go vote for him again.
One reason to be optimistic that Venezuela will recover
I think there's a way out, and Venezuela, we have to remember, has lots of oil. So no matter how bad the economic crisis is, if there is a way out of the political crisis, there is a way for the country to be able to produce the money that it needs to be able to get back on its feet again. Unlike many other countries in the world, it's extremely blessed to have this natural resource there. But the way out is to have an election. People need to be able to choose who their leader is, because until that can happen, whoever is in charge — whether it's Juan Guaidó saying that he is the president or Nicolás Maduro saying that he is the president — isn't going to have the legitimacy to do anything about it.
Venezuelans ultimately need to be able to choose who's going to be their leader, and they might choose someone again from the left. After all these years, I'm not sure that that's what they're going to do, but they need to be able to have a choice between a number of parties from the opposition and whoever Maduro would put as his candidate, and whoever wins can then take the next steps.
Now, it's not going to be a fast process. This is something that's going to take years, to rebuild this country. But it's not necessarily the level I think always of devastation that makes people feel the worst. It's the fact that things are getting worse every day. Even if things were at a low point in Venezuela, if people could see that there was a reason for hope that things were starting to get better, I think you would start to see people coming back to Venezuela.
Amy Salit and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Alex Leff adapted it for the Web.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's taping an interview this evening with Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin. We'll hear that interview Thursday.
One of the largest movements of refugees in the world today comes from Venezuela, where acute shortages of food, medicine and electric power have compelled millions to flee a country that once had a large, prosperous middle class. Our guest today is Nicholas Casey, the Andes bureau chief for The New York Times who's been covering the deepening economic and political crisis in the country.
Nicolas Maduro, who took over as president of Venezuela after the 2013 death of Hugo Chavez, has become increasingly authoritarian - imprisoning political rivals and cracking down on protesters. And the opposition now has a leader in Juan Guaido, the president of the National Assembly who declared himself interim president and has been recognized as the country's true leader by more than 50 countries, including the United States. Casey writes that the crisis in Venezuela has created an untenable standoff - one country with two presidents.
Nicholas Casey wrote about Mexican drug cartels and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for The Wall Street Journal. He joined The New York Times in 2016 and now covers most of the countries in South America. I spoke to him about the crisis in Venezuela yesterday.
Nick Casey, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's begin by talking about conditions in Venezuela today. What is daily life like for those who were there and trying to stick it out?
NICHOLAS CASEY: It's almost unimaginable from the kind of life that you would have had 10, 15 years ago. This is an oil-producing country. This was one of the most wealthy countries in Latin America. And now this is a place where there are shortages of food, shortages of medicine. People's daily lives are spent trying to figure out how they're going to get basic things like eggs or coffee; coffee can be a luxury. And for people that need medicine or are sick, this is an even more urgent challenge.
Suddenly, you find yourself trying to figure out how you're going to get penicillin, how you're going to get medicine for chronic diseases and also whether you should stay, like, whether you should try to find a way out of the country. I mean, this is how people are organizing their lives these days, around just the most basic questions.
DAVIES: There's a lack of power in the country, a lack of electrical power. And you described, in one piece, travelling to the city of Maracaibo on the Caribbean coast, which had a multiday blackout in March. What did you find?
CASEY: This was a place that didn't have electricity for six days. And again, one of these ironic parts about Maracaibo is that the city is - used to be the center of a major oil industry because this is where PDVSA, which is the state oil company, had centered most of its production for years. This was one of the first cities that had electricity in Venezuela. But today, it sits on the edge of the power grid because it's in the northwest of the country, and when this massive power outage hit Venezuela in March, this was one of the first places that lost its electricity.
And what you saw was, in the beginning - and Maracaibo's this hot city in the Caribbean coast. They use a lot of electricity, a lot of air conditioning. The joke used to be it was the coldest city in all of Venezuela because the air conditioning was always on. But then, suddenly, it went out. And when it did, people actually assumed that this was just another one of the many power blackouts that went on, rolling power outages that the country has had to do to keep everybody with some amount of electricity.
DAVIES: That last for a few hours, typically, right?
