What’s it like to watch a country implode? To see a democracy destroyed and an economy crater?
Since 2014, American journalist Hannah Dreier has documented just that in Venezuela, once one of the world’s wealthiest nations and still home to what are believed to be the planet’s largest oil reserves. She wrote for the Associated Press about what it was like to live in a place with the world’s highest murder rate – and the world’s highest rate of inflation. About the breakdown of hospitals and schools, and how the obesity epidemic that plagued a rich country was quickly replaced with people so hungry they were rooting through the garbage on her doorstep.
Most of the time few paid attention, at least in part because Dreier was the last U.S. journalist even to get a work visa to live in Venezuela; when she moved there to cover the story, she says, “I felt like I had walked across a bridge as it was burning behind me.”
But over the last week, as Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has declared victory in a fraud-plagued referendum and moved to seize control of the opposition-controlled legislature, the rest of the world has – finally, belatedly – come to see what is happening in Caracas for what it is: the birth of a dictatorship.
In Washington, President Donald Trump’s administration imposed direct personal sanctions on Maduro – an insult reserved for only a handful of the world’s toughest tyrants, such as Syria’s Bashir al-Assad, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe—and his regime insiders. Maduro, Trump said in a statement, “is not just a bad leader; he is now a dictator.”
The United States, however, continues to be Venezuela’s largest customer for the oil that provides more than 95 percent of the country’s income, and has refrained from targeting the industry for sanctions despite Maduro’s move to finally establish a socialist police state, a development set in motion more than a decade ago by his charismatic predecessor Hugo Chavez.
Dreier, who has just returned to the United States after completing her assignment in Venezuela, may well end up being the last AP correspondent in Caracas. She is this week’s guest on The Global Politico, our weekly podcast on world affairs, and we talked about why she thinks the new U.S. sanctions on Maduro might help him as much as hurt him, how the crisis has many in Venezuela pining not for their lost freedoms but for the rise of a mano duro—a strong hand—to restore lost order, and just what crazy things you can get used to living in a place that’s falling apart.
I found her account incredibly compelling—filled with the absurdities of life as a society unravels. At first, it seems almost comic, as when Dreier spends the day reporting at a plastic surgeon’s office, and watches eager would-be beauty queens coming in with cut-rate Chinese bootleg breast implants once others became impossible to find. And Dreier tells me she spent her first year in Venezuela convinced the media narrative about the country falling apart was all wrong.
Then, Dreier recounts, her life changed. First, her friends—middle class young professionals like herself—started losing weight. She lost power and water. Crime became so rampant her colleagues congratulated her on a “good robbery” when she was held up in broad daylight and all she lost were her belongings. By the time she was grabbed off the street after an interview one day earlier this year, she was overwhelmed with relief when she found out she’d been snatched by the secret police and not far more vicious kidnappers.
Money became almost worthless and she started carrying paper grocery bags full of 100-bolivar notes to pay for even small things. Her choices for food were empty supermarket shelves or $25 black-market Cheerios. She watched as ordinary people stood on line for bread, milk and toilet paper. One day the bakery around the corner started organizing a queue—not to sell the bread they had already run out of, but for the privilege of allowing people to rummage through their trash. The screams she heard one morning were of neighbors savagely beating an accused thief; a “lynching,” it was called.
“You never had to go and try to figure out where the crisis was,” she says, “it was on your doorstep.”
The full transcript of our conversation is below, and I hope you’ll take the time to read this sad, funny, infuriating and amazing story of what it was like to report in a country while democracy died there. Dreier’s takeaway as she leaves Venezuela is a sobering one: “things can always get worse and worse and worse, and there’s no rule that says that a miserable situation has to end, just because it’s too miserable.”
Susan Glasser: This is Susan Glasser. We have, I think, a really important and fascinating story to talk about this week and a great guest.
I’m here in New York with Hannah Dreier, who has just returned from being one of the very few American correspondents still left in Venezuela. As the country has imploded, she’s had a unique window on what it’s like to live in a democracy as it collapses, as it turns and morphs before your eyes into something else.
Hannah, what a unique journalistic experience you’ve had. As you take up your new role here at ProPublica, I want you to reflect a little bit. How did you get into Venezuela?
