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Bust Times In Oil-Rich Venezuela: 'The Banks Don't Have Money To Give Out'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Cheap oil and gas sounds great - and it is for consumers. But it's a catastrophe for countries whose economies depend on exporting oil like Venezuela. That country's economy collapsed when oil prices plummeted, leading to shortages of everything - toilet paper, food, medicines, water, electricity and cash. The country's president, Nicolas Maduros, who succeeded Hugo Chavez is fighting to stop a movement to recall him.

My guest Nicholas Casey has been living with these shortages as he covers Venezuela for The New York Times. He's The Times' Andes bureau chief and reports on the whole region. A little later, we'll talk about his visit to a rebel camp of the Colombian guerrilla movement FARC. Before joining The Times, Casey worked for The Wall Street Journal. He led the paper's coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and reported on the Arab Spring. He was also based in Mexico City for five years.

Nicholas Casey, welcome to FRESH AIR. It sounds like inflation is so bad in Venezuela that not only can no one afford to buy anything, but there's also nothing to buy and no money to buy it with. Can you give us an overview of what daily life is like just in terms of access to things like water and electricity and food?

NICHOLAS CASEY: It's all vanished in Venezuela. And very recently, some of the basic things that you would've expected to see, like the electricity, have gone. But for an even longer period of time, there hasn't been a lot of food. And that's because there aren't many imports that are coming to Venezuela.

So if you wake up in the morning and you go outside as early as 5 a.m, sometimes 4:30, you see people lining up in front of stores to try to see what's going to be there when they open their doors. And sometimes even these stores - after you're waiting through a line that might be 500, 1,000 people sometimes, you'll see - you get to the front of the line, and you find that they've only got cooking oil. They don't have flour. They don't have any of the basic things that you need there.

So Venezuelans are living a total alternate reality from the rest of Latin America - really from the rest of the world right now because there isn't anything there. You go into malls right now and you see, if the lights are on, they're dim. They're at half-level. The water is a huge issue right now. You don't have water in large parts of Caracas now. So one thing that you see is people are almost trying to, like, hack this country to figure out where you get water. Some people have gone out actually to a mountainside that's nearby Caracas to go get water out of the spring, bringing large jugs and taking it home.

GROSS: What about electricity? Like, do you have to plan your day around when the electricity is turned on?

CASEY: Well, I live in Caracas. And there's electricity so far. A few months ago, the government came out and said that we're going to start rationing electricity in Caracas. And there was such a big rebellion, practically, against this that they decided to spare the capital of these electricity cuts.

What did that mean? It meant that the rest of the country got even less electricity than they were going to get. So when I've gone out to - outside of Caracas to try to do my work, you do, yeah. You have to plan your day based on when the electricity cuts are going to happen. But you don't always know. Not long ago, I was at a restaurant in a city called Puerto Ordaz, which is - ironically, it's where one of the largest hydroelectric dams is in the country. This is one of the places that should be filled with electricity. But, you know, we were eating lunch and the electricity cut out. And we couldn't pay the bill because the debit cards didn't work. And beyond that, the restaurant couldn't tell us how much the bill was going to be. And none of us had enough cash to pay for it because the inflation is so high you have to - if you want to pay for things like lunch, you have to carry literally around huge, like, backpacks filled with cash.

GROSS: Do the banks have cash?

CASEY: Sometimes.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CASEY: Sometimes they don't.

GROSS: Great.

CASEY: So not too long ago, I was trying to get cash from a bank. And I needed about a 100,000 bolivars, which, if I remember on the exchange that foreigners have access to, at about 500 bolivars to the dollar would be about, you know, a couple of hundred dollars we're talking about. So - and this is out of my own bank account. And I said I'm going to write a check for myself for this amount of money. And could you give me the cash?

And the look that they gave me was like I was trying to rob this bank. And everybody else in the bank was like - who is this guy that's trying to get a 100,000 bolivars? They didn't have enough money. They asked me if I could wait. They called around to a number of other banks to see, you know, who might be able to give them the money. This is my own money. It's not that there's been a run on the banks and they don't have any money. It's just that these banks don't have any money left to give out.