CASEY: That last for a few hours. At - yeah. And they were expecting the electricity to come back by the end of the evening, and when it didn't, people started to talk to each other, and people started to realize that this was not just Maracaibo that had lost its electricity; it was the entire country. You know, almost 30 million people now were in the dark. And this level of power outage hadn't happened before. So, you know, during the first days, people were just trying to make do. They realized that their food was going to rot in the refrigerator so they cooked it up. People pulled out generators in some of the neighborhoods I went and visited to, and they were plugging in their cellphones so they can stay in contact with people.
But they were also very nervous because the government wasn't saying exactly what had happened, and the only reason, the only explanation that Maduro came out was that there had been some sort of terrorist attack, some sort of sabotage against the electricity system - the system which people knew for years had been slowly coming undone. By the fourth day of the power outage, that was when you started to hear shots getting fired in the street. People were beginning to loot, and the store owners were coming out to defend their stores.
So suddenly, you had massive groups of people, unruly crowds, going into the streets, trying to take anything they could. It started with food, but then, suddenly, it went on to getting electrical appliances, taking anything out of these stores that they possibly could - medicine, you know, refrigerators, sofas. People were just beginning to take everything that they could see at that point, and it was getting extremely violent. Meanwhile, some of the looters themselves were coming in with injuries because they were getting into fights with the people who own these stores, often gun battles themselves. They were going into hospitals, and the hospitals themselves didn't have any light, so how were they going to treat anybody? One of the hospitals who I interviewed doctors from told me that, in the evening, there was an armed group that came into the hospital and started robbing the patients.
So one of the things that you saw from this power outage was that there was a lot more than just a blackout that was happening. You saw the state beginning to crumble in many ways and law and order completely disappearing. And it basically brought up the question, is - can you have a state in a place where there's no power? This is the one basic thing that the government should be able to provide, and the Venezuelan government hasn't been able to provide it yet. There are still huge parts of Venezuela that don't have power now, a month later.
DAVIES: So what was the government's explanation for the blackout, and what do you think might really have been the cause?
CASEY: Well, there were a couple of explanations. One of the explanations came from the union of the electricians workers themselves, which said that there was a brush fire that had taken place and had burned some of the infrastructure, and then after that, the grid went out. There was Maduro's explanation which came out, which was completely different; he said this was an act of sabotage that had been organized by the United States. He called it a cybernetic electromagnetic attack, and he said it had been sent from Chicago and Houston. After that, the head of the electricians union disappeared, and he was wanted by the government.
This is a cycle that you're seeing more and more, which is that the government has one explanation that often completely defies reality, in terms of what you're seeing. When I used to live in Venezuela, there were blackouts from this same dam, the Guri Dam, because everybody in Venezuela knew, if there was no maintenance done to this dam, it was going to fail in a spectacular way. And finally, it did. So when this blackout happened, this was something that had been foretold for years at this point. How are you going to be able to maintain a massive hydroelectric dam in the middle of this kind of crisis? You can't. And eventually, what you have is a massive blackout, like the one that we're still having in Venezuela.
DAVIES: So conditions are beyond difficult, and a lot of people have left. Do we know how many people have decided to leave the country?
CASEY: The U.N. estimates that it's upwards of 3 million people who have left. Now, remember this is a country of 30 million people, so we're talking about, like, 10 percent of the population that has gone. And you see this when you walk around the streets of Caracas, which I have, or Maracaibo, which I did just a few weeks ago. There are areas which are completely empty. You walk down streets, and you see that, you know, there's two or three people in one house, and then another house is gone, or another house has got a family of what look like squatters because they've just moved into the place.
You also talk to people who say that now they've got relatives who are outside of Venezuela, and the way that they are surviving is from their remittances that they're sending. Remittances was hardly a word you ever heard in Venezuela because Venezuela used to be the country everybody was moving to. This was a place where you had immigrants coming from Europe after World War II, you had Colombians coming into Venezuela during the armed conflict there that went on for decades and still is happening - because of the oil industry. If you were young, talented, educated, if you had aspirations, if you wanted to get ahead, Venezuela was a place that could be open to you. And now this is the place which is sending thousands of people across the border every single day.
DAVIES: Now, leaving can't be easy if you live in a country where your currency has become essentially worthless and transportation systems have broken down. How do people leave? What did your reporting show you about that?
CASEY: So I've talked to a lot of people that have gone; I see them everywhere. I mean, I was in Ecuador the end of last year, and just across the road, we were in the middle of a forest at one point, and we saw a group of people pulling suitcases, and they were Venezuelans. So I asked them how they left - how did you get here? You're in Ecuador. You're now many countries away from where you started.