Hannah Dreier: I had no idea that it was going to become the mess that it is today. I went down there in 2014 and I was kind of choosing between going to Venezuela or going to Mexico, and it looked like Venezuela might be kind of teetering on the brink of something, and I thought that maybe if I went there I would see something interesting. And if I had known how dramatic, and how bleak and dangerous it was going to get, I don’t know if I really would have gone.
Glasser: Sometimes foreknowledge is not a good thing if you’re a journalist.
Dreier: Yes. Yes. It looks bad, but I wasn’t a war correspondent. I’d never lived abroad, really, I’d never reported abroad, and if it was as dangerous as it is today, I don’t think I could have handled it at the beginning.
Glasser: You saw basically the transformation of one of the richest countries in the world into a complete—not only a basket case economically, I think it’s one of the biggest and fastest collapses of a civilization arguably in recent modern times.
Dreier: Yes. I mean, Venezuela always has all the superlatives. It’s the world’s highest inflation by a lot. It’s the world’s highest murder rate. A lot of economists will tell you it’s the most mismanaged economy in the world. And now, a lot of people are saying the world’s most recently born dictatorship.
But when I went down there, it was a great place to live, which sounds crazy now, but it’s beautiful. You walk around on the street and there are these wild parrots flying above you and these huge Andean mountains off in the distance. And I had a lot of friends who were my same age. They were young professionals and they traveled all over the world, and they were buying apartments, and we’d go to the beach every weekend. We’d go to these crazy clubs that were still left over from all the oil wells. And it just felt in some ways like a paradise.
Glasser: Well, in a way, I think that’s important context for you, that you saw what it was like before, because the collapse was so rapid and dramatic. By the end people were eating garbage outside your window.
Dreier: Yes. I think a lot of people—people think of Venezuela as a struggling third world country, and I think it gets dismissed sometimes as a country that’s always been poor and always had problems. But the truth is, it was one of the richest countries in the world in the ‘70s, and it was wealthy for a long time.
Under Chavez, the standard of living was rising. People there have very fancy tastes. They are very educated. And, so part of, to me, the tragedy of what’s happened is that there is just no reason for this level of misery to ever come to Venezuela. It was a country that was making it.
And now, like you say, those friends that I used to hang out with—they’ve all moved away. Those apartments are empty. When I came down there were great restaurants. There was an obesity epidemic, and now as soon as you put a trash bag on the street there are people on that bag, going through to see what they can find.
Glasser: So, I want to talk about this evolution. But let’s start first a little bit more in the headlines. Just this week you had the Trump administration in Washington — not known for its democracy promotion; in fact, the same week that it was reported that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was taking democracy out of the State Department’s mission statement—you had Donald Trump, of all people, not only imposing personal sanctions on Venezuela’s leader Nicholàs Maduro, but here’s what Donald Trump had to say about Maduro.
He said, quote: “Maduro is not just a bad leader, he is now a dictator,” and as a result of that we, the United States, imposed personal sanctions on Venezuela’s leader, something we reserve for only several other really of the world’s worst tough guys, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. However, dot-dot-dot, you pointed out, in a very smart piece, all of those leaders are still in power, and, in fact, these might be the kind of sanctions that have the least impact on Venezuela’s crisis. What did you mean by that?
Dreier: Well, so, now that I’m not working for the Associated Press, it’s kind of fun to be able to point out these things that everybody covering Venezuela knows, but you can’t usually just say outright.
But, basically, the U.S., with those sanctions, which are very important symbolically—but, they said that they were going to freeze all of Maduro’s assets, and all the headlines were: Maduro’s Assets Frozen. There’s no reason to think Maduro has any U.S. assets. This is a man who railed every day against the U.S. empire. Why would he put his money in Miami property, or anything here?
So, the sanctions will prevent him from buying things in the U.S. and from doing business with Americans, which he wasn’t trying to do anyway, and Trump gets to say that this is a big, strong step. And Maduro, in Caracas, is also making hay with these sanctions and spending lots of time talking about them, and saying that they prove that the U.S. is a bully and that the U.S. is trying to ruin the Venezuelan economy—so, kind of a gift.
Glasser: And that was the response, as well, when Barack Obama imposed an earlier round of sanctions on certain regime leaders in 2015, right?
Dreier: Right. So, the time that I was in Venezuela, I just saw Maduro’s approval ratings go lower and lower and lower, it was a steady downward decline, except for this one month in 2015, right after Obama imposed sanctions, and Maduro loved those. He talked about them every single day for a month, and put posters up all around the capital talking about how bad those sanctions were. And people really responded. People said, “That’s right. The U.S. is trying to interfere in our politics, just like they always do.” And he got this total approval ratings bump. After that, I think the Obama administration backed off, because a lot of people seemed to realize that those sanctions were giving him a tool, not really hurting his administration.
Glasser: So, there is one thing that the United States could do, but it’s never wanted to do. And what is that?
Dreier: That’s oil sanctions. Ninety-five percent of Venezuela’s revenue comes from oil. It’s basically the only way the government is getting money right now. And the U.S. happens to be the biggest customer for that oil, and one of the very few governments still paying cash for oil. So, if the U.S. put an oil embargo in place, that would have a huge, dramatic effect, immediately, on Venezuela, and the government would probably default. There would be a reshuffling of alliances. But, it always seems to be that there are only bad options with Venezuela, because those oil sanctions would also probably lead to maybe famine-level hunger, to extreme suffering, and nobody really wants that either.
Glasser: So, we’re locked in a terrible position of having declared Venezuela a dictatorship, and yet being the main customers propping up the government that we’ve now declared a dictatorship.
Dreier: It’s always struck me as a very strange thing. We’ve declared Venezuela a dictatorship, and Venezuela has declared us as basically an evil empire, and yet this oil trade is so central to both countries. So, we’re kind of locked in this rhetorical battle with each other, but also locked in this very important commercial relationship that neither side seems to want to disrupt.
Glasser: Now, as a reporter there from 2014 on, as you said, for the Associated Press—not always known for having vivid voice-filled, scenic descriptions, and yet that really was the trademark of your coverage there. And I think what made it stand out so much is that you were one of the few Americans to be lucky enough to get a visa to cover this important story. It hasn’t gotten much attention here, but you also covered it in a very un-wire service-like way.
You weren’t really writing the standard fare of politics, “And Maduro said this today,” were you? You were really chronicling the collapse of a society. Tell me, how quickly did you understand that was the story, and how did you feel you were able to do that in a way that was different from what a correspondent might have done 20 years ago, covering the collapse of the Soviet Union?
Dreier: Well, so, like you say, I was one of the very few reporters to have a visa there. I was actually the last U.S. reporter to get a permanent work visa, and it felt like I had walked across a bridge as it was burning behind me, and it made me feel a lot of responsibility to tell that story as vividly as I could because there were just so few reporters on the ground.
And, I wish I could say that I went in and immediately started doing these character-driven stories, but the truth is, I went in and did kind of dry reporting about the shortages and about the general collapse. And I noticed that they weren’t getting the pick-up that I felt they should.
So, for example, I saw that there were these shortages starting to creep into hospitals, and people weren’t getting the care that they had been able to get even a few years before. And so I wrote a story saying that there were shortages in hospitals, and I don’t think anybody read that story.
Glasser: Nobody cared.
Dreier: And that was so upsetting to me, because I saw these people suffering, and it just felt like nobody cared about that. And so, the next time I wrote about hospitals, I followed one girl, who scraped her knee while she was playing, and I told the story of her parents’ quest to try to get her the antibiotics that she needed to save this girl’s life. And that story, which I think people could relate to, because every little kid scrapes their knee from time to time, got a huge response. And people donated money to help this family. The girl ended up in very bad shape, but as a result of reader donations, was able to get surgery.
It was just a completely different experience for me, and that showed me that without a human narrative kind of anchoring things, it’s hard for people in another country to be able to imagine what’s really happening.
Glasser: Well, you had a real eye for the telling detail, too. One of your stories just blew me away, classic. You were talking about how wealthy Venezuela had been until so recently, and the sort of va-va-voom public culture, right? There was a lot of plastic surgery. Tell us about that story. The trade in boob enhancements.
Dreier: Right. Well, this is what’s always so bizarre to me about Venezuela. There’s so much suffering and poverty and misery; and at the same time, everybody is finding a way to still dye their hair and paint their nails. And so, one way I wanted to try to talk about that was by looking at plastic surgery, which is really central to Venezuelan culture. They have more beauty queens than any other country.
And so, these women were coming in to get breast implants, but there were shortages of implants, and so they had set up this kind of Craigslist for implants, and they were trading these Chinese-made implants that are banned in the U.S., I’m sure, are not allowed in most developed countries, but they’d found them.