Let me kind of explain a little bit why. It's because of inflation. So imagine that over the course of a few months in the U.S. that currency lost half of its value. Everything was going to be twice as much as what it was before. And you'd need twice as much cash in your wallet to try to pay for it. This would also mean to pay for everything over the course of a day in that country, you would need twice as much currency, twice as many bills, to pay if you were paying for things in cash.

And there's no way that the Venezuelan government could print that much money to keep up with inflation. So what happens - they don't. And there's not enough money. There's a shortage of money, just like there's a shortage of electricity and water. It means, you know, paying for things and doing everything in your day-to-day life has become very, very challenging.

GROSS: You've visited at least one hospital. Would you describe an example of the worst hygienic situation you saw surgeons operating in?

CASEY: Yeah. I mean, there's so many to describe at this point. These - you know, these hospitals are really - kind of look like hell on earth. They're not even something I've seen in war situations that I've gone to cover. I think often of Gaza as probably the worst place where I've seen hospitals in wartime. And at least those hospitals had antibiotics. And these ones don't.

So, you know, what do these hospitals look like? You know, there was one that we visited called the Razetti Hospital, which was in a town called Barcelona on the coast. And you walk into this hospital and they don't have enough beds for everybody. There are people who are just lying on the floor in their own blood outside. And I remember passing one guy who we thought had been brought in by the police because he was handcuffed to a gurney. But he was on the floor.

So you see the operating rooms of these places. And they're even worse. Some of these places don't have water or electricity - like the rest of Venezuela doesn't. And the surgeons are trying to see if they can do their work there. We went out to a hospital in the city of Merida, which is out near the border of Colombia. And we met with the doctors there. And one of the surgeons told us about trying to do operations without water. They had a pump system that was pumping in their water, which was old and had broken. It had been months, and it still hadn't been repaired.

So what the doctors were doing - were going in surgery after surgery without soap, mind you. They didn't have soap. They weren't able to get soap imported at that point so they were doing what they could - washing their hands with seltzer water that they had bought outside.

And the doctor asked him, well, what happens after the surgery? You can't even clean the patients. And he said no. Some of them come out okay. But about 1 in every 5 comes back with another infection. And the infection came from the surgery that we did. And we're essentially, like, making people sick when we're trying to treat them - was what he said.

GROSS: And there's no antibiotics.

CASEY: In most cases, no. And there are many specific antibiotics that doctors need that they can't get. They might have something. But maybe they're dealing with an infection that's resistant or needs a certain kind of antibiotic. And it's not to be found anywhere in Venezuela.

There are other people that do have antibiotics, but they're not the doctors. And these people are putting up signs in the hospital saying we have antibiotics. These are black-market people - we have antibiotics. Call us at this number and we'll give you a good price.

This is ridiculous. The medicines have disappeared from the places that they should be in - in the hospital pharmacies. And you have other people taking advantage of the situation to try to sell them out of their own homes.

GROSS: So if Venezuela is an oil-rich country, why is it so poor right now? What happened?

CASEY: Well, yeah. A lot of people are looking at who or what is to blame. There's a lot of things going on right now. One of them is the legacy in the years and aftermath after Hugo Chavez. There was a huge amount of hope throughout the left in Latin America when Chavez came to power.

He was saying many things that no one else was saying and talking about inequality in terms that hadn't been heard in Latin America for years. Unfortunately, what followed was years of mismanagement on every level - a lot of corruption, misunderstandings of how the economy worked or how to fix it.

You know, I'll give you one example that you see a lot. It is causing a lot of the problems in Venezuela - is price controls. During those years, they brought the price of selling something lower than what it cost to make it. So if you wanted to get milk, it was at a very inexpensive price, which was great if you were poor.

The problem was if you were a farmer or, you know, owned an operation that was producing milk. And you couldn't produce it for the price that it was going to be sold for. So what happened next? Well, you just didn't produce it anymore.

So you started to see this huge collapse of production throughout the country. People stopped making beans. People stopped making rice. Venezuela went from being an exporter of meat to importing it. And one by one, all of these things stopped being made in the country.

