Last month, Cody Weddle, a freelance journalist in Venezuela, was arrested at gunpoint by troops serving the regime of Nicolas Maduro and interrogated with a hood over his head in a white room, before being deported from the country.
In this interview with the Register, Weddle, 29, shares the events that transpired leading up to and following his arrest and how the economic and political situation, divided between two leaders claiming to be Venezuela’s president, is poised to collapse even further into civil conflict. But he also shares how the Catholic Church is playing a pivotal role in keeping people alive and trying to find a peaceful resolution that fewer Venezuelans believe is possible.
What’s happening in Venezuela, from what you could see — is the country heading toward civil war?
The current situation really is a breeding ground for some type of military confrontation, whether that’d be some type of military invasion or intervention, or a civil war just because of the political crisis. We have two different presidents both vying for the presidency. I’m not sure that will be the outcome, but I think it’s definitely a possibility.
How would you describe the current state of affairs in Venezuela? Can the current political and economic situation continue for much longer?
Well, I think the economic situation could continue to worsen. We’ve seen the situation there just continue to deteriorate over the years. And what we’ve heard from people over the years is that, “We can’t get worse than this.” It gets worse each time. So I think certainly the situation can get worse economically.
Politically, I don’t see how this can go on, because we have a situation where there are some Venezuelan embassies and consulates [in multiple countries] now in the hands of Juan Guaidó, the other president. He is recognized by so many governments around the world. So it’s hard to see how this gets dragged out politically. I don’t see any situation where this could last for a long time. There must be some type of resolution to that in the end.
You relocated to Venezuela about five years ago, reporting as a freelance journalist until you were arrested and expelled by the Maduro government. Can you tell us about those events?
I was in my apartment March 6 at about 6:30. And I heard a knock at the door. There were four or five officers, with uniforms, bulletproof vests and drawn guns, outside of my door. They said they had an order to raid my apartment and that I was under investigation for espionage, treason and extraction of military artifacts. So they came in and raided my apartment. They went through every single thing that I have. One of the officers asked for my phone immediately. He started going through my phone while the other ones were going through my things and packing them up. Then some other folks came in dressed in civilian clothes. They were doing what they said was a sweep. They had some type of apparatus that shot a laser at the walls. They said they were looking for espionage equipment.
So what happened next?
Then I was taken in to their headquarters. I had a hood over my head for most of the time. Most of the time I was just there in a room by myself, but it became clear that they thought that I had interviewed five military generals. I did do a story about Venezuela’s security forces and how they are affected by the crisis. But I focused on the rank-and-file members of the security forces, not on the military generals. So I think there was confusion. They thought I had done a story about military generals, but I hadn’t, and they were looking for those sources. When they couldn’t find those sources, the names of those people, in my apartment, they took me in and then kept me there all day.
They also did a video interview of me. It was clear that they wanted to try to use that as some type of propaganda, as they were guiding me through questions. They did another interview. A girl was typing out my answers on a computer, but for the most part, I was just in there in a room with a hood over my head for most of the day, as they went through my things.
What was that like for you?
It was, unsettling, definitely, to say the least. I was able to take the hood off there and just look at my surroundings. It was just a white room. Somebody had written on the wall with dirt from the floor, “Dios, Jesus y Maria” — God, Jesus and Mary. So that was worrying. It seemed like somebody was in distress in that room before me. I was never worried that they were going to hurt me or harm me physically, because it was clear from the beginning that they were under orders not to do that. So my biggest concern was being held in there for a long time, as some type of a political pawn or something of that nature.
Do you hope to go back to Venezuela?
I do. For now, I don’t plan to go back unless I have express permission from some type of government entity. But I hope to go back. I had been there for almost five years, so I’d sort of made my life there professionally and personally. So I hope to be back soon. We’ll see. For now, I think I plan to head down to Colombia and continue covering the situation from there.
What role have you seen the Church play in alleviating the material and spiritual suffering of the Venezuelan people?
There’s numerous charitable, Catholic organizations across the country who are really trying their best to attend to these people. And, of course, we see the bishops’ conference has been very vocal as well throughout the years, not just now, denouncing abuses and also really taking the government head-on, and they continue to do that.
Is there any particular story that you recall that really illustrates the gravity of the crisis in Venezuela?
I think that story about Caritas and the nutritional programs that they’re doing, because what we saw is that they’re taking measurements of these kids. So the kids will come in, and they will be measured … and they will be weighed. They will have all their measurements taken, and with that they can determine if each child is malnourished. I saw some of these kids who were very skinny, and so I think that work that Caritas is doing is really keeping a lot of kids alive. And not only keeping kids alive — it’s also documenting this catastrophe. That’s probably one of the most impactful stories I’ve done.
A lot of Americans wonder: How did Venezuela get to this point? Was it Hugo Chavez’s brand of socialism? Did Nicolas Maduro make things worse? How did the country get to this point, from what you can see?
