Scott Smith, a correspondent for The Associated Press who traveled across Venezuela to document personal stories of desperation and hope in the troubled country, has died. He was 50.
Smith was diagnosed in February with brain cancer and was evacuated from the capital, Caracas in a rare show of cooperation between the U.S. and Venezuelan governments amid the coronavirus pandemic and a strict American ban on all flights to the country in place since 2019.
He died Thursday at Stanford Medical Center in Palo Alto, California his family said.
Smith arrived in Caracas in 2017 amid a wave of deadly anti-government unrest spurred in part by growing pressure from the Trump administration, which was seeking to force President Nicolás Maduro from power.
Smith’s Spanish was rusty but his easygoing demeanor, boundless curiosity and immense pride at being a foreign correspondent won him the trust and respect of government supporters and opponents alike.
“Even while sick, he was asking when he could go back to Caracas or what his onward assignment might be elsewhere in the world once better,’’ said Ian Phillips, AP’s head of international news.
Smith looked through the polarizing rhetoric of Venezuela’s political crisis and gave voice to all he encountered: oil-covered fishermen eking out a hellacious existence in a polluted lake, street gangsters hurt by the rising price of bullets or the families of victims of a fire at an overcrowded prison.
He also eschewed facile explanations for the nation’s woes.
“He used to joke that a small-town kid who showed steers at the county fair wasn’t supposed to be a foreign correspondent writing the first draft of history,” said Kelly Scott, his sister. “He never took himself too seriously.”
For all the humor, he took on challenging assignments with an understated bravery.
A story on COVID patients at a hospital mirroring the nation’s ruinous health care system required putting his own wellbeing on the line way before there was a vaccine, and with few means of leaving Venezuela if he had gotten sick.
His last AP article revealed the previously unknown saga of Carlos Marrón, an exiled businessman lured back home by his father’s kidnapping only to end up beaten and asphyxiated in one of Maduro’s jails. His alleged crime: running a website that published the black-market exchange rate.
Smith joined the AP in 2014, reporting from Fresno, California, not far from where he grew up. He documented California’s battle with drought and its impacts on farmers and poor communities that struggled as hundreds of wells ran dry.
Prior to the AP, Smith spent more than a decade at The Record newspaper in Stockton, California. His reporting on the so-called “Speed Freak” serial killings led authorities to unearth five victims, including the remains of three women.
He volunteered for the Peace Corps after graduating from California State University, Chico, where he earned a master’s degree in literature. He was sent to Uzbekistan, then emerging from Soviet rule, where he taught English. Later he ran a non-profit training Uzbek journalists on how to gather news free of government censors.
A common love of music — he played trumpet in several bands — endeared him to Hugo Méndez, a taxi driver the AP hired to pick Smith up at the airport upon his arrival in Caracas. Méndez was listening to jazz and Smith took note.
“Miles Davis?” was about all Méndez could understand of Smith’s clunky Spanish. Despite the language barrier, within a few hours the two were eating pork rinds and greasy soup at a food stall in one of Caracas’ toughest neighborhoods — Smith betraying none of the nervousness he surely felt in what was then dubbed the world’s most violent city. Over time, he'd develop a deep affection for his new home.
“I thought to myself, this gringo is crazy,” remembers Méndez. “I knew right away we were going to be buddies, but I never thought he’d end up becoming my brother.”
Goodman was the AP’s Andean News Director from 2014 to 2019.