So when you decide to leave, you usually say goodbye to your family, but there's no way of getting a flight because you can't afford that. So for the most part, people take a bus, using the bolivars, the currency that they have. Now, the bolivars are worth money in Venezuela, but once you cross the border, they are almost worth nothing. So you're essentially bankrupt the moment that you cross into Colombia, cross over a land border, usually in this town called Cucuta. There's another town called Maicao on the other side of Venezuela that people come through as well. And at that point, you have to figure out how you're going to get somewhere. And that usually means you're going to walk. And, you know, often Venezuelans will spend a few days on the border, but then they keep moving 'cause there's so many Venezuelans in these border towns, and there's no jobs for them there.
So people, you know, set off on foot. They have usually a suitcase, backpacks, but they're trying to travel very light because they know that they're going to have to carry everything on their backs that they're bringing - and hitching rides occasionally. Sometimes they can save a little bit of money to take a bus ride a short distance but basically trying to put as many footsteps between them and Venezuela as they can. And it can be an extremely long process to try to travel these countries, these very mountainous countries on foot.
DAVIES: Now, you talked to people who'd traveled through trails that were like - what? - 10,000 feet above sea level.
CASEY: Higher. Twelve thousand feet is - so you cross into Columbia, and the first stretch that you have to cross is going to be the worst actually. It's this 12,000-foot mountain pass in the Andes Mountains between Cucuta and another city called Bucaramanga. It's 125 miles through this area called the paramo, which is like this kind of windswept, treeless steppe where you can see out - these snowcapped mountains in the distance. And this is basically your welcome to Colombia, essentially - is to be able to make this this massive hike.
And at the end of last year and the beginning of this year, I talked to a number of people who were making this journey, and it's terrifying for many of them. Many of them told me they hadn't been that cold in their lives. They had no idea that they were going to have to go straight up. Some of the people that I had talked to had tried to make the journey and had turned around and had gone back to Cucuta because they just didn't think they were going to make it to the other side. Others were lucky, and someone gave them a ride, and they were able to get through some of it.
But this is one of the huge hurdles that Venezuelans face when they come and start this new life. And it's just the first of huge hurdles, from being able to cross these mountains, from being able to find work, from being able to get papers, not being caught by the authorities and sent back to Venezuela, which happens to a lot of people in Colombia. This is the start of what's going to be a very, very difficult life once you leave.
DAVIES: And how are the neighboring countries reacting to the immigration?
CASEY: It's with a lot of apprehension, I'd say, a lot of apprehension and understanding. On one hand, these countries are trying to pressure Maduro now to step down because they know that this migrant crisis is going to get even worse the more politically unstable the country gets. Countries like Colombia understand that Venezuela used to be a country that took their immigrants, especially during, like, the darkest days of the paramilitaries and the guerrilla fighting. But at the same time, they understand they can't take every Venezuelan that comes.
And not only that - because of this crisis that's, you know, getting worse and worse because of this lack of medicine mainly, people are coming into these countries with diseases that should be controlled in Venezuela, diseases like diphtheria, malaria. Tuberculosis has made a huge comeback in Venezuela. So if you're a neighboring country like Brazil or Colombia or a country like Ecuador or Peru, who are a little farther away but also taking immigrants, this is a very scary situation that's right on your doorstep.
DAVIES: Nicholas Casey is the Andes bureau chief for The New York Times. He's been reporting on events in Venezuela. We will talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN'S "GBEDE TEMIN")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Nick Casey. He's the Andes bureau chief for The New York Times. He's been reporting on the crisis in Venezuela.
You've been reporting on Venezuela for a few years, but I understand you are no longer living there. Explain what kind of reaction you've had from the Maduro government how that's affected your ability to report.
CASEY: It's hard. And, you know, it's not just against me but against - it's against journalism, really. The government doesn't allow me to live in Venezuela anymore. I lived there in 2016. And by the end of the year, my visa was revoked one night that I was trying to come back to my home where I had an apartment. And I was told I wasn't going to be allowed in the country. I was detained that night in the airport, and then I was put on the first plane out of the country. And then for two years, I wasn't able to step foot again in Venezuela until I was eventually given another very short-term visa to cover the country. I came for a presidential election that they were having from Maduro.
