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Can Venezuela's hyper corruption be cured?

By Gustavo Coronel

October 22, 2004 - The answer to this question is definitely yes. However, curing it requires a true revolution, an attitudinal revolution. It would not need the spill of blood, human suffering or pompous speeches. All it would need is honest leadership committed to abandoning the habits of the past, a leadership determined to resist the extraordinary temptations that so many ordinary men and women in our country have not been able to resist. Porfirio Díaz once said that no Mexican General could resist a fusillade of 10,000 pesos. One century later, we are facing the same situation in Venezuela. The influx of petroleum money is so huge in our country that the mediocre bureaucracy in power cannot resist the temptation to line their pockets before it is too late. Bernard Shaw once said "marriage was the ideal state because it combined a maximum of temptation with a maximum of opportunity." If he had lived in the Venezuela of Hugo Chávez, he certainly would have said: "being a Venezuelan bureaucrat is the ideal state, since it combines a maximum of temptation with a maximum of opportunity and a maximum of impunity." The three components of corruption: temptation, opportunity and impunity are present in "revolutionary" Venezuela. Temptation, because thousands of new bureaucrats have arrived in power with revolutionary ardor as their only credential. They have arrived with empty pockets and are determined to leave with full pockets. Opportunity, because they arrive to a bureaucratic system in which there are no rules, no procedures, no transparency or need for accountability. The oil money is flowing freely and no questions on its utilization are being asked, as long as the ruler becomes more secure in power. Impunity, because the people in charge of controlling and of defending national resources are, themselves, too busy lining their own pockets.

Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index

"Revolutionary" Venezuela is, today, one of the most corrupt countries on earth, certainly one of the most corrupt in Latin America, only less so than Paraguay, Bolivia, Honduras, Ecuador and Haiti. As compared to 2000, when the country was in position 71 in the Corruption Perceptions Index, today it appears in position 114, a dramatic decline in transparency and honesty in government.

The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index 2004 is not a simple, subjective exercise to be dismissed by regimes that do not like its results. It is a poll of polls, combining about 17 different polls by independent agencies in a statistically significant manner. In the case of Venezuela, the measures are taken from 12 different agencies, covering about 15,000 interviews from businesspersons, academics, risk analysts and civil society organizations. The standard deviation is very low, meaning that the results are extremely reliable.

A country in physical and moral ruins

The hard evidence about Venezuela points to a dramatic deterioration in all aspects of social, economic and political life during the last six years of "revolutionary" rule. The country is at the bottom of the ladder in competitiveness, in transparency and in political freedoms. And yet, a hard core of international fellow travelers keeps arguing that the current regime represents hope for the poor. Even the official statistics show high unemployment, poverty and inflation figures. They cannot hide the mounting numbers of the victims of crime, which have tripled in the last six years, from 4,000 to 12,000 per year. They cannot hide the terrifying increase in kidnappings, which have reached epidemic proportions. This is why I say that continued support for the Chávez regime by international organizations and individuals is no longer a matter of freedom of opinion but a matter of complicity. Some foreign based organizations and websites that boast of defending values such as democracy, respect for the constitution, racial harmony, solidarity with the poor and good governance, are some of the most abject in their support of the Chávez regime, which has made a mockery of these values. Factual evidence is there, before their noses, to show them the travesty of democracy that is Chávez's Venezuela. It seems inevitable to conclude that these organizations and publications are not supporting Chávez in good faith. Their support must be due to the fact that he happens to coincide with their broader ideological prejudices or, worse, because it is in their benefit to do so. The first reason is illegitimate but understandable. The second one is plain corruption, which is a highly contagious disease if you are close enough to an infected body.

The Transparency International Index shows a country that is in deep trouble. Chávez followers will argue that corruption has always been present in Venezuela, since the times of the Monagas brothers in the 1860's or even before, when Bolívar was forced to install the death penalty for corruption in the judicial system. This is the classical argument utilized by politicians and their unconditional followers to excuse their failures. Chávez won the presidency precisely because he promised to clean the government from corruption, not because he promised to increase corruption. I have said elsewhere that legitimacy in government goes far beyond than the manner of winning. Free elections are indispensable for a government to be legitimate but, in addition, this government has to perform in a manner that fulfills its fundamental promises to voters. Chávez has violated all his electoral promises. Again, Chávez fellow travelers argue that it is customary for politicians to promise one thing and do the other. I find this argument particularly cynical and immoral.

We need a revolution in attitudes

The new ranking of Venezuela as one of the most corrupt countries on earth is not something to be proud of. Those of us who feel that corruption could and should be minimized in our country have kept saying for years that what is needed is a revolution in attitudes. Political leaders are role models. If we had an honest president, corruption would not be rampant. Honesty in a leader goes far beyond the act of not stealing. Honesty is also respect for the proper use of national resources, respect for the use of power, respect for the opinion of minorities and dissenters, proper care in the selection of collaborators, proper use of the language and respect for the time of others. Being president imposes very heavy physical and moral duties on the person, specially limits his/her freedom to do or say whatever comes first into their minds and obliges them to measure the possible consequences of his/her actions before action is taken. Being president forces a special social sensitivity on the leader. Wearing $2,000 suits, $3,000 watches and traveling around in a $65 million custom-built Airbus is not the proper attitude for the president of a country where people are starving to death. When Venezuelans watch this display of opulence many must feel that they also would like to be "up there," possibly no matter how. This is what corruption is all about: wanting to be affluent no matter how, even if this means departing from ethical norms and using for personal benefit what belongs to the nation. Tolerance for the corruption of others is a capital crime in a leader. Venezuela has had leaders who did not steal but who looked the other way when some of his immediate collaborators acted improperly. They share the guilt even if today they live very modest lives. Others, like Pérez Jiménez, lived for years in Spain like the millionaire he became while in dictatorial power, without having to account for his actions.

We are in chaos

Today we are witnessing chaos of major proportions in the management of Venezuelan financial and other national resources, from lack of passports for people desperate to leave the country to lack of the most essential medicines in public hospitals. In this chaos corruption reigns supreme. Someone said that wherever you see a long line of people waiting for services there is bound to be corruption. And Venezuela is full of long lines today: to catch a bