Democracy is coming to an end in Venezuela. Mass protests and widespread hunger are part of everyday life in the country, as is political violence. More than 120 have died in the last four months as protesters clashed with military. Now, there’s a constitutional crisis. Last week, President Nicolas Maduro (though “dictator” is more appropriate these days) called for a referendum to allow for a rewrite of the constitution without voter approval. It was a complete sham; all candidates on the ballot were from his own party. A new (and controversial) constitutional assembly is now tasked with rewriting the nation’s charter.
New York Times reporter Nick Casey has been following the economic-turned-humanitarian-turned-political crisis for the last couple of years. The journalist paints a grim picture from his time on the ground in Venezuela, echoing the experience of Hannah Dreier of the Associated Press. For Casey, the Venezuelan crisis is also personal. He covered the country for 10 months before the Venezuelan government barred him from returning to Venezuela after a vacation. The government no longer allows the Times to have an office in the country.
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Casey spoke with CJR about the government’s crackdown on journalists and what it means for the future of the country. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us about your time in Venezuela during what’s being called both a political and humanitarian crisis. What was your overall experience working in the country?
There are two experiences you have in Venezuela. One is the experience of working as a journalist with Venezuelans, and the other is working with the government. They’re kind of diametrically opposed to each other. Across all walks of life, you find people who really want to talk to you as a journalist and explain what’s happening, like opening doors to their refrigerators to show you they don’t have any food. We spent a long time with a family that was leaving Venezuela on a boat to get out of there. We went into mental institutions where patients didn’t have medicine for their schizophrenia.
On the other side of the coin was the government. They did not open any doors. They often did not respond to us. I wasn’t given a press credential for many, many months. For the most part, they acted very aggressively. When I first arrived in Venezuela, they put my picture on television and said I was someone who was aligned with the opposition and was also joining in the effort to destabilize Venezuela. That wasn’t exactly welcoming. The attacks became more aggressive and more frequent. Then finally they made me leave the country. I was barred and haven’t been able to come back since.
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That was in October 2016. Can you walk us through what happened?
I was coming back from vacation at the end of October. I was flying back to the country using the same visa I had used many times before. I was stopped with several other journalists who were pulled aside. They told all of us that we couldn’t get into the country using our papers. It had begun to make sense that they were looking for me that night because the other two journalists were allowed through. I was the only one who was barred, and I wasn’t given any explanation other than the visa I had was essentially being revoked. I wouldn’t be allowed to come into the country anymore even though the visa was still valid until the next year. I had to stay in the airport that night. A guard watched over me the whole night to make sure I didn’t escape, not that you could escape from that airport. It’s one of the most dangerous airports in the world. In the morning, I was put on the first flight out of Venezuela to Bogota. From Bogota, I [went] to New York before I was given my passport back. We spent months afterwards trying to get paperwork, from meeting repeatedly with diplomats, going to the consulate in New York, seeing what could be done, sending all kinds of emails. At first, the Venezuelans would start to respond; they were considering it. In the end, we could see this was a stalling device. Eventually, they sent all of my papers back with no explanation.
I haven’t been able to get back into my apartment. I had a home there. My things remain in Venezuela. I haven’t been able to get them out, and this is a technique that the government has used, which is to put pressure on journalists by making our lives difficult. It’s far worse for Venezuelan journalists. There have been journalists who have been thrown into jail for many months and haven’t been given any explanation as to why. Armed gangs that are aligned with the government have broken equipment of photographers. The government’s strategy here is to, rather than actually deal with the problems that Venezuelans are facing, go after the journalists who are writing about it, thinking that might stanch the news from being able to get out.
You mentioned other journalists being allowed back in, but not you. Why do you think you were barred? Was there one specific story you think sparked the ban? Or was it a culmination of your coverage?
We set out a pretty aggressive plan to cover every aspect of the crisis on the front page of The New York Times. Because the Times is such a big platform, the Venezuelan government is extremely sensitive to it. They see it as the national newspaper in our country even though we have several. With every article, we could see that the government was getting more aggressive against me, especially an article in which we published the details of what it was like to be inside a Venezuelan mental institution where there weren’t any medicines. That seemed to get under their skin because we had actually gotten inside a state institution where we witnessed and documented people being tied to chairs, people eating their own feces, people who were on the floor, people who had just been abandoned at these places years ago, but were now dipping deeper into psychosis. I think this was a deeply embarrassing story for the government because these were the people that Hugo Chávez’s movement was supposed to be taking care of most, and it was very clear they weren’t.