I since have been able to get another visa but never anything that would allow me to live there because it's very clear the government is not interested in foreign journalists being there on a permanent basis if they can find any way to keep them out. And their reaction to the stories that I've had has been terrible sometimes. Anything that they see that doesn't line up with their view of what's happening in the country they consider to be a lie.
One of the last stories that I had published in the Times was about how Maduro's government had been using Cuban doctors who were supposedly in the country on humanitarian missions to treat poor people - how they were using these doctors not just to distribute medicine but to also push propaganda for the Maduro government, to get people to vote for Maduro, essentially, using medicine. After this story came out, many people from the government came out to attack it, including Maduro himself, who went on national television. And he called the story repulsive. The president of Cuba went on Twitter, and he called the article a crime, and he named me as a reporter. He said, you know, Casey and The New York Times, this is a crime.
When you see this from heads of state, this is extremely aggressive, this makes you very nervous as a journalist to do your work. And I think what made me even more nervous was the fact that these leaders felt that they could call this article a lie. But at the same time, they provided no evidence at all that what we had published wasn't true. I talked to 16 doctors that told me very similar stories. And here you have the leaders of these countries not being able to produce one shred of evidence that what we had published had any problems in it but focused on calling the article - attacking the article and attacking us.
DAVIES: You mentioned these Cuban doctors were using medical care, essentially, as a political weapon, you know, at the coercion of the Maduro government. How exactly did that work? What would they do?
CASEY: So they would start by going house to house to people. This was something that, when I started talking to the doctors about, they had mentioned was something that really bothered them. They wanted to be in their consultorios. They wanted to be in their offices, their doctors' offices, treating people. But they were being told every weekend, after the times they had finished, you know, some of their appointments, they needed to go and knock on people's doors and offer medicine.
And the way that it was being described to me was that, you know, essentially, you would start by handing people medications that they needed, especially seeing if they had chronic illnesses that they really needed medication for on a regular basis. And then after you start to gain their trust, you would start to bring up Maduro. You would start to bring up politics. You'd ask them, you know, are you registered to vote? And then actually start to make a much harder pitch of like, you need to vote for Maduro. This is where this medicine is coming from.
And ultimately, at the end of this, there would be a threat, which is that if you don't vote for Maduro, there's a possibility that you will lose your medication. You will lose your free health care. And this is what all of the doctors that I talked to said. A lot of these doctors had been in Venezuela at different years, some just after Maduro had taken charge and others, you know, closer to the last election. The further along that you got, the less popular that Maduro was becoming, the more that you began to see that he was leaning on this medical system to try to drive votes.
In one election in 2015, there was a doctor who said that when it appeared that the opposition was ahead in a legislative vote, that they actually not only sent the doctors out that afternoon to try to get people to go vote, they also dressed other people up who were not doctors as doctors and gave them medicine to go get people to vote to try to get them to trust these doctors to go and vote.
In the last elections that were taking place in 2017 and 2018, there was a doctor who was explaining to me about how he was in a small town and wasn't able to give medication to certain patients that were from the opposition and also was told to withhold things like oxygen tanks and not put them out early in the year because they wanted to bring out all of the medicine and the oxygen tanks, which were largely in shortage, just before the election, just before people were going to vote, essentially to give the impression that Maduro had solved this medical crisis before people had to go vote for him again. And this was something that had just left this doctor seething that he had to do that.
DAVIES: Nick Casey is the Andes bureau chief for The New York Times. After a break, he'll talk about the roots of the crisis in Venezuela and an effort to get trucks of humanitarian aid into the country that began with a pop concert and ended in violence. Also, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a 1992 live recording of Betty Carter that he says captures her at her best. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MIKEY DREAD'S "RASTA IRIE OKI")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with The New York Times Andes bureau chief Nicholas Casey, who's been reporting on the escalating crisis in Venezuela. Shortages of food, water and medicine have compelled a tenth of the country's population to leave, while its president is hanging onto power in the face of widespread opposition and international condemnation.
There's kind of a political standoff in the country. You have two presidents - Nicolas Maduro, who is the president, and Juan Guaido, who is from the National Assembly who declared himself the interim president and has been recognized by a lot of other countries. Why don't you give us a little refresher on how we got here? Maduro took over when the previous socialist leader, Hugo Chavez, died in 2013. Tell us how we got here.
