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Venezuela has the world’s largest reserves of oil, but with the price of oil in a free fall, the country’s economy is shrinking, and the South American nation of 30 million people is suffering. New York Times reporter Nicholas Casey, who is usually based in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the crisis.
HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR:
Venezuela has the world's largest reserves of oil, but with the price of oil in a free fall, the country's economy is shrinking, and the South American nation of 30 million people is suffering from severe shortages of food, consumer goods, and services like hospital care. Some critics say Venezuela's problems stem from socialist policies and want a referendum to remove President Nicholas Maduro from office.
"New York Times" reporter Nicholas Casey is based in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, but today, he joins me here in the studio to discuss the crisis.
First of all, let's give some people in the audience a kind of snapshot of what day-to-day life is like there. In some of your stories, you've kind of painted it in a society that is losing the rule of law.
NICHOLAS CASEY, "NEW YORK TIMES" REPORTER: It is. It's especially become a society what at one point was for many people middle class society that's in the state of collapse.
If you go outside in any neighborhood, in any city or town in Venezuela now, you're going to see huge lines of people trying to get food. There are people who are lining up starting at 5:00 a.m. in the morning to try to find food. Venezuela doesn't have any lights right now, because there's very little electricity. Big parts of Caracas don't have water in it anymore. There's many of the most basic government services have just suddenly vanished.
And so, Caracas — we're talking about a major metro city on the planet, right? I mean, this is — when you talk about thousands of people without water what, are they doing? Where do they get it? I mean, water and food are things that you need to live.
People are basically figuring out how to hack this country, and people are becoming, like, increasingly creative as to how to get around things right now. To find basic medicines at this point, because you don't have them in many hospitals or pharmacies, people are trying to search for them from black market dealers who are putting up signs in hospitals saying, "If you call me, I can give you a good price for antibiotics." That's what it's coming to.
One of the stories that you filed that was probably the hardest to see is what it looks like inside a hospital. I mean, you went through pretty much hallways that look like a war zone.
It does, and I've been to report in war zones like Gaza, and haven't seen a place that looked quite like that. Look, in the Middle East, when there is a war going on, there are a lot of aid organizations that are trying to fill in some of these gaps. In Venezuela, the government has said there's no problem, so people who are trying to bring in medicines are being told no.
And these hospitals, they look like — they look like hell on earth, basically. You're seeing people on gurneys and on the floor in their own blood. One of the hospitals that we went to, there had been a number of newborn infants who had died the day before when there was also a power outage. The doctors had to try to use, you know, their hands and, like, give respiration to a number of babies that were on ventilators.
There were people dying constantly for lack of blood, for blood transfusions, lack of antibiotics. There was one hospital that we went to where the surgeons had told us because there was no water in the hospital, their pump system had broken, that they were having to use seltzer water between surgeries t surgeries to clean their hands.
So, what happens now? I mean, what is the government response to this?
The government has been in retreat for a long time now. That's because this is a country that is almost entirely financed by the price of oil, and a lot of these services that were pride of Hugo Chavez when he was the president have been financed by this oil price, are suddenly gone. So, what you see is you just don't see the government anymore.
When you go around the streets of Caracas at night, you don't see any police anymore and you don't see many people. It's like there is a curfew that's on because there were so many criminals looking for money at this point that people don't go outside.
And money has devalued so much that you describe people taking sacks of cash to buy basic goods.
So, over a period of time, you might see the value of the Bolivar — which is their currency — go down by 25 percent, which means that you need 25 percent more money.
The highest bill right now is 100 bolivars, but you might go for a lunch that costs 14,000 bolivars. You see someone trying to count the money to pay for the lunch takes like 20 minutes, especially trying to divide the bill. I saw someone leave a tip that was a stack, like a wad of money, that was like this thick. It looked like a drug dealer of something. That was just the tip.
So, people are spending so much time just trying to get those basic necessities taking care of, I'm assuming that there are ripple effects on the economy, that there is job loss, unemployment, that these things are not functioning, if businesses and governments are closed down multiple days of the week.
The whole country is trying to close down right now. You can't have so many employees of the government that aren't working because there's so little money. I met, for example, a driver that told me that someone had stolen his car battery and he had to stop being a driver because he couldn't afford to get another one. He was just working as a day laborer at that point.
This kind of situation, once you have a rapture in one part of the economy, you see it start to tear down all the other parts that are standing.
Is there a concern that Venezuela could be a total failed state, there could be civil unrest?
That's the reason why the U.S., the OAS, now, a growing number of countries are saying that Venezuela needs to do something because when you have these large lines of people gathered every day for food, you don't have many steps from that to having a mob that's angry and that is the basis for civil unrest. And it's a huge concern right now of what might happen this year.
Nicholas Casey of "The New York Times" — thanks so much for joining us.
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