In a recent piece, you mentioned, albeit briefly, getting attacked by Twitter trolls and encountering defamation in mass media, including your photo being broadcast on television. How else is the government working to attack or intimidate international journalists like you?
They’re mainly using visas as a way to control journalists. No one else from the Times has been able to get a visa since I’ve been kicked out. They often will issue them as tourist visas. It’s kind of a bait-and-switch. They’ll allow you into the country as tourists, and then decide whether they’re going to kick you out. It’s happened a number of times, and especially for freelance journalists. The government knows you can sink more than $1,000 just on airfare. If you’re not let in, that might be money that you have to absorb yourself, and financially it’s really bad for the journalist. It’s been extremely discouraging for freelancers to be able to come into the country. They’ve also done other things, like shut down CNN in Spanish for a period of time. They’re also using armed thugs to scare journalists outside of hospitals and break their equipment when they go out to cover protests.
What’s the situation like for reporters native to the country? Is it any different?
The situation local journalists face is a lot more grave. There was a journalist named Braulio Jatar who was arrested last year. He ran a small website called Reporte Confidencial which published really embarrassing videos of the president being chased by a mob of people who went to greet him, banging pots and pans because they were so hungry. Instead of trying to give these people food, the government went after Braulio Jatar. They arrested him, threw him into a jail for months without any explanation until they finally let him out this year. I think he’s now extremely terrified by what happened to him, although he’s continuing to work. If you work under this government, you have to live under it as well. You have to deal with the consequences of [Maduro’s] anger.
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You did a beautiful series of profiles about everyday Venezuelans struggling in the economic crisis. What were your takeaways from this reporting about the people there?
I think the biggest takeaway was that Hugo Chávez’s movement was on the whole successful in creating a very well-educated and in many ways thoughtful electorate. I think people really were awakened in many ways to political participation during Hugo Chávez’s time. There’s a deep dissatisfaction with the government, and I actually think it was very much intertwined with the earlier version of the government that came before Maduro. I think [Chávez] really taught Venezuelans to stand up for themselves and ask for their fair share. When suddenly the winds were beginning to change, and President Maduro was starting to establish something that looked much more like authoritarianism and operated far outside the will of the voters, you started seeing a lot of people getting very vocal about it.
Why did you want to report from Venezuela in the midst of this turmoil?
To me, Venezuela was the most important place in Latin America last year. It continues to be this year. I had just come from a tour with The Wall Street Journal in the Middle East and Israel, and I saw a lot of similar parallels between some of the divisions that you see in Israel and Palestine over politics to the struggle against authoritarianism in places like Egypt. A lot of that preparation from what I saw in the Middle East fed into my interest in what was happening in Venezuela.
It was also a place that was important because, unlike the Middle East, there’s just not as many journalists who are there. You don’t see a massive press corps of journalists who are in Caracas. You see them come in and out when big events are happening. I thought it was really important, and so did The New York Times.
And how has it changed since you lived there?
When I first came there, politically, it was a completely different universe. The opposition had just taken control of the National Assembly for the first time in many, many years. It was beginning to run a divided government for the first time in years in Venezuela, which was fascinating because there was a lot of talk that the Chavez movement was going to begin to change. The people were starting to pick some of their opponents, and it was going to become a much more competitive system. In the beginning, it looked like that was happening. The president showed up to congress to make the equivalent of the State of the Union address. He got lectured by the head of the opposition for about an hour afterward; he delivered a rebuttal. It seemed like the whole checks-and-balances system of democracy was starting to kick into gear again after all these years of one-party rule. Then suddenly things started to change very quickly. The president started adopting a much different tone. He said he wanted to rule the country by decree. There was an effort to recall him, but he shut that down. The supreme court, which is packed with loyalists of the president, started to overturn every single piece of important legislation that the chamber was passing. In March, the same court tried to dissolve the legislature entirely and take up the law-making abilities on its own. This was the first time the country has dipped deep into authoritarianism. This is just the political side. The economic side was terrifying. Every time that you would go into a restaurant, you’d see the prices had gone up because of inflation. Every week, there would be something different that you couldn’t get. You had people who were asking each time you left the country if you could bring them different medicine.
So, you had sources asking you to bring back things to Venezuela whenever you traveled?
All the time. The thing they’d often ask for most was diapers. It’s hard to find diapers in Venezuela. They don’t make enough, if any at all, right now, and they’re kind of like gold. It wasn’t just things you would need for your kids. It was also things like heart medication, medication for Parkinson’s Disease, basic medication like penicillin, and other antibiotics. The hospitals didn’t have any of these things anymore, and people were trying to hustle in any way that they could.
It sounds like a pretty grim situation. Do you think things will get better in the country?
The way things have gone [the last few weeks], I’m not very optimistic that there’s going to be any improvement, and here’s why: Venezuela is going through a deep political crisis. It’s already killed 120 people or more. The president is under US sanctions and has been declared a dictator by many of his neighbors. That is the political side. If you were somehow able to get out of that, if they were somehow able to have a free election to elect a new person to lead Venezuela, that wouldn’t change the situation for the food lines on the street or the economic collapse. You have one extremely messy bit of chaos that you have to get through before you can even start to attack the biggest problem of all. It might be years before Venezuela is back to normal, and I think it could be a generation or more before people are thinking of Venezuela on the same terms they once did when Venezuela was a very wealthy, oil-producing country. It was a place people would come to move, not the place people moved from.
What have journalists missed in their reporting on Venezuela? What advice would you give to your fellow foreign correspondents covering this crisis?
One thing that’s often been missed in the narrative, especially when you [think about] the narrative of dictatorship or authoritarian [regime], is you picture the authoritarian as someone like Pinochet, who arrives in dark sunglasses and starts to command. I think Maduro, to some people, is the caricature of that, but that’s not exactly what’s taking place. There are a lot of powers within the ruling party on the radical left that are controlling Venezuela with a lot of people you don’t see. They’re manipulating behind-the-scenes. What’s really going on is there’s a large group of people who are running the country, and that’s more classic authoritarianism. It’s not just on person; it’s a whole movement of people that are controlling what’s going on there.
The other thing that I think is often lost is why this has happened. Because the US is an extremely politicized place, the most common comments on my pieces are things like,”This is why socialism doesn’t work,” and “If Bernie Sanders becomes the president, we’re going to go the way of Venezuela.” People always see the collapse of Venezuela as having to do directly with socialism. I don’t agree. I think there’s a lot of different ways to run a country. One way you can’t run your country is making it entirely dependent on oil. That has nothing to do with politics, but everything to do with why Venezuela is in the situation that it is now. When the price of oil is high, it’s boom times. When oil prices start to slump, as it has now and will probably remain for some period of time, it becomes a starving time. That’s an economic answer, not necessarily a political one. The mistake, which I think is often missed, is the fact that Venezuela has done nothing to try to produce something that’s not oil. This is largely the reason there’s no money in Venezuela right now.
You’re still reporting on the country despite the government barring you and The New York Times. How has your reporting changed now that you’re working remotely?
This isn’t the only country The New York Times has had to report from remotely. We can’t get regularly into Syria. Iran, at different times, was off limits to certain reporters. In Pakistan, our reporter Declan Walsh was famously ejected from the country for years. The difference here is this is Venezuela. We’re not talking about one of these countries that has long been identified as a rogue nation or as an aggressive nation. This is a South American country, one that had a really close relationship to the US. Even during Chávez’s time, it was open for journalists to come in and out even though he was calling the US “the big imperial power” and George W. Bush “the devil.” It’s not that this is the first time this has happened, but it means you have to go about your job in a different way. I have to spend a lot more time on my phone. I have to rely increasingly on my local staff there. They become my eyes and ears on the ground. While we still cover the country just as aggressively as before, it just means that I can’t see everything that I report on. I’m much more reliant on information I get from others. While it doesn’t prevent me from being able to do my work, it makes it a lot longer of a process before I can verify something actually happened. It means every step is a lot more complicated and takes a lot more time.Meg Dalton is a freelance journalist and audio producer based in Connecticut. She's reported and edited for CJR, PBS NewsHour, Energy News Network, Architectural Digest, MediaShift, Hearst Connecticut newspapers, and more. Follow her on Twitter: @megdalts. Find her on Twitter @megdalts.