CASEY: There was a massive economic crisis we all know about in Venezuela. And then there was an election that took place last year. Maduro put himself up for re-election. From the start, Maduro was doing everything he could to make sure that he was going to be the winner of this election.
It came from putting in hurdles against opposition parties to be able to participate, which, actually, prevented many of them from taking part, outright banning one of his chief rivals, Henrique Capriles, from even running an election and having another rival be one of the top political prisoners in the country. That was Leopoldo Lopez, who couldn't participate in the election because he was serving a jail sentence at that point.
So that was how the groundwork for the election was laid. They held the election. And not surprisingly, given those conditions, Maduro won. Now, for - I was there when this happened. And I really hadn't seen Venezuela at a lower point in its history. People were just saying, we're going to go because this isn't going to change. Maduro is going to be around for years - more now. The opposition was rapidly disintegrating. And in all of this, people were continually asking, OK, well, where's the opposition right now? Why are there not any protests that were going on? Why is no one pushing back on this? And for a while, it kind of looked like maybe the opposition was just going to kind of vanish and give up to Maduro and give up to the system that was going to stay in place for many years to come.
What ended up happening was that the opposition waited until Maduro swore himself in as president at the beginning of this year. And that's when they kind of leaped into action. They used a little-known article in the constitution, which allowed them to be able to say, if someone had taken charge illegally that they would be able to, through the National Assembly, essentially take the reins of the country, essentially allowing Maduro to step into this trap of inaugurating himself as president again after having held a sham election, which most countries say was a sham, and then saying, you know, as the National Assembly, we're taking charge.
And this is where Juan Guaido, who you mentioned earlier, became the figurehead of this. He declared himself president under these rules and - also, in front of a large crowd of people, they called for a massive rally the day that this happened. And there was, you know, more than a million people who showed up to this, getting to see the massive frustration against Maduro and support that the opposition had - and essentially set up a parallel government, one that was recognized widely, not just by the U.S., which recognized Guaido that day, but also, you know, eventually by many countries of the European Union, by almost all of Venezuela's neighbors, by all of the places that essentially mattered to Venezuela - that is, except Russia and China - and started this campaign to say that he is actually the president. And when you see these headlines of two men are - you know, call themselves president of Venezuela, that's where we're at.
DAVIES: The political crisis, of course, was driven by a terrible economic crisis. Why did the Venezuelan economy collapse so completely?
CASEY: It collapsed because of years and years of economic mismanagement that started back to the time of Hugo Chavez. Now, Venezuela's economy was always run off of oil. And Chavez, when he became president in 1999, began a real transformation of Venezuela that was meaningful to many, many Venezuelans. I knew many families who were able to get out of poverty, were able to get law degrees, were able to get education, were able to set their children up for a completely different future under the changes that took place under Chavez's government, without a doubt.
But the secret to what Chavez was able to do was largely based on the government being extremely rich. Oil prices were above $100 a barrel, which meant that the government had basically infinite amount of money to do what it would. And for a large part, it decided to make massive investments in Venezuela's barrios. This started to change when the price of oil started to change. And the price of oil began to, you know, make these massive declines, starting 2014, 2015. And suddenly, the government wasn't as rich as it used to be.
Now, in ordinary circumstances, in a petrostate like Venezuela, you would have all kinds of money in the bank because you use much of it to fund your government, other parts of it to fund your state oil company and then a large part of it probably to fund social programs that would make your government very popular and help people. But in this case, Chavez - and then afterwards, Maduro - only used the money on the social programs. So it had no money that had saved in the bank for bad times, and it had no money that had really put into the state oil companies. Suddenly, the oil company wasn't even producing as much oil as it needed to. And then beyond that, it didn't have the money to invest in the poor anymore. So suddenly, you have all of these neighborhoods that were dependent on programs from the government that were suddenly cut off from them. So we had these three crises taking place at the same time, and that was the groundwork for what happened - what eventually became this time bomb in Venezuela that you see that's exploding right now.
DAVIES: So earlier this year when Juan Guaido declares himself the president - is recognized by the United States, many other countries, seems to have a lot of popular support and Maduro hangs in there and doesn't waver - there is a confrontation in late February on the borders of Venezuela and several other countries, particularly Colombia, where there was an effort to bring trucks of humanitarian aid. This wasn't just a relief effort, was it? I mean, what were the hopes of Guido and the opposition as this event approached?
