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Venezuelans face collapsing economy, starvation and crime

June 21, 2016 at 7:51 PM EDT
Plummeting worldwide fuel prices have damaged several economies, but perhaps no country has been hit harder than Venezuela. Once flush with oil money, the nation now faces a collapsing economy, skyrocketing inflation and a wave of looting and crime driven by mass food shortages. For more on the dire situation in Venezuela, Gwen Ifill talks to Nicholas Casey of The New York Times.

GWEN IFILL: The fall in world oil prices has likely hit no country as hard as it has Venezuela. Once flush with cash, the country is now in crisis, with a collapsing economy, skyrocketing crime and inflation rates, and major food shortages, all this as the government of President Nicolas Maduro tries to maintain control.

For more on this situation, we turn to Nicholas Casey of The New York Times, who is reporting tonight from Caracas.

Thank you for joining us.

So, Nicholas, give me a sense about how long this collapse — it feels like a slow-motion collapse — how long has it been going on and what has caused it?

NICHOLAS CASEY, The New York Times: It’s been going on for a couple of years now.

And it’s been tied to the collapse in oil prices in Venezuela. Venezuela gets almost all of its revenue from oil. So, when these prices started to collapse, the first thing you saw was that some of the foods started to disappear, not in huge quantities, but enough that there were lines in front of stores.

The electricity started to disappear. There’s even problems with water right now because the government doesn’t have the money that it needs. Now, what’s happened with the food is that there has been so much which has gone at this point, that people are starting to get hungry.

And last week and the week before, we saw a wave of lootings of stores. People basically left these lines that they were gathered in and started to go directly into the stores, break down the doors, and take things that were inside.

GWEN IFILL: You say that the lack — the collapse of the oil — of oil prices contributed to this. How much was that tied up with the collapse in faith of this current leadership, of President Maduro? How much of one thing creating the other?

NICHOLAS CASEY: Well, it’s not just, as you point out, the collapse of the oil prices which has caused what’s happened here.

There are other countries, like Mexico and Brazil, which have a lot of oil revenues themselves, and don’t have the same problems as Venezuela. Venezuela and Maduro came after years of what a lot of economists say was economic mismanagement by Hugo Chavez, who totally transformed the economy here.

The government spent lots of money, lots of money, and didn’t save much for a time when the price of oil wouldn’t be as high as it was before. So, now Venezuela finds itself in the position where it needs money. It doesn’t produce a lot of food. It needs money to import food, and it doesn’t have anything right now.

So, in the short term, it’s the price of oil which has got us here. But in the long term, it’s a lot of economic changes that took place in this country in the so-called Bolivarian Revolution that came from Hugo Chavez.

GWEN IFILL: So, you are witnessing food riots; you are witnessing a lot of economic angst as well. Is there also hoarding going on, people who are just — businesses or individual merchants who are just keeping it to themselves?

NICHOLAS CASEY: Well, that’s one thing that the government is blaming on what’s happening.

Personally, as a reporter, I have not seen people have been able to hoard large amounts of food, because there’s not a lot of food to find. The idea of being able to hoard eggs or sugar or rice seems almost impossible, given the amounts of these things that are arriving.

And even on an individual level, there’s a lot of people who would love to be able to have a stash for the event that they couldn’t get any more, but most people are just thinking of day to day, what they’re able to get.

GWEN IFILL: Are there any efforts under way by international organizations, like Organization of American States, to try to intervene, to try to help?

NICHOLAS CASEY: Well, yes, the OAS is trying to put pressure now on Venezuela.

And it’s more political pressure right now. There is an effort under way to recall President Nicolas Maduro, largely because of all these economic problems which the country is having. The government seems to be trying to slow the process down, or at least fight it.

And what’s happened now is that the Organization of American States is holding a special meeting this week to try to determine whether Venezuela is in violation of its democratic charter. Now, this could eventually result in Venezuela being kicked out of the OAS, which is kind of like a U.N. sort of body that is in the Western Hemisphere.

This would be an embarrassment for Venezuela. But in terms of changing the situation with how much food is here, that doesn’t get Venezuelans very far. They’re not going to see suddenly their eggs and rice on the shelves because of the political pressure that’s going on against Venezuela from the international community.

GWEN IFILL: You wrote in one of your stories that eggs used to be used for celebration, but now an egg is like gold.

Nicholas Casey of The New York Times, thank you for your reporting from Caracas.

NICHOLAS CASEY: Thanks for having me.