Well, it wasn't the end of the world then, because there was so much money from the oil that you could just buy it. You could buy it for dollars. And the response was - well, we'll just import it. We can bring all these things in. It's a rich country. Well, this continued for years.

But the problem next came when the price of oil collapsed. And there wasn't any money to buy the imports. And there was no way to make them. So just what happened was - everything started to disappear. So that's part of the reason why Venezuela is where it is. That said, called the proximate cause - is years of mismanagement from these policies, dating back to Hugo Chavez.

But Venezuela has been haunted by what you could call its oil curse for years, which is that because there is so much oil in Venezuela, Venezuela hasn't sought out other ways to make money - other ways to be a productive country.

And Venezuela has depended for years on just one thing - on oil. And when the price of oil goes up, it's a boom time there. And when the price of oil goes down - and this is a very, very dire case because of a number of other things that have happened related to the mismanagement - it turns into, you know, an absolute dystopia.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Nicholas Casey. He's The New York Times Andes bureau chief based in Caracas, Venezuela. We'll be back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Nicholas Casey, The New York Times' Andes bureau chief. He's based in Caracas, Venezuela. He was previously with The Wall Street Journal and led the paper's coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and reported on the Arab Spring. He covered 12 Latin-American countries for The Wall Street Journal from his base in Mexico City.

So Hugo Chavez was the head of the socialist party in Venezuela when he was president. How much do you think he was driven by ideals and how much just by power? Was it a corrupt government?

CASEY: It's hard to say. I think every government is corrupt to some degree, and corruption in Latin America is almost impossible to escape. Was Hugo Chavez more corrupt than the others? Perhaps, but I think the - one of the biggest issues, especially when it came to corruption, was that over the years many people accused Hugo Chavez of being a dictator. And the truth was was that he was very much a Democrat in a lot of ways. A lot of the problems that came from Venezuela came from the fact that he was trying to win elections, and in Latin America, a lot of these elections have come to be - you're expected to be able to win them by giving things away, especially in Venezuela.

So what happened was huge amounts of the government budget were going to giveaways of homes. They were going to giveaways of televisions, of refrigerators, of other things. Is that corruption? Well, yeah, it feels a lot like you're buying votes from people. Is it democracy? You're trying to win an election. There was this way in which there was a whole - unholy alliance between socialism, democracy and consumerism in Venezuela. And I think that was one of the things that drove Venezuela into the ground was the - you know, unlike somewhere if you look at the Soviets in the 20th century, you weren't seeing massive amounts of consumerism that was taking place. Like, no one was talking about, at the end of the USSR, trying to keep things up by giving away more television sets.

I think if you had shown that to someone who had seen themselves as a real socialist, whether in Russia or in Cuba, they would say this is a totally different version of what we were expecting. But socialism in the 21st century actually kind of took a different form under Hugo Chavez, something that was completely unsustainable, that led itself to corruption and ultimately left the country without any money after having made so much during these years when the oil prices were high.

GROSS: Chavez was popular for a period in Venezuela. Why did people like him when they liked them?

CASEY: He was the most charismatic figure that Venezuela's had as their leader probably ever. And he really was one of the most charismatic people that was running any country during his time. He was someone that really could connect with the poor, with ordinary Venezuelans. He had a television show on every Sunday where you would just basically see what he was doing all day long. He would go on TV and play instruments. He would sing. He would dance. He really tried to become, for a lot of people, like, the personification of the average Venezuelan, charismatic guy. And he did that. He achieved that.

And I think it was not just through his policies. And, of course, his policies were totally oriented towards the poor, whether it was, you know, constructing and giving away new homes, whether it was expanding education, expanding the health care system. But it was, I think, more than the policies, it was a personal connection to Chavez that so many Venezuelans felt and what was driving his popularity, down to the fact that even many people who don't like the government now, who say they hate Nicholas Madura right now, will tell you that they loved Chavez, that they still remember him very warmly.