CASEY: It wasn't ever just about the food. The idea was, by staging large amounts of food in front of a hungry country - and essentially, also in front of a hungry military - that in marching the food over the border against the will of Maduro, that somehow these soldiers who were being sent to block the food from coming in by Maduro would suddenly see the light, according the opposition, to suddenly - would decide that they weren't going to support Maduro and that they were going to take the food, allow the food to come into the country, turn sides, go to the opposition and then eventually topple Maduro. That was kind of the pie in the sky hope. This is what they were largely selling to the people of Venezuela as what was going to happen. They were assuring people that this food was going to get over the border and that this was going to happen. This essentially was an attempt at regime change by aid convoy. It was one of the weirdest things, I think, as a journalist I've ever covered in Latin America.
DAVIES: Right. And Juan...
CASEY: But that was the hope.
DAVIES: Juan Guaido was actually hanging from a truck at one point. And there was a rock concert to kick the whole thing off, right? Tell us about that.
CASEY: This added to the even more surreal aspects to this in that, you know, Richard Branson, the British billionaire from Virgin, decided that he wanted to get involved in this, too, and that the day before this attempt to push all of the aid across the border, they were going to have a concert. The concert was actually going to take place at the border bridge where the food was being staged - and that they would fill this area with people near the bridge, essentially showing them where they were going to go to the next day and that they would come back and then company the food across the border after having heard this concert where all of these Latin pop stars came out. And many of them spoke out against Maduro that day, and it really kind of, like, rallied the forces against Maduro.
Now, on the other side of the bridge, Maduro was having his own concerts and rallies for his supporters. So what you saw was this strange, like, aligning of forces on either side of the border. It was almost like looking at some sort of medieval battle that was going to take place where each side was setting up their tents the day before. And then the main event of it was not actually going to be an armed conflict but actually just a bunch of trucks filled with food that were going to enter the country and be allowed or not be allowed in.
DAVIES: Right. So you have Maduro, who doesn't want this, says, we don't need it and has stacked ship containers and trucks on the bridges with soldiers to stop them. The trucks approach. What happens?
CASEY: At that point, it fell apart very quickly. The idea was that this was going to be a nonviolent, peaceful protest that was going to take place. People were kind of comparing it to crossing the Selma bridge, that this would be people holding roses, chanting, accompanying this food. Instead, what happened was that the security forces on Maduro's side started to lob teargas canisters towards the marchers, and the marchers quickly came back at them with rocks and Molotov cocktails.
And it went from being what could have been a very peaceful march across the border into sort of running battles on this bridge between people on the opposition side who had their faces covered and were throwing rocks and homemade bombs and the security forces from Maduro, who themselves were throwing tear gas canisters and rubber bullets, shooting them at the people who were coming at them with food. And this ended up in one of the trucks being burned themselves.
DAVIES: This food and other humanitarian aid that had been assembled to move into Venezuela that couldn't get there - I'm wondering why that isn't distributed to the emigres who've left Venezuela and that are in border areas of Colombia and other countries.
CASEY: It's something that I asked a lot myself, and the reason it seems for this is because the purpose of this aid was not just to feed Venezuelans but also to make a political statement that the opposition was able to get that aid in. And to have just distributed it to people, even needy people on the Colombian side of the border, wasn't seen as accomplishing that goal, which made this aid shipment very controversial to start.
DAVIES: And so the relief doesn't get through. Juan Guaido is not seen as the liberating hero bringing food to a desperate people, and the stalemate continues.
CASEY: Yeah, it does. There has been some good news, though, which was that just this weekend, the Red Cross announced that it had reached an agreement with the opposition and with the government to be able to start bringing in humanitarian aid into the country. This is what should have happened to begin with. This kind of aid should be brought in by a third party like the Red Cross. It shouldn't be being brought in by a political party and distributed as patronage by either side. So for the time being, there seems to have been at least a small resolution to this larger issue of there not being food in Venezuela. The Red Cross will be able to bring in food into the country.
DAVIES: Nicholas Casey is the Andes bureau chief for The New York Times. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Nicholas Casey. He is the Andes bureau chief for The New York Times and has been covering the crisis in Venezuela.