And so, I sat in a plastic surgeon’s office one day and just watched these women come in carrying their own implants that they had bought and had in little plastic bags, and they were just putting them in one after the other for $500.
Glasser: Well, it strikes me that that is a common theme through a lot of the reporting that you did, which is the incredible resourcefulness and human ingenuity under stress as your world collapses around you. People had a never-ending ability to adapt. Their resilience, obviously, was extraordinary.
You know, how quickly did it become clear to you when, after you’d moved there, that this was a society that was collapsing?
Dreier: I spent my first year there really trying to argue that it wasn’t collapsing, because there was already this narrative that it was a dictatorship where people were starving. And that’s not what I initially saw. Maduro had just won an election. It was a very polarized place, but half of the country supported him. And, people were on diets. There was a super-abundance of food.
So, I really thought that was a false narrative created by the media. I was almost like what Maduro says today; I was totally on board with that idea, that the media was whipping up a frenzy.
And, I think it wasn’t until the people in my life started to lose weight that I really realized that things had changed. And then, people that I knew started to be robbed regularly. Somebody was kidnapped. Somebody’s mom was kidnapped. I was robbed. My friends were beaten up. Like, it just, it became obvious that something had really changed and we weren’t in the same place anymore.
Glasser: When was that? It was in 2015?
Dreier: This was 2015. I think that’s really when the crisis started. Because when I came there, they were—the government was using these high oil prices to mask a lot of the economic mismanagement that had been going on for years. And economists knew that; economists were saying, this is totally untenable, this is an economy built on price and currency distortions, but it just didn’t matter, because they had more oil than anyone in the world, and oil was at $100 a barrel.
And, when that price collapsed in 2014, it kind of sent the whole economy spinning. And since then, it’s just been spinning downwards and downwards.
Glasser: What’s so interesting, though, is that it seems like such an outlier. You know, there are plenty of authoritarian societies in the world. There are plenty of oil-dependent authoritarian societies. Look at Russia. We were talking about Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez and their friendship going back all the way to the very beginning of Putin’s tenure, when I actually saw, crazily enough, the two of them walking around together in Red Square—not something, I must say, that’s an everyday occurrence, that you run into Vladimir Putin, but this really did happen.
You know, look at how differently those two societies have ended up—both authoritarian and much more authoritarian now than they were in 2001; both highly oil- and natural resource-dependent economies. Putin, if anything, has been as or more isolated politically than Venezuela, and yet, he’s avoided the collapse that has occurred in Venezuela.
Is Maduro just uniquely incompetent?
Dreier: Yes. I mean, it makes total sense that you saw Chavez and Putin together. Chavez in some ways has modeled himself after the same principles that hold Putin. And people in the slums in Caracas—these are the people who supported Chavez, that supported Maduro—they also see those parallels, and they look at places like Russia and like Cuba, and they see governments that are more in control.
One thing that people would sometimes say to me about Cuba is that they are at least, they have kind of a functioning authoritarian government. That, yes, people don’t get to vote on their president, but there’s no crime.
Glasser: So, this more like anarchy. Is it just that the police state is not effective at being a police state?
Dreier: Right. One thing that people will say a lot in Venezuela is that they want mano dura, they want somebody to come—
Glasser: A strong hand.
Dreier: —and crack down, and, yes, have a strong hand with both the criminals and with the corrupt officials.
Glasser: I think this is something I’ve heard a lot in Washington, as people have realized belated the scale of the crisis in Venezuela—if it’s a police state that doesn’t work, then why is the elimination of democracy proceeding? Why aren’t—if these are not effective authoritarians, then why are the opposition not able to be stronger?
Dreier: Yes, because the only thing they can really crack down on well is the opposition, because they’ve done a brilliant job of that. A lot of people right now in the opposition are saying all the sacrifices of the last two years were for nothing, and regret fighting so hard. They wish they’d just left the country.
Glasser: And we should say, they’ve rounded up and arrested since this referendum the leading opposition figures and there’s not really a sense that anyone is going to be able to stop Maduro from taking this next decisive step away from democratic rule.