GROSS: So having covered governments in Mexico, Latin America, the Middle East, you've seen a lot of different governments. And now we're facing the prospect of possibly having Donald Trump as president and certainly as the likely Republican candidate for president. And it's the first time we've had somebody in that position who's had no experience in elected office before. So when you think of Trump and you think of other governments that you've covered, what do you think about?

CASEY: Well, I will just say it - and a lot of people in Latin America will tell you this very quickly - Donald Trump resembles Hugo Chavez. It's a strange thing to think about in the beginning because Trump is from the right - or is painting himself as that - and Chavez was from the far left. But what unites both of them is populism. This populism is bringing together large crowds of people. Some of them are very angry. Trump was described very well by an old mentor of mine from The Wall Street Journal, David Luhnow, in an excellent article he wrote called "The Rise Of Trumpismo" (ph) - like, kind of a Trumpismo - like, often in Latin America you will use I-S-M-O as, like, a Trumpism, there's Chavism, there's Peronism - a whole ideology being established around one person.

And some things he pointed out to were - David - in that article were extremely spot on. Trump and Chavez both rose to power on television. Chavez had a show called "Alo Presidente" where you would see him on a reality-like show. And Trump, of course, we all know, had all of his reality shows as his way of, you know, connecting very directly with people. That ended up becoming a political campaign. Both of them were well-known for trying to foster and harvest this resentment in their countries that many people had. There was a small group of oligarchs, of elites, that were getting a better deal than the rest.

And I think you also see a very close resemblance between Donald Trump and Hugo Chavez in their use of - in their demonization of the media - both use and demonization. They were of both - they're both like masters of being able to be on TV but at the same time spend so much of their time - spend so much of their time in the case of Chavez - of attacking the media as the enemy. What you're seeing, I think, between Hugo Chavez and Donald Trump here is that populism cuts across ideology and basically becomes an ideology unto itself. And you have power that's concentrated not in a movement or in a political party or in an institution but just in one single person. And I think that's why, when you talk to Venezuelans, you will see that people recognize something in the U.S. that they saw for many years in their country.

GROSS: My guest is Nicholas Casey, The New York Times Andes bureau chief. After a break, we'll talk about getting to a hidden camp of the Colombian guerrilla group FARC. He describes the camp as a communist time capsule. Here's a clip from the TV show that Casey mentioned, "Alo Presidente," that was hosted by the late Hugo Chavez when he was Venezuela's president. This is Chavez singing on the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


HUGO CHAVEZ: (Singing in Spanish).


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross - back with Nicholas Casey, The New York Times Andes bureau chief, who's based in Caracas, Venezuela and covers the region. He previously worked at The Wall Street Journal. He led the paper's coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and reported on the Arab Spring. He was also based in Mexico City for five years.

So, you know, we're talking about political change in Latin America. You recently went to Colombia to report on members of FARC, which is a radical guerrilla group that's been, you know, fighting against the government. Would you describe what FARC is before we get to your trip there to one of the camps?

CASEY: Yeah. FARC is Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia. And its a - the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. That's what it stands for. And it's a guerrilla organization - one of the oldest, actually, in the region. They've been fighting for more than 50 years. And they are mainly in rural areas of Colombia.

And they see their job is to protect the rural people of these zones. And what the result has been is that there's been huge parts of territory of Colombia which are controlled by the supposed revolutionaries and not by the government. And this has been a stalemate and the case for years.

And people in Colombia knew that most, if you're a city dweller - from the kidnappings that they would do - they made so much of their money off of kidnapping rich people and selling them back for ransom that they became very rich. And then they became even more rich when they got into the coca trade by taxing it.

So this had become one of the most profitable revolutionary organizations that you can imagine in the world and one that was able to pose a huge challenge to the Colombian state. The U.S. also got involved through an aid package called Plan Colombia that delivered billions of dollars to Colombia to try to fight the rebels over the course of years, which, in the end, didn't result in a defeat.

And now they're - both sides are coming to the negotiating table. That's where we are now. We look like we're close - sometime this year, hopefully - to a peace process with FARC.

GROSS: And that's what made it possible for you to visit a FARC camp.