The Trump administration has taken a very forceful stand on this. You want to describe what they've done?
CASEY: Yeah. Starting this year, there were some very big changes in terms of how Donald Trump started to talk about Venezuela. He'd always mentioned at times a military option. He'd mentioned how upset he was that Maduro was still in charge. It started to get a lot more pronounced at the start of the year, especially when Guaido started to say that he was the president, and all of Donald Trump's team began to support Guaido. Then you started to hear much more clear pronouncements that they wanted regime change.
Mike Pence came out and said to a crowd in Florida that the time for negotiation was over; change needed to happen. Repeatedly you'll see through Bolton, through Trump, through Pompeo that Maduro needs to immediately leave. It's been very few cases that you've seen - since Iraq itself where you've had the leaders of the United States saying that leader X must go and must go immediately. And this is where we are now with Trump and Venezuela. It's not clear that he's got a plan to be able to get rid of Maduro, but the kind of rhetoric that Trump has put out towards Maduro is unlike any that I've ever seen for a Latin American president.
DAVIES: Well, didn't he say or tweet that the Venezuelan military needed to act against Maduro or they would, quote, "lose everything"?
CASEY: Oh, absolutely, yeah. This is something that they speak of all the time. There is open courting by the U.S. government of the Venezuelan military to topple Maduro, to change sides, essentially, it sounds like, to lead some sort of military coup that would then result in having an election afterward that would be free and fair - yes, that the military is the subject of many calls by the Trump administration publicly in terms of this public diplomacy that they've been doing.
DAVIES: And of course Maduro wants to blame the United States for all the country's problems. Is there a risk that Juan Guaido will be seen as a puppet of the United States?
CASEY: This is something that Maduro's people have been using to their advantage for some time, and this is something which I think any outside observer looks at and sees with the opposition and Guaido and begins to wonder, like, how close can you get to the United States without looking like you're their person, that they're trying to install you?
What does it mean when, you know, almost every week or every couple of weeks, you see another tweet by the president or someone in his cabinet saying, you, Guaido, are the person that should be the president of the country? Does that look like the U.S. is trying to make the decision for Venezuelans as to who should be their leader? And yeah, it's certainly something that Maduro's government has been using. They've been having these statements by Trump, Pence, Pompeo and others on repeat because they say that this is evidence that the U.S. is behind a plot to try to overthrow them, and they can play Trump's own words, saying that they want regime change in the country.
DAVIES: You know, I just want to wrap up by asking you. Since you've, you know, been immersed in this unfolding crisis for many years and conditions seem so horrific at the moment, can you find grounds for optimism? Can you see a way out?
CASEY: Yeah, I do. I think there's a way out. And Venezuela, we have to remember, has lots of oil. So no matter how bad the economic crisis is, if there is a way out of the political crisis, there is a way for the country to be able to produce the money that it needs to be able to get back on its feet again. Unlike many other countries in the world, it's extremely blessed to have this natural resource there.
But the way out is to have an election. People need to be able to choose who their leader is because until that can happen, whoever is in charge - whether it's Juan Guaido saying that he is the president or Nicolas Maduro saying that he is the president - isn't going to have the legitimacy to do anything about it. Venezuelans ultimately need to be able to choose who's going to be their leader. And they might choose someone again from the left. After all these years, I'm not sure that that's what they're going to do, but they need to be able to have a choice between a number of parties from the opposition and whoever Maduro would put as his candidate. And whoever wins can then take the next steps.
Now, it's not going to be a fast process. This is something that's going to take years to rebuild this country. But it's not necessarily the level, I think, always of devastation that makes people feel the worst. It's the fact that things are getting worse every day. Even if things were at a low point in Venezuela, if people could see that there was a reason for hope and that things were starting to get better, I think you would start to see people coming back to Venezuela.
Almost everybody who leaves that country - there's something very special about the country that people are very tied to unlike other places. And almost everybody that I've met wants to come back and is looking for a reason to do that. And if there could just be a reason to do that, which might just be being able to go vote, I think you would start to see a trickle of people starting to go the other direction back into the country.
DAVIES: Nick Casey, thank you for your reporting. And thanks for speaking with us.
CASEY: Thanks so much.
DAVIES: Nick Casey is the Andes bureau chief for The New York Times. Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a 1992 live recording of Betty Carter that he says captures her at her best. This is FRESH AIR.
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