Dreier: Right. Right. They’ve been rounding people up. The day that Trump imposed sanctions, they took a prominent politician—the person who’d been the mayor of Caracas—from house arrest and put him back into a military prison, as if to say, “Trump, we don’t care about your sanctions.” And then today, for some reason they took that same former mayor of Caracas and put him back in house arrest, just moving him around like a total political pawn to kind of flex their power.
And that message is getting through to the opposition. These are people who’ve been on the streets, really risking their lives for four months now, and they’re exhausted. They get tear-gassed every day, and as far as anybody can tell, it’s come to absolutely nothing. The country is more in the hands of Maduro today than it ever was.
Glasser: This is an amazing story that you have to tell. So, okay, we were in 2015, and your friends were starting to lose weight, and you’re realizing this is a different level of crisis now kicking in. Tell us about how you lived through it. Where did you live? How did you buy food in the store? People are carrying around literally backpacks full of cash. What was it like for you?
Dreier: The Venezuela story, I was living it. You never had to go and try to figure out where the crisis was; it was on your doorstep, literally. One day in 2015, I woke up to the sound of screaming outside, and I looked out and a group of men were kicking somebody who they accused of being a thief. They were doing what they call in Venezuela a “lynching,” right outside my window. And this happened again and again.
One day this year I woke up and, again, there was screaming and somebody had set up a barricade right outside my door, and the police were coming with tear gas.
Glasser: But you were living in an apartment building in what was a middle-class neighborhood of Caracas?
Dreier: Yes. I was living in the most protected place I could find. I mean, I chose where I lived because I thought it was going to be really safe and comfortable and great. And it was for a year. And then, in 2015 I started coming home and there would be no electricity. That’s when the water cuts started. And the water never came back, until the day I left I had three hours of water a day. And all of my mornings started with checking to see if there was water, and then kind of cursing under my breath when there was none.
Glasser: So, that’s not even like, black market available, but at a price? Food was available to you at a higher price, but water you couldn’t get?
Dreier: Yes. I mean, there was just no way to insulate yourself from the crisis when you were there. And the thing you really can’t insulate yourself from is violence. So, I was robbed in broad daylight a couple of blocks from where I lived by two men on a motorcycle, and I kind of saw them coming and thought they might rob me, because that was happening to a lot of people at the time, and then they did. And when I told my friends about it, they were, like, “Oh, that was a good robbery. Nobody got hurt. That was good and simple.” And so your standards just start to change.
Glasser: But you adapt.
Dreier: Yes. And you don’t tell the people at home what’s happening because you don’t want to worry your friends and family. So really, the people you’re telling are other people going through the same thing, and it just becomes normalized.
The same thing happened when the secret police grabbed me one day. I was in detention for a few hours and they made all these threats—like, they said they were going to slit my throat; they said they were going to keep me for weeks and weeks; they said I had to stay there until I married one of them—and when I got out, I told my friends, and they thought it was super funny. So, I also started joking about it, and we got drinks, and it was just like another thing that happened.
Glasser: You were relieved that they weren’t kidnappers when they grabbed you off the streets?
Dreier: Yes. Well, they calculated it to be as scary as possible. They rolled up and took me right after I did an interview, and snatched my phone away, and wouldn’t say where we were going or what was happening. So, I assumed it was a kidnapping, which would not have been funny. So when we passed through the gates of the secret police headquarters, I was just so relieved. It was just all uphill from there.
Glasser: Yes, you know you’ve lost a little perspective when it’s a good thing to be detained by the secret police, right? Thank God!
Dreier: But, I mean, the one thing, like you say, that was very different is that I was never hungry. I mean, for me that was one of the most troubling parts of living there, because my life was so insulated from that kind of real suffering. And it’s right outside the door, so I could always, if I wanted to, go and spend $25 and buy a box of Cheerios on the black market.
Glasser: How did that work, the black market? Where did you go? Was there a sign?
Dreier: So, when I first got down to Venezuela, I was horrified because I couldn’t find flour or sugar or eggs. I’d wanted to make cupcakes my first day there to bring into the office, like an American treat, and I went to a bunch of supermarkets and couldn’t find anything, and I started to really worry. But then, after I’d been there about a month, I found the black market, and never had that problem again.
The black market operates in kind of a gray area. It’s almost like a farmers market in the U.S. There are these outdoor markets where they sell produce, and then there will be kind a secret area where they’re also selling a bunch of goods at illegal prices. Or, it’ll be in the second floor of a market, and you have to know to go upstairs.