CASEY: Yeah.

GROSS: So you describe the camp that you visited, which had about 150 rebels living there. You describe it as a communist time capsule.

CASEY: It's a strange place. I'd never been to anywhere like that. And it was really interesting for me to see, being someone who's read about these places, like during the Cuban Revolution, to see something that is taking place just like that right now.

Yeah, there's a man, who is an old guerrilla, sitting around singing songs on a guitar - folk songs about Che Guevara. There are people shouting out hymns for the FARC. And people go to classes, and they learn about Marx and Lenin.

That's how the camp works. It's a totally different world from the rest of what average Colombians are living right now.

GROSS: So you report that the members of FARC don't believe in marriage. They believe they're wed to the movement - to the fight. And there's, you know, open relationships. But it sounds like you have to go to the commander first to get permission to have a sexual relationship with someone.

CASEY: You know, that was one of the things that I found - the aspect of love in this camp - to be the most interesting to me. This is partially because there wasn't a lot of fighting going on here. This is a time where - before, you know, the peace, there's not a lot to do. But I think this is how these camps have always been.

They're a place where, like you said, people see themselves as so deeply involved with their cause that they don't even get involved with each other. They do get involved with each other. It's just very different. And what I found really interesting was to see how people's life views and views on relationships were changed by the fact that they essentially didn't have a future together.

The people weren't there imagining what their marriage or their children were going to be. In fact, you can't have children if you're in the FARC. If you do have a child, you have to give that child up. It usually goes back to their grandparents back in one of the towns where you might have come from. So people who are together are essentially just living in the moment of what they have.

They don't know how long they'll be together. Sometimes, these relationships just go on for a few weeks - maybe just one night. Sometimes, people are able to make things last over the course of years if they're able to stay in the same camp together. And this isn't to romanticize them at all because this is a group that operates outside of the law. They're like a military that operates outside the law.

But unlike some militaries that I've seen in Latin America, this was one where people really believed in what they were fighting for, to the degree that they believed in it, sometimes, even more than the relationships that they were in.

GROSS: So you're not allowed to have children in the FARC because children would be a burden for the fight?

CASEY: Mmhm. That's how it seemed. If you have a child, fundamentally, they see themselves as soldiers. And this is unlike what you have in the U.S., where someone might be a soldier just for a few years when they're young. People have gotten into the guerrilla to be a soldier their entire lives.

And they see it as impossible to be able to have a family and kids in the camp. These aren't places for families. These aren't safe places for kids. Though - and I'd love to come back to this - there are children who are in these camps, too - child soldiers.

But no babies - there aren't babies who are there. The same goes for relationships, as well. That's why people aren't in marriages because they've told me that they want to be in a position where instead of thinking about their wife or their husband when they're fighting, they're just thinking about the fight.

And these relationships - these bigger ties would complicate the idea of combat.

GROSS: You mentioned child soldiers. Are they kidnapped or recruited?

CASEY: They are both. I wrote a story earlier this year about a young woman named Melida (ph). And she was 9 when three FARC guerrillas came up in a canoe to the home that she was staying in. She was by herself. And they told her that they had some soup for her. And if she got into the canoe, they would give her lunch.

And then by about 3 o'clock - this was in the morning when they came up - but by 3 o'clock, she realized that she was kidnapped. They kept going down the river all night until they finally got to this training camp. And that began the beginning of a totally different life for her, which she spent until she was about 16 in this camp.

Her whole childhood was there. The first thing that she learned to do was how to jump into trenches during aerial bombardment. And it just continued on from there. She learned as a child how to build mines and plant mines. She described to me all the different sorts of mines that she knew how to make.

And she also was involved in trying to hunt down and eventually kill other runaways, who had been children, that were trying to get away from the FARC. So while on one side, you see part of the FARC that is fascinating and different and reminds you of these things that might have been romanticized from the 1960s, you see a side of the FARC that is extremely dark, as well.

And it's that. It's these children that have been fighting in the FARC. The FARC recently agreed that they weren't going to have children in the FARC anymore. So they've acknowledged that they're there. We'll see how that gets implemented if that eventually does happen.

