Q&A: Hannah Dreier on covering a country headed for economic collapse

Photo by Carlos Becerra

Once considered among the richest countries in the world, Venezuela is now known for food shortages, lack of basic medical care, 800 percent inflation, and daily protests against President Nicolas Maduro.

Hannah Dreier has witnessed and documented the worst of the crisis in three years as a foreign correspondent in the country’s capital, Caracas. Based there for the Associated Press since 2014, Dreier has helped the rest of us understand how, why and what, exactly, is taking place in the country. For her storytelling, she recently won the James Foley Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism, among other awards. She’s also gained a huge following on social media, where readers catch a glimpse into everyday life there—the quirky, surprising and alarming—sometimes from the window of her apartment. She joins ProPublica next month as an immigration reporter.

CJR spoke with Dreier about her time in Venezuela and what it’s like to be a foreign correspondent in a country headed for economic collapse. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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What compelled you to take a job as a foreign correspondent?

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I wanted to live abroad and translate one culture to another. That’s always what I’ve liked the most about reporting, is going somewhere totally unfamiliar and seeing how things unfold. AP had an opening in Mexico and Venezuela, and it seemed like Venezuela might be tipping into chaos, so I was wondering if it might be an opportunity to cover a really surreal, intense situation. That’s pretty much what ended up happening.

 

How did you prepare for that assignment before leaving?

I read a lot about Hugo Chavez. There’s a documentary called The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, where these filmmakers lucked out and happened to be there during a brief coup in 2002, so I watched that. I read a lot of books in Spanish to try to get my Spanish up and running. I watched Hugo Chavez’s speeches on YouTube.

It’s so hard to figure out a beat before you’re in it; I almost feel like it’s not even worth trying. You learn the language, you learn the culture, and you learn the situation so much more quickly by being immersed in it.

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When you took the assignment, was that the first you visited Venezuela?

I visited once two months before I actually moved. I think AP wanted to see if I could handle it because it’s such a bizarre place. You get to the airport, and you can’t change money because all of that happens on the black market. You can’t just get in a taxi cab because some of them are pirate taxis, and you might end up kidnapped. You can’t just pay for your hotel simply because of the currency issues. There’s no long distance roaming service anymore.

I think from AP’s perspective, they were trying to make sure I could handle living here. I would have moved here sight unseen.

 

Tell me about your experience when you first arrived. What were you covering back then?

I didn’t understand what it was going to be like living here. I got here, and I thought that I would make brownies as a relaxing activity for myself and to bring an American treat to the office the next day. My first day here, I went to five supermarkets, and of course, there wasn’t any flour, eggs, or sugar because there were huge shortages. So I panicked, “How am I ever going to find any food down here?” My colleagues later introduced me to the black market, which is what I’ve used ever since.

Back then, the shortages were the real novel thing happening here. I looked for ways to make the shortages understandable for an American audience and to make them fun to read about. I did one story about how there was a shortage of breast implants. Venezuelans are famous for this beauty queen culture, and a lot of women [have] plastic surgery. There was this crisis happening back in 2014 where they couldn’t find implants, and they were selling them on Craigslist, and [they would go to surgeons] with these black market implants. I did a story about how McDonald’s wasn’t going to sell French fries anymore because there was a shortage of potatoes, and everyone was up in arms in this socialist country. I did a story about how the government forced toy stores to sell Barbies at these crazy firesale prices to gin up popularity.

It’s good to put in the humor or surrealness of the situation. Sometimes I get attacked on Twitter for not being serious enough or grim enough. But people here aren’t grim all the time. People here are super funny about the crisis. Anybody facing a serious situation, you can’t just be crying all the time.

 

How have conditions changed there over the past three years?

Venezuela used to the richest country in the region and one of the richest countries in the world. It has the largest oil reserves anywhere. When I got down here, it wasn’t the richest country in the region anymore, but the socialist revolution launched by Hugo Chavez had made a lot of gains in terms of poverty reduction, increasing education, and increasing access to health care. It was a very divided country. About half of the country fiercely supported Hugo Chavez and the socialist revolution, and half thought that the socialist government was a dictatorship and was very opposed. Today, the whole country is basically against the government.

The indicators weren’t great. It was one of the most dangerous countries in the world, but now [it’s] the most violent country in the world outside of a war zone. It had among the highest inflation in the world, but now it has by far the highest inflation in the world—800 percent or more.

People were falling into poverty, but they weren’t going hungry. Now, every time you see people they seem to have lost weight. Right now, I’m looking outside the window, and I see someone eating from the trash.

 

You document things you see on Twitter. What’s surprised you about reporting on everyday life there?

One of the things I’ve found most strange and surprising is something I’ve never written about, which is what it’s like to be here as part of the elite, what it’s like to be here as an expat with access to dollars. I’ve never written about it because it’s not the urgent story in Venezuela, but it is very strange.