And, occasionally the government will crack down and there will be a big raid and they’ll confiscate all of the black-market goods and probably give them to the military to keep everyone happy. But usually it’s not that hard to find things, and you can get food there, diapers, coffee, shampoo—all of the things that are impossible to find in supermarkets you’ll find kind of hidden beneath produce or in a little back area of the market.
Glasser: Was that a dollar economy, or was everything still in—
Dreier: It was definitely dollarized. Everybody in Venezuela has this application that tells you the black-market rate, but it’s been banned so you can’t get it.
Glasser: It’s an app?
Dreier: Well, we had to use an app because the government blocks the website, and Venezuelans, yeah, Venezuelans have phones, and occasionally, when the black market hits some new low, the app will send out an alert and you can see it. It’s got—
Glasser: Text messaging enabled.
Dreier: Yes, yes. So, everybody will suddenly look down at their phones, and you’ll know that the black-market rate just hit a thousand. And people will check it day-to-day because the inflation is moving that fast, that prices might change from the morning to night, based on that app.
Glasser: That’s one of the amazing things, actually, about this collapse of this modern economy in—both, so quickly, but also in this technology-enhanced and enabled moment. I mean, when the Soviet Union fell apart and there were bread lines in 1991, there was no app to tell you where to go to get toilet paper or where to get bread.
Did people know how to congregate at certain places because they were walking around with phones?
Dreier: Yes, that is such a unique part of this. And there’s even an app for the black market in Venezuela. There’s an app that will say, “Oh, there’s milk at this one supermarket. Go get it right now.” There’s a few apps like that.
And the app that matters most is Twitter. There’s so little independent media in Venezuela, you can’t really trust what you’re reading in the newspaper or seeing on TV, and so Twitter has become incredibly important. People use it more than they use it here. And they use it as an organizing tool. So, there will be a hashtag for the day that you’re supposed to go onto the street, and people will turn up based on just a Twitter invitation to go there.
And people also circulate video on Twitter. That’s how a lot of news breaks, like the political prisoners that we were talking about who were taken out of house arrest and put back into the military prison. That all broke on Twitter. Their wives took Twitter video of them being detained and posted it, and immediately the whole country knew, because that’s how people are communicating now.
People also use Twitter to try to find medicine, so you’ll often see posts, like, “My son has epilepsy. He’s been having seizures for five days. If we don’t get this specific drug in this amount, he might die.” And that will race around Twitter and people will often be able to find the medicine that they need.
Glasser: And the government doesn’t block Twitter?
Dreier: Twitter has sometimes gone down in a suspicious way. During a big protest, it’ll be hard to get on social media.
Glasser: Do they use it themselves, though? Do they also try to control the narrative?
Dreier: Yes. So, they use Twitter to issue almost every statement. They use Twitter kind of like Trump does, like that’s where government news breaks, also. And they have a whole army of Twitter-bots, which are these fake accounts that they control that will generate hashtags. So, the leading hashtag in Venezuela is always some pro-government slogan, like Venezuela against imperialism. And if you do something on social media that the government doesn’t like, they might sic their Twitter army on you.
So, this has happened to me, where you’ve run a story that’s not favorable to the government, and suddenly you’re getting spammed by all of these different accounts saying the exact same thing.
Glasser: So, it’s both sides, but for the opposition, Twitter is crucial, because without it, they couldn’t organize. For the government, they already have the TV stations, the newspapers, they have everything, and they also have social media?
Glasser: And in fact, certainly Chavez was famous for his use of TV and, like, talking for literally like six hours at a time on his talk show, and things like that.
Dreier: Yes. And when he does that—Maduro now does that also—they force every station to carry it. They call it—
Glasser: But he’s not as good at it as Chavez, right? I wish our listeners could see the very funny smile on your face.
Dreier: I would never want to compete with Chavez either, as far as being fun to watch, but—
Glasser: He was more Trumpian, Chavez.
Dreier: I mean, the man knew how to entertain on TV, and would sometimes find myself just going down these YouTube rabbit holes watching his old TV shows, because he has a saying for everything. Any story you were writing, Chavez had talked about it, probably for five hours, on a TV show at some point. So, that was kind of our go-to.
Like, the government would never give us any official comment on anything, but you could always count on something Chavez had said being there in the archives. And, people who are loyal to the government, they get their news from television.
