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An Overview Of Venezuela's Descent

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Venezuela used to be one of the wealthiest countries in the world, but now it's in turmoil. People there are famished, crime is rampant, and the government is jailing and rolling over its opponents. Hannah Dreier was a reporter for The Associated Press in Venezuela until the end of June. She witnessed what she calls the country's descent into humanitarian crisis and joins us now from New York. Hannah, thanks so much for being with us.

HANNAH DREIER: Good to be here, Scott.

SIMON: Tell us what Venezuela was like when you first arrived, which was not that long ago.

DREIER: So when I first went down to Venezuela, I already thought that it was pretty bad. There were already shortages, and crime was starting to creep up. There was already some inflation, not the highest in the world like there is now. But every couple weeks, prices would change. But there was still a lot of hope and optimism. All of my friends back then were Venezuelans. And they were buying apartments. They had good jobs. And they were excited about what was going to come next.

SIMON: Yeah. And now - you wrote an article that contains some pretty heart-piercing vignettes of what daily life on the street is there like now.

DREIER: Yeah. Now I look back at those early days, and I am so nostalgic for them. All of the friends that I had back then have left the country. Some of them were beat up before they left or kidnapped before they left.

SIMON: Yeah.

DREIER: It's chaos in the streets every day. There have been violent protests happening for four months. So when you leave your house, you see burning debris, people waiting in food lines. You can't walk down the street without seeing people going through the trash or running from tear gas.

SIMON: Yeah. Hunger - tell us about the hunger. You describe people going through trash for food.

DREIER: So when I first went to Venezuela, the economy wasn't doing great, but people had enough to eat. This year, people really did start to go hungry. One of the last things I saw before I left was that my local bakery had started organizing lines for people who wanted to go through the scraps. And some families I know don't want to take their children out because they worry the kids are going to start asking for ice cream or asking for candy, and they can't get their kids those treats anymore.

SIMON: How does this happen in a country that, just a few years ago, was perceived to be so oil rich it was, you know, making contributions around the world?

DREIER: In just a couple of years, the country went from being a decent economy to the, you know, ruined economy that it is today. And most economists will tell you that that's just mismanagement. It's the government making choices that lead to price distortions and currency distortions that really quickly pulled down the whole country.

SIMON: What's happened to the opposition in Venezuela? It seems like every day we read about another march that's crushed, another political opponent jailed.

DREIER: At this point, almost everybody wants to see a new president. But at every turn, the opposition has been thwarted. So most recently, they've managed to get huge crowds, hundreds of thousands of people, out into the street to protest day after day. And the government has responded by being even more repressive, by arresting political leaders and now insisting on rewriting the constitution. There's very little hope for the opposition right now.

SIMON: So the Maduro government is more heavily entrenched than even before.

DREIER: Exactly. I think most people would say that the Maduro government has gone from being an authoritarian-leaning government to an outright dictatorship just this month.

SIMON: Hannah Dreier, now a reporter with ProPublica, previously reported for the AP from Venezuela. Thanks so much for being with us.

DREIER: Good talking with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.