But for so many of these people in Colombia who are coming out of the guerrilla after a peace deal is signed, they're going to be people who spent their entire adolescent years fighting as soldiers. And that's going to be so difficult and such a challenge for them to try to integrate into Colombian society because of that.

GROSS: Were the girls who were, you know, kidnapped into FARC - were they expected to be sexually available?

CASEY: In the case of Melida, yeah. She told me that she was in a relationship with one of the FARC commanders. And this didn't happen with her own consent. This was someone who had been watching her since she hit puberty and then came past her camp and asked her to come to wash his clothes and then kissed her for the first time.

She said she hadn't been kissed before. She didn't know how to. And then after that, they started a sexual relationship. And this was not something that she wanted to be in at all. But it was also not something that she could refuse because this was someone that had complete control and power over her in an organization that had said this was OK.

I remember her once telling me - I asked her, what was this like? And she said, you know, imagine waking up every day next to someone that you didn't want to be with - someone who is so much older than you. This man was in his 40s at that point. And Melida, at that point, was just 15.

GROSS: How can a group like FARC even pretend to have ideals when it practices rape?

CASEY: And it not just practices rape. It practices kidnapping of kids. It's kidnapped people all across Colombia. This is a group which has, like, terrorized the country as well. Let's say this. They have a lot of true believers.

And I think in a lot of organizations where they've been able to do brainwashing - and this is part of what you see in any group like this. People are brainwashed. They believe, and they have ideals.

But at the same time, there is a deeply dark side that's taking place at this point that undercuts all of the good that the FARC might be trying to promote right now. I mean, you talk about trying to defend the ideals of the poor - of the needy in Colombia.

But then when you hear that here was a girl who was poor and needy, and herself was brought to this situation where she was raped, you have to wonder what the rest was worth, if anything.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Nicholas Casey, The New York Times Andes bureau chief. He's based in Caracas, Venezuela. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Nicholas Casey, The New York Times Andes bureau chief. He's based in Caracas, Venezuela. He was previously with The Wall Street Journal and led the paper's coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and reported on the Arab Spring. And when he based in Mexico City for The Journal, he covered 12 Latin American countries.

I'm wondering if, in covering Latin American countries, as an African-American, if you've faced any kind of racism. Race is different in Latin America than it is in the United States. Are there any stereotypes that you have to confront? And how do racial issues compare, in the countries you've been in there, to the United States?

CASEY: Race is totally different in Latin America. People talk about it much more openly than they do in the U.S. As a black man in the U.S., it's very hard, I think the, for people sometimes to even acknowledge that I'm black because they feel like if they mention it - I'm actually mixed. I identify as black. My mother is white. My dad was Cuban background. People are often curious about what my background was but can't actually ask that because they feel like I might get offended.

In Latin America, people don't worry about that. People immediately ask where I came from, if I have Latino background. They're very happy to hear when I tell them that my dad came from a Cuban background. They come up with nicknames for each other based on their race, things which would be considered offensive in the U.S. But there, people kind of laugh off - I don't know how I feel about it myself.

I'll give you an example. There's one of the candidates in Peru right now is Japanese descent, Keiko Fujimori. Her father used to be the dictator of Peru. Imagine a country that picked a dictator who was of Japanese descent. He originally was elected, and then he suspended the constitution. His daughter is running for president of Peru right now in a very tight race where they're counting votes for. Anyway, they call her La Chinita. She's not even Chinese. But that's, like, a term of endearment there, which she totally accepts and has taken on herself. You see that it's thought of in much less offensive terms, race.

So if you're someone that is sensitive, you might find Latin America to be a rough place to be. I'm not that sensitive. What I'm very sensitive to is when there is hate that comes across. And there's not that much that you see in Latin America. There is discrimination in Latin America. You see it in a lot of these countries. You don't see many black brown faces in their governments. But in a lot of countries, you do. Like, you go to Cuba and you do see that there are a number of people of different backgrounds that are in the government. The same goes for Venezuela. You have a indigenous president in Bolivia. You have a lot of countries that have had difficult racial histories - haven't necessarily got past them, but have learned to kind of be comfortable with the racial mix that they have in their demographic in a way that, especially during this last election cycle, I realize coming back to the U.S., that the U.S. isn't.