Glasser: So, Maduro was playing from the same playbook, even though he wasn’t quite at that same kind of communicator?
Dreier: Right. So, Maduro’s main claim to legitimacy is that he’s Chavez’s handpicked successor, and people still love Chavez, despite everything that’s happened. He was the first politician to really bring the poor into—
Glasser: Even now?
Dreier: Yes, yes. I mean, not as much. I think there was a point where almost everybody in the country was pro-Chavez, and in 2014, people would still cry when you asked about Chavez. They would say, “I loved him like a father,” and they would be crying.
At this point, people still have photos of him their homes. People are very reluctant to speak ill of him because he championed the poor in a way that had never happened before, in this very rich country. But nobody loves Maduro. And, to watch Maduro try to be Chavez is often very painful.
A lot of people think that the country actually would have fared better had Chavez lived, because Maduro has never changed a policy that Chavez implemented, even when it seemed like he really had to, just to save the economy from spinning out. He’s only ever doubled down on things that Chavez put in place.
Glasser: Right. So, he doesn’t have the legitimacy or the standing to have the flexibility to actually govern the country?
Dreier: Exactly. Chavez was very flexible. He changed ideology. He didn’t start out as a socialist. And he also devalued the currency a few times, which is one of the main things economists say needs to happen. Maduro’s never devalued the currency. So, when I first got down there, the official currency rate was 6.3, so you need 6.3 bolivars to buy a dollar, and the black-market rate was 63, so that was a distortion.
But now, the official rate is 10 and the black-market rate is 10,000. That’s what happens, one of the things that happens when you never devalue your currency.
Glasser: So, that spiral, which took the form of out-of-control inflation and the black market rising and people not having enough to eat as a result of an economic policy that just couldn’t keep pace with it—it seems like it started to go bad in 2015, but it really was last year that this full-scale collapse, implosion of the Venezuelan economy took place.
What was that like? What are key moments that you remember?
Dreier: I mean, you saw it even just with the currency. Last year, I went through four wallets because I had to carry around so much cash. I kept busting wallets. And finally I realized, no, I just have to carry around these huge bricks of cash, and I got a tote bag and started carrying them that way.
But, there were days where I would go to lunch and I would have a full bag, like a full paper bag that you would use to carry your groceries home, just filled with the highest denomination note, filled with hundreds, and nobody would count it. I would just hand over that big bag and somebody would take it as payment for lunch, because nobody wanted to deal with that. And how could you, anyway? It would take a half hour to count all that money.
And then—this is the most irresponsible thing I’ve ever seen—there was a day last year where the government invalidated that bank note, the hundred bolivar, which is all people were using at that point. There was no sense using anything lower than that because it was like a fraction of a fraction of a penny, so people were only using hundred bolivar notes, and we all had hoarded supplies.
And the government said, “You know what? Today you can’t use that anymore. It has no value.” And they didn’t issue a new note. So there were three days where you couldn’t pay for anything, and that day I needed to take a taxi, but I couldn’t. I needed to recharge my phone; I needed to put some more minutes on it—I couldn’t. Nobody could go out to eat. And there were riots. There was a riot in one city that destroyed more than a hundred stores, because people couldn’t buy anything, and so they just went out and started taking things.
And finally, after three days the government sent the military out to pacify the country, and said, “Okay, fine. You can use your hundred bolivar notes again.” But, I mean, the whole country just ground to a halt for no reason.
Glasser: Well, that sort of tends to shore up your incompetence theory of the case. It’s hard to see a more in-control police state or authoritarian making a move like that.
Dreier: Right. So, that’s when people start to say, “No, just take control—mano dura—just please let me live in a semi-functional place,” and people become okay with giving away a lot of freedom.
Glasser: So, what stories did you find it hardest to tell? What are the stories that you would tell your friends, but you couldn’t really get into the AP?
I’ll tell you that when we came out of Russia, for sure the persistence of corruption at all levels in society, I think, was something we felt like we had really failed to adequately capture for readers in the Washington Post. It sort of defied our norms of how do you report and write about something, and verify it? And yet, that’s the thing that people themselves would tell stories about, you know, the cop at every street corner who demanded money; the commonality with which people accepted the role of the state itself in this corruption. But it was really hard for us, as journalists, to write about it.
