Monday, August 7, 2017

What’s It Like to See a Democracy Destroyed? By Susan Glasser interviews Hannah Dreier

NB: There is a lesson here for the Sangh Parivar if it cares to notice. (It probably won't). Ordinary Indians may note what happens to a society wherein despite enormous wealth, its polity collapses. This happens when leaders disregard civilised norms, encourage violence and lawlessness, and try to establish tyranny. DS

Hannah Dreier spent years covering the implosion of Venezuela. Her takeaway is a sobering one: There’s no rule that says that a miserable situation has to end, just because it’s too miserable.
What’s it like to watch a country implode? To see a democracy destroyed and an economy crater?
Since 2014, American journalist Hannah Dreier has documented just that in Venezuela, once one of the world’s wealthiest nations and still home to what are believed to be the planet’s largest oil reserves. She wrote for the Associated Press about what it was like to live in a place with the world’s highest murder rate - and the world’s highest rate of inflation. About the breakdown of hospitals and schools, and how the obesity epidemic that plagued a rich country was quickly replaced with people so hungry they were rooting through the garbage on her doorstep.

Most of the time, few paid attention, at least in part because Dreier was the last U.S. journalist even to get a work visa to live in Venezuela; when she moved there to cover the story, she says, “I felt like I had walked across a bridge as it was burning behind me.” But over the past week, as Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has declared victory in a fraud-plagued referendum and moved to seize control of the opposition-controlled legislature, the rest of the world has - finally, belatedly - come to see what is happening in Caracas for what it is: the birth of a dictatorship.
In Washington, President Donald Trump’s administration imposed direct personal sanctions on Maduro - an insult reserved for only a handful of the world’s toughest tyrants, such as Syria’s Bashir Assad, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe- and his regime insiders. Maduro, Trump said in a statement, “is not just a bad leader; he is now a dictator.”

The United States, however, continues to be Venezuela’s largest customer for the oil that provides more than 95 percent of the country’s income, and has refrained from targeting the industry for sanctions despite Maduro’s move to finally establish a socialist police state, a development set in motion more than a decade ago by his charismatic predecessor Hugo Chavez.

Dreier, who has just returned to the United States after completing her assignment in Venezuela, may well end up being the last American journalist to get that permanent visa for Caracas, at least for a while (though her colleagues at the AP emailed after this was posted to assure me they are still covering the story and intend to replace her). She is this week’s guest on The Global Politico, our weekly podcast on world affairs, and we talked about why she thinks the new U.S. sanctions on Maduro might help him as much as hurt him, how the crisis has many in Venezuela pining not for their lost freedoms but for the rise of a mano dura - a strong hand - to restore lost order, and just what crazy things you can get used to living in a place that’s falling apart.

I found her account incredibly compelling—filled with the absurdities of life as a society unravels. At first, it seems almost comic, as when Dreier spends the day reporting at a plastic surgeon’s office and watches eager would-be beauty queens coming in with cut-rate Chinese bootleg breast implants once others became impossible to find. And Dreier tells me she spent her first year in Venezuela convinced the media narrative about the country falling apart was all wrong.

Then, Dreier recounts, her life changed. First, her friends—middle-class young professionals like herself—started losing weight. She lost power and water. Crime became so rampant her colleagues congratulated her on a “good robbery” when she was held up in broad daylight and all she lost were her belongings. By the time she was grabbed off the street after an interview one day earlier this year, she was overwhelmed with relief when she found out she’d been snatched by the secret police and not far more vicious kidnappers.

Money became almost worthless, and she started carrying paper grocery bags full of 100-bolivar notes to pay for even small things. Her choices for food were empty supermarket shelves or $25 black-market Cheerios. She watched as ordinary people stood on line for bread, milk and toilet paper. One day the bakery around the corner started organizing a queue—not to sell the bread they had already run out of, but for the privilege of allowing people to rummage through their trash. The screams she heard one morning were of neighbors savagely beating an accused thief; a “lynching,” it was called. “You never had to go and try to figure out where the crisis was,” she says. "It was on your doorstep.”

The full transcript of our conversation is below, and I hope you’ll take the time to read this sad, funny, infuriating and amazing story of what it was like to report in a country while democracy died there. Dreier’s takeaway as she leaves Venezuela is a sobering one: “things can always get worse and worse and worse, and there’s no rule that says that a miserable situation has to end, just because it’s too miserable.”

***
Susan Glasser: This is Susan Glasser. We have, I think, a really important and fascinating story to talk about this week and a great guest. I’m here in New York with Hannah Dreier, who has just returned from being one of the very few American correspondents still left in Venezuela. As the country has imploded, she’s had a unique window on what it’s like to live in a democracy as it collapses, as it turns and morphs before your eyes into something else.

Hannah, what a unique journalistic experience you’ve had. As you take up your new role here at ProPublica, I want you to reflect a little bit. How did you get into Venezuela?

Hannah Dreier: I had no idea that it was going to become the mess that it is today. I went down there in 2014 and I was kind of choosing between going to Venezuela or going to Mexico, and it looked like Venezuela might be kind of teetering on the brink of something, and I thought that maybe if I went there I would see something interesting. And if I had known how dramatic, and how bleak and dangerous it was going to get, I don’t know if I really would have gone... read more: