Intimidation, Twitter trolls, and finally this New York Times correspondent was kicked out of Venezuela

The World
Riot security forces clashing with demonstrators rallying against Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela, on July 28.

The showdown between the government and opposition is coming to a head this weekend in Venezuela. The government is holding a vote on Sunday to choose members of a body that would rewrite the constitution.

Critics around the world say it's a power grab by President Nicolás Maduro.

So the opposition has called for a fresh round of protests against him.

The government has tried to ban all protests before the vote and has threatened long prison sentences for anyone who defies the ban. 

So there will likely be more arrests, more violence and more chaos in the streets through the weekend. 

And more than 100 people have already been killed in clashes between protesters and police over the past four months.

It's not just a political crisis in Venezuela.

It's a humantarian one too.

Reporting in that climate as a journalist, local or international, is a serious challenge. Journalists covering Venezuela's protests have been "routinely targeted, harassed, attacked and detained," according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. And that's if you can get inside the country.

New York Times correspondent Nicholas Casey covered the crisis for eight months in 2016 — before the government banned him from coming back. He wrote a moving interactive piece for the Times about his experiences here.

The World interviewed Casey about his time in Venezuela and how the government went after him and eventually kicked him out. Casey also shares his worst fears about the country. A partial transcript of the interview is below.

The World: How did it feel watching Venezuela go from bad to worse?

Nicholas Casey: It was pretty incredible and also really sad to see what happened to Venezuela last year. For years, Venezuela had been one of the most prosperous countries in Latin America. This country sits on more oil reserves than Saudi Arabia does. [But plummeting oil prices and poor financial management left the country almost bankrupt.] When I got there, I would just wake up in Caracas and see really long lines of people forming outside of grocery stores. And often, at the end of the line, there wasn't any food … just one product that the government had been selling that day, which was something like cooking oil, that you couldn't even eat.

As the year went on, you'd see the pressure keg of the country beginning to get even more hot.

We did a story on psychiatric patients that didn't have any medicine, because the country couldn't import any of the medicines anymore. And mental health patients were literally sitting in mental asylums, sinking deeper into psychosis, seeing hallucinations, having to be tied to chairs so they wouldn't hurt themselves or attack medical staff. These were the daily scenes in Venezula.

Why did you get kicked out of Venezuela?

It began not long after I came to the country. The government began to intimidate me. Diosdado Cabello, [the former head of congress] who is one of the most powerful politicians on the left, put a picture of me on TV, as he does to a lot of journalists in Venezuela. Mind you, this is much more terrifying if you're a Venezuelan and you don't have anywhere else to go, and a powerful leftist puts a picture of you on television and says, "This person is not to be trusted. This person is close to the opposition and close to the imperialists who are trying to bring the country down."

The country [also] has a really large network of Twitter trolls and [the government] sent them aggressively after me online and in other forums.

Was there one specific thing that you wrote that really got the government's hackles up?

We don't know. It's not clear what [the government] is thinking. I wrote about the hospital collapse in the country in which there were people who couldn't get chemotherapy medicines. I wrote about hunger and how the country was having to keep national guardsmen close to the food trucks so people wouldn't loot them and riot. And I think it was the culmination of all these things that were coming out very frequently on the front page of The New York Times that began to irk the government. Because instead of trying to fix the problems that were going on in Venezuela, from the hunger, to the lack of medicine, to the lack of food, they decided to come after the journalists who were starting to make the world aware of what was going on.

How did you discover you were kicked out?

In late October, I was coming back to Venezuela from Mexico, and they stopped me at the border. They said that I would no longer be able to use my visa to get into the country — a visa which was valid and still had many months left on it. I was forced to stay in the airport that entire night with a guard looking over me. And then I was put on the next flight to Bogotá and from there I was deported on to New York. Since then, I have not been able to even collect my belongings [left in Venezuela]. 

So as you continue to watch these massive upheavals in the country you used to cover, what are you afraid is going to happen in Venezuela?

A lot of smart people who have watched Venezuela for years now are starting to talk about some kind of wider civil conflict potentially taking place.

One of the more absurd moments in this battle that's been going on for the last three months in Venezuela, but also a moment that was rather scary, was when a police officer took control of a helicopter, flew around Caracas and started shooting grenades and firing into government buildings. No one was hurt or killed in this. But [the pilot] continued making internet videos, telling Venezuelans that they need to start rebelling. This guy has become a folk hero in Venezuela because he's a suave, dapper guy who used to be an actor.

I think there could be more attacks like these, and they could be deadly. And if they're deadly, and the government responds to them, there will be an escalation of violence.

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