Yeah, I think it’s a combination of factors. I think the irresponsibility during the Chavez years, definitely. Chavez, not only did he spend all the money Venezuela had from high oil prices, he went further in debt. There’s actually a provision of the Venezuelan constitution that says when oil prices are above a certain level, a certain percentage must be saved and put away for a rainy day. Well, that provision was just completely ignored. So what we saw then was that when oil prices collapsed — I believe it was about 2016 when they started to collapse — basically, Venezuela was left without any money. And these corruption networks that were dealing with this extra money from the high oil prices started to be revealed, because not as many people were getting paid.
So now it’s a hole that’s impossible to get out of because of the irresponsibility and corruption over the years.
So people would credit Venezuela’s economic crisis to that more than Chavez’s socialist program?
It depends on who we talked to, and it depends, I guess, on your definition of socialism. Definitely. When you talk about socialism, Chavez nationalized some businesses and some farms and some other areas that he was then going to create into this commune-style operation. And all of that just fell apart. So at every point where he tried to implement something that could be classified as socialist, the [government’s] irresponsibility and the corruption just destroyed it, and it never worked. And they were left worse off than before, because now they — not only do they not have this supposed commune, but they also don’t have the original farm that was producing for the country. Most of those programs failed. Chavez was able during his time, thanks to the oil prices, to redistribute wealth, and Venezuela became more equal, in terms of wealth inequality. But that has sort of fallen apart as oil prices have collapsed.
It’s definitely a combination of factors, and we can say that every time he attempted to install these socialist programs, for the most part, there are some isolated success stories, but in many cases, especially when it deals with businesses and nationalization, for the most part they fell apart and failed.
From what you’ve seen, how has Maduro affected the situation for better or worse?
I think Maduro almost has been afraid to take drastic action; and because of that, the situation has just continued to collapse even further.
What is the extent of foreign intervention in Venezuela?
Right now, China and Russia continue to back Maduro pretty strongly, and they’ve been doing that through finance. … They continue to be Maduro’s main backers, and for now they haven’t shown any signs they plan to stop doing that.
There has been some talk that they’re sort of annoyed with the corruption and the irresponsibility. But for now there’s no definitive reason to believe that support will go dry up. Of course, Cuba has always been a big-time supporter of Chavez and Maduro, and they mostly have done that through Venezuela selling oil to Cuba and Cuba bringing doctors to Venezuela. Around the region, of course, they have their traditional leftist allies: Nicaragua, Bolivia.
And then on the other side, the United States has been taking even more drastic action. I think the biggest move that Trump and the U.S. has done is these oil sanctions. This has been sort of speculated about for a very long time now, whether the U.S. would take this measure because this will really decimate Venezuela’s economy.
Venezuela relies on oil-export revenues for over 90% at least of its export revenue. So the United States will stop buying oil from Venezuela, and this will have a huge impact on the economy. Prior to this, the United States had issued sanctions prohibiting those [lenders] in the United States from dealing with new Venezuelan debt. That also has had an impact on the economy. Otherwise, the United States has been sanctioning individuals in Maduro’s circle over the years.
What impact do you believe the U.S. thinks those sanctions will have on Venezuela?
Those oil sanctions will have a huge, huge impact. One of the reasons that the U.S. has been reluctant to issue these sanctions is because not only does that impact the government’s access to funds, which it certainly will, but it also will likely impact the greater economy. The government not only will have less access to funds than before, but as part of that, they will have less access to funds to buy medicines and to buy and import food. So it will have an impact in the greater economy, and it will affect the everyday Venezuelans. I think we can expect the Venezuelan government to use those sanctions and now shift blame for everything that’s happening onto those sanctions as they come into effect this month. I think it’s going to have a huge impact on the economy and will only worsen the economic situation. And we’ll see the government try to blame the entire collapse on those sanctions.
What would you say has been the impact of Pope Francis and Cardinal Pietro Parolin on negotiations with Maduro?
I believe the latest I heard was that the Vatican has offered to just be a negotiator, but we’ve seen the last time that the Vatican was part of negotiation, those negotiations fell apart. There is a sense, I think, on the streets of Venezuela, that Pope Francis, in his effort to take a neutral stance, is turning a blind eye to the abuses of the government. There’s also a sense that there’s a difference of opinion between the bishops’ conference, who are on the ground in Venezuela, and Pope Francis, although they have denied that. Pope Francis even sent a representative to Nicolas Maduro’s inauguration, which I think angered a lot of Venezuelans.
But I think most Venezuelans are not interested in negotiations. Because these negotiations have fallen apart without any concessions from the government, I think at least two times before, so they wouldn’t be interested in any type of negotiations unless those necessarily included the resignation of Maduro. So that’s my sense.
What do you see as a way that U.S. Catholics can positively assist in this situation?
Well, I think helping these charities who are on the ground doing the work. This situation become so politicized that often we forget about the people who are actually suffering from the crisis, and that is everyday Venezuelans. I think that these charities are doing great work on the ground to try their best to assist the most vulnerable populations. They haven’t been able to reach nearly everyone who needs their help, but they’re trying their best. So I think that’s the best way that Catholics can help right now: through these folks who are on the ground.
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.