Venezuela undercover: A nation on the brink
Foreign Correspondent reporter Eric Campbell and producer Matt Davis go undercover in Venezuela as tourists to evade the government’s restrictions on foreign journalists.
It has the biggest oil reserves on the planet. But instead of living like Middle Eastern sheiks, many Venezuelans are on the brink of famine.
The economy is in ruins, the currency is all but worthless, shops are empty and people queue for subsidised food rations to survive.
A charismatic former army colonel named Hugo Chavez launched a socialist revolution after he was elected in 1998. But under his successor, Nicolas Maduro, the oil-rich country has become a failing state.
Foreign Correspondent reporter Eric Campbell and producer Matt Davis went undercover in Venezuela as tourists to evade the government’s restrictions on foreign journalists.
A week in the capital Caracas revealed a city on the edge of destruction.
‘We eat one meal a day’
The first things you see are the queues. They start at about 3:00am across the city, with tens of thousands waiting in line to buy subsidised food. The reward for six hours of waiting might be two small bags of flour.
‘They are fine in the government, they eat,” one woman clutching a baby tells us in disgust.
“But mothers like me have to wait from 3:00am to find nappies, which you can’t find, or food for the kids.”
People tell us they eat only once a day so there’ll be something to give the children for dinner. We hear stories of people fainting from hunger in the slums.
‘The whole system has to change,” one man cries.
“It can’t go on like this.”
Word spreads through the crowd that journalists have come and others call us over to talk to them. But we can’t stay long.
Police are guarding the food stores to prevent riots and if they spot us we’ll be arrested.
We move on to our next location, passing people scavenging through garbage for food and socialist billboards boasting how much more people are eating since the revolution.
Life on the edge
We catch a train to the edge of the city. The greater Caracas area has 5 million people and most of them live in slums called barrios on the surrounding hills.
As a general rule, the poorer you are, the higher you live. Taxis don’t even go the higher barrios. People climb up winding pot-holed streets or catch communal buses or even motorcycle taxis called motos.
At the top of one barrio we find a crowd of people waiting for government deliveries of gas that were supposed to come days before.
Behind them is a giant mural of Hugo Chavez, the first socialist president who lavished oil money on the barrios before dying unexpectedly in 2013.
“We miss him a lot,” says an old woman named Josepina Lopez.
“He used to solve all the problems we have now.”
But others have only contempt for the new president, Nicolas Maduro.
“People want him out of power,” says a moto driver Leon Guerrero.
“But he does not let us vote because he knows he is going to lose. Every day the situation is harder and sometimes in feel suffocated.”
The only business that’s booming in the barrios is crime. With close to 4,000 murders a year Caracas is getting a reputation as the most dangerous city in Latin America.
Our translator puts us in touch with a local gang who agree to meet us.
We are taken into a concrete room and searched by young men wearing balaclavas and holding pistols.
The leader tells me nonchalantly what they do.
“A bit of everything,” he says, “drugs, kidnapping, stealing cars, contract killings. Mostly drugs.”
He says business is good.
“Do you worry about police?” I ask.
“No, we have good contacts.”
He takes the bullets from his gun and gives it me to hold, then jokes I’ve left my fingerprints on it.
They line up to show us their weapons and agree to a group photograph.
We politely decline their invitation to smoke marijuana with them.
One of the gang members escorts us back down to the road with a gun “for safety”.