GROSS: The U.S. isn't what?

CASEY: Isn't comfortable. You don't see in Latin America the way of stepping on eggshells when talking about race that you do in the U.S. And that's a big difference.

GROSS: Do you feel like you have to be more careful and self-protective as a black man in parts of the U.S. than you do traveling in Latin America?

CASEY: People have asked me that before. And I've told them yeah, I think so. It's a strange thing to say that sometimes I feel less comfortable, in those terms, in the U.S. than I do in other countries. But the stereotype that you see in the U.S. that a young black man - and I'm still in my early 30s - might be someone who is a criminal, might be someone in jail, might be someone that could attack you - that stereotype - I just don't see it in some of these countries that I go to. I never felt it in Mexico. I never felt it when I was in Israel at that point. But it's something that you do see is in the background of the U.S. in a way. And yeah, it's something that I don't feel when I travel abroad that much.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Nicholas Casey, The New York Times Andes bureau chief. He's based in Caracas, Venezuela. We're going to take a short break. And then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, my guest is Nicholas Casey, The New York Times Andes bureau chief. He's based in Caracas, Venezuela. He was previously with The Wall Street Journal and led the paper's coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and reported on the Arab Spring. And when he was based in Mexico City for The Journal, he covered 12 Latin American countries.

When you were leaving The Wall Street Journal to join The New York Times, you wrote a really nice farewell note to colleagues that was printed on the web. And you wrote about returning home from assignments in war zones or from meeting rich potentates and coming home to the trailer park where you grew up where your mother continued to live. And you said that when you came home at that point, you weren't, like, a Wall Street Journal reporter. You were your mother's son, living in the place that she'd raised you, the trailer park.

Would you describe that trailer park, which was in Redwood City, Calif.? But describe the part of Redwood that's in, too.

CASEY: Yeah. This is one of the few working-class communities that still exists in the Bay Area, very close to Silicon Valley, actually. Everything has changed around it over the years that I grew up. It's a number of trailer parks that were alongside a highway - highway 101. I lived in a park where there were, maybe, probably a hundred people or so. You knew all of your neighbors because everybody was close. It was a great place for kids because everybody was sort of scrunched in. I lived with my mom, a tiny place where we only had one bedroom. I slept in the living room when I was young. And then my mom slept in the living room after I was about 7.

It gave me, you know, a perspective on a different way of living compared to a lot of the people that I reported on when I was in The Wall Street Journal, for sure. But it was also an important place for me because I definitely feel that as I see inequality begin to expand in the U.S. And I think of my own life journey as being able to go from a place where no one even read The Wall Street Journal to working for it and then later The New York Times, you know, I just see, on a personal level, how it's - important it is that there's social mobility and how in the '80s, when I was born, and the '90s, when I was growing up, that this seemed much more possible than it is right now and how important it is to defend that.

GROSS: Was the trailer park multiethnic, multiracial?

CASEY: It was. There were people from all backgrounds. There were poor white people. There were poor black people that were. This was when I started to learn Spanish because there were a lot of immigrants that came from Central America, from Mexico that were also there. It was a real melting pot of poor people that were all there. So...


CASEY: ...That's what it was. Yeah.

GROSS: So did you go to decent schools when you were living in the trailer park?

CASEY: I did. I went at first. So my mother - she did, I think, what any mom really, you know, thinks best - she sent me to, like, the best school that she could find, the best public elementary school when I was young. And she just drove me there. And then, after about two or three years there, my father, who we didn't know that well because he was still working as a merchant marine. He would come to port every once in a while - my mom was a single mom - said something to her that kind of got under his skin. He said - he was looking at a picture of me with my class. And he noticed that everybody was white. And he said if Nicholas keeps staying at this school, then he's going to be scared of his own people.