Right now, there are protests going on every day. Sometimes I go out to them, but sometimes I experience them because I’m driving over rubble on my way to a fancy party. People who have access to dollars benefit a lot from the exchange rate. There’s still lots of very fancy restaurants and fancy hotels. It’s very bizarre to be in these restaurants that have barred walls around them because the violence outside is so intense. People are literally starving close by.

One thing I’ve been surprised and humbled by again and again is how much sources are willing to take risks to help us tell stories about what’s happening here, especially in hospitals. Reporters aren’t allowed to be in hospitals. Doctors will help the foreign media embed in hospitals, and when they do that, they’re really risking their careers. They ask us to not take out our notebooks or speak to the guards because they’ll hear our accents, but at the end of the day, they’re putting a huge amount on the line just so that we can go in there and bear witness to the lack of basic medicines and things like hospital beds and gauze.

I’ve also seen it in slums that are controlled by these armed groups that are loyal to the government. People will take you into their homes so you can talk to them somewhere private. At the end of the interview, you leave the slum, but the person has to stay there and deal with whatever the fallout might be.

Being here as a foreigner, the worst thing that could happen to you is you can be deported. Our local sources could be put in jail or hurt. The bravery of the people who talk to us has been really amazing.

 

How dangerous is it for reporters there?

It is dangerous, but more because you can get stopped and mugged or shot on the street, and less because the government has any history of hurting journalists. For local journalists, it’s totally different. There’s one [local] journalist who’s been in jail for a year because he took a video of Maduro being heckled on the street. Other journalists have been killed in suspicious ways. Pretty much every photojournalist or video journalist has been beat up or targeted in the past couple months.

 

What did you learn as a foreign correspondent that you wouldn’t have learned if you’d stayed in the US?

It’s been really helpful to approach stories with the assumption that there aren’t that many people who want to read a story about Venezuela. I’ve learned to come up with ways to seduce readers into stories about a faraway, complicated situation that doesn’t immediately have that much bearing on their lives. That’s something that my wonderful editors, Mary Rajkumar and Marjorie Miller, have really pushed—always thinking about who the audience might be and how we can make these very bleak Venezuela stories relatable and urgent for US readers.

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What’s a story you’ve done that really captured people’s attention?

One story I’ve been thinking about lately is a piece that we did in a hospital here in Caracas following a 3-year-old girl who fell and scraped her knee. This little girl would have been fine if she had been in the US, but down here, nobody had the antibiotics she needed. She developed an infection that spread all through her body. That resonated with a lot of people. Anybody who’s been near a child has seen them fall and get a scrape. The idea that that could happen and there’d be no way to get a basic medicine for that child was pretty easy to empathize with.

For me, it’s been a sad story not just because of what happened. The story got so much response, and the family got a lot of donations from outside the country. Nikki Haley [the United States Ambassador to the United Nations] actually talked about the story at great length at a UN hearing this month, but the family is still really struggling despite all of that help. It brought home to me that there’s a limit to what these stories can do. You can try to raise awareness, but even this family, which is still getting donations from readers, is in the same struggle as everybody else here.

 

How is the AP bureau set up down there?

I’m the only English-language reporter in the bureau in Caracas. I do have some Spanish-language colleagues, among them are some video people and photojournalists who take way more risks than I ever do. They’re the ones who are on the front lines of protests when tear gas is [being used], or who are going out to riots.

AP has a funny structure where you sometimes work very closely with people you’ve never actually met. Living here, I get so jaded, inevitably. When I was working on a story at a hospital, I just happened to mention to [my editor] Mary that the doctors who were helping us were held up in a stairwell and robbed. I mentioned it as a logistical issue, like, “I can’t stay there too late because I could get robbed and need to be careful,” because it’s so normal to me. Mary was really shocked and had us put that in the story. It can be helpful to have people who are outside the story and haven’t gotten used to the situation the way that I have.

 

Tell me about your decision to leave Caracas and take a job at ProPublica.

What I’m really excited about with ProPublica is the chance to cover a topic as important as immigration in a way that strives to hold power to account. They have such an amazing track record of putting out stories that spark outrage and demand change.

It’s been a wrenching decision, partly because I do feel so invested in the story here and also because I’m very worried about how AP is going to get another reporter to come in here. The foreign press corps is less than half the size it was when I first came down here, and it wasn’t that big to begin with. Some of that is because it’s gotten intense to live here. A lot of it is because the government has stopped accrediting new journalists. Right now, The New York Times is shut out, CNN is shut out, and The Washington Post has sometimes been shut out.

I’m excited to cover immigration, though. I don’t think there are that many readers who are clamoring for a story to put them in the shoes of a person going through the immigration system. It’s going to take a lot of the same skills we use in Venezuela to get people engaged.

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Julissa Treviño is a freelance writer and journalist currently based in Oaxaca City, Mexico. Follow her @julissatrevino.