Dreier: Yes, I totally know what you’re talking about. If I had a magic lamp and I would make three wishes, it would be to be able to expose the corruption that’s rocked Venezuela. There’s been so much money stolen, billions of dollars, and we don’t know where it’s gone. I’m sure a lot of it is in Swiss bank accounts and in Panama.
I did one story recently that tracked the way that the military is profiteering from food. So, the military controls the entire food chain, and we were able to report that generals—really, from generals all the way down to cadets, people are stealing food or making false contracts and basically just skimming money that should be going to feed people.
And, I was happy about that, because I think it helped show part of why there is so much hunger, and why the military is so loyal still to this government that nobody else seems to like, you know, because a lot of people are getting rich. But that’s just a tiny part of the corruption, and I hope somebody, and somebody listening to this, somebody one day is going to figure out what happened. But nobody so far has been able to crack that.
Glasser: So, we’ve talked a lot about what the incredible risks were for you of living there and telling this story. A lot of people also took risks in order to help you chronicle the story of this, and of course, they live there. They don’t get to leave at the end of the day. How risky was it for people to cooperate with an American reporter as this was happening?
Dreier: Oh, it was so dangerous for them, and they were so incredibly brave to work with us. People really put everything on the line, especially the doctors, because journalists are banned from hospitals right now, and doctors would help me get into their hospitals. They would walk me past military guards, knowing that if those guards found out who I was, their careers would be over.
And they would open up medical cabinets; they would take us around wards and show us all the people who were dying of—you know, who were really not going to make it because of things like antibiotic shortages. And some of those people did face repercussions because of the work they did with us.
One young doctor who helped me on a story had to go into hiding in Colombia; one was beat up. It’s hard enough to be working within an institution in Venezuela right now, to go that extra step and talk with a journalist is, for me, one of the bravest things you can do.
And we saw it in hospitals; we saw it in schools. A principal let me shadow a teenager in her school for a week, and after that the secret police came and visited her and threatened her, and tried to get her to sabotage the story, and she refused.
I think for Venezuelans it feels like there’s not a lot they can do. Going to the streets hasn’t helped. They voted for opposition lawmakers two years ago, and that didn’t help. One thing I think a lot of people are doing is trying to help journalists, and it’s so important.
Glasser: Well, you were pretty brave yourself, too.
Now, we have had a great conversation about this important work that you’ve been doing. I have to ask you, because I have no idea what the answer is, but, now that you’re back from Venezuela, your parents must have been just worried sick. Did you tell them these stories? Are they going to listen to our podcast and hear some of this for the first time?
Dreier: Yes, I think that a lot of people are having an impact, but also seem to be worrying about me more now. I feel like I also am in a similar position, where when I was in Venezuela I didn’t really let myself feel how dangerous it was, and I was kind of just always ignoring my gut, and telling myself not to think about what could happen, and it became just this automatic thing for me.
And, now that I’m back, I feel like kind of horrified, and I think it’s the same for people who were in my life who—
Glasser: You’ll be processing this for a while.
Glasser: What is the biggest myth or thing that people get wrong, you find, now that you’re back in the United States? What don’t they get about what’s happening in Venezuela?
Dreier: People keep saying things to me, like, “Oh, it’s the beginning of the end in Venezuela,” or, “Wow, we’re going to see a change in Venezuela soon.” People seem to think that it can’t go on like this because it’s just so awful it can’t possibly go on. And my experience down there has, if it’s taught me one thing, it’s taught me things can always get worse, and worse, and worse, and there’s no rule that says that a miserable situation has to end, just because it’s too miserable.
So, I mean, it’s so hard to have an optimistic message about Venezuela, but I don’t think that it just necessarily has to change now that it’s become so undemocratic and people are starving. I mean, it can go on for a while like this.
Glasser: This is Hannah Dreier, and I’m Susan Glasser, and this has been a really powerful and important conversation about a story that we haven’t paid enough attention to here in the United States. I’m really honored to be able to spend this time with you, Hannah, and welcome back. I want to congratulate you for the great work you’ve done, and thank you, as well as our listeners on The Global Politico.
You can email us any time at email@example.com, and of course, we hope you’ll listen to us on iTunes, or whatever your favorite podcast platform is, and you can now follow Hannah and her great work here at ProPublica. Thank you, Hannah.
Dreier: Thank you, Susan.