Well, within a year, my mom had taken me out of that school and put me into another public school because the Bay Area was pretty racially mixed then in an area called East Palo Alto. There was a school called Flood School. And it was entirely black and Hispanic. And the kids coming into that school district had come from a very different background from the middle-class, white kids that I had been going to school with before.

East Palo Alto, that year, had been - become - I think this was the early '90s - per capita, the U.S. murder capital because of the number of drive-by shootings. It was a totally different public school that I was in suddenly with people that had come in - kids that had come in from very rough backgrounds, the parents who had - who were on drugs, who weren't reading to them. It totally turned my life upside down for those years. I had, for a long time, asked my mom - why had she done this? I wanted to leave this school. But she said that she wanted me to see what, you know, the rest of, you know, America was like and the other part of my background.

So I stayed there for another number of years until I was recruited by a small private school called Menlo School, where I went to high school. And I got a scholarship to go there and, again, was turned from a very kind of poor, struggling school to an ultra-rich school. This was not, like, the middle-class, white school that I had gone to when I was in elementary school or the very poor black and Hispanic school, but the school where the creme de la creme of the Silicon Valley were sending their kids, where they had DNA-analyzing equipment and classical music instruments to play.

It was through those three experiences that I saw how much, like, your school, you education environment can totally impact what your outlook is and what your future might be. If I hadn't gotten that scholarship to go to Menlo, I'm not sure that I would have been able to get where I am today. That place really lifted me out of poverty, set me on a track to, you know, where I am today. And it's just taught me so much about how the kind of schooling that you get is going to have a complete impact on what kind of person you're going to be.

GROSS: Do you, in retrospect, think that your mother did the right thing by taking you out of the predominantly white, middle-class school and putting you in a school with predominantly children of color that was also a very poor school and there was a lot of violence?

CASEY: I don't know if I could've done it to my kid. But I think it was the right thing to do. I think we'd be having a very different conversation right now it that hadn't happened. I'd have lived kind of a different life. And I think some of the decisions that parents have to make for their children are tough ones. She made a really kind of radical choice in doing that just from an offhand comment that my father made when he'd come to visit me one time before he sort of disappeared. Yeah, I think if I had to do it again, I would tell my mom to do that, yes. That's a very important part of who I am.

GROSS: In a few days, you'll be returning to Venezuela where you're based for The New York Times. The country is very short right now on food, medical supplies, everything, including money. What are some of the things you're going to bring back with you?

CASEY: Well, every time I come out of the country, I bring a duffel bag. And I put in that duffel bag - toilet paper, paper towels, everything that you would need for the kitchen, everything you would need for the bathroom because you can't find all these things. These are all the basics.

But as things have gotten worse, I've had to bring things which you couldn't imagine. I'm going to Mexico in a bit. And there's someone that's asked me to bring back chemotherapy medicines for someone who is sick in Venezuela. These are the kinds of things you're having to also bring in your bag when you come back. And because I'm one of the few people that has the ability and the privilege of being able to come in and out of the country because my work takes me to do that, I'm having to play this role of bringing in things which aren't there, things that you wouldn't expect to take before.

GROSS: Nicholas Casey, thank you so much for talking with us.

CASEY: Thank you.

GROSS: Nicholas Casey is The New York Times Andes bureau chief based in Caracas, Venezuela. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...


THOMAS MIDDLEDITCH: (As Richard Hendricks) You know, everybody in this industry - they say they want to make this world a better place. But we could actually do it. We could do it and make billions of dollars.

GROSS: We'll talk about the HBO series "Silicon Valley," a comedy about tech startups and tech giants and the coders, executives and venture capitalists behind them. My guest will be the show's star Thomas Middleditch, Mike Judge, who created the series and also created "King Of The Hill" and "Beavis and Butt-Head," and Alec Berg who is the co-showrunner with Judge. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewsk. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


UN SOLO PUEBLO: (Singing) Viva Venezuela mi patria querida quien la liberto mi hermano fue Bolivar. Viva Venezuela mi patria querida quien la liberto mi hermano fue Bolivar. Viva Venezuela mi patria querida quien la liberto mi hermano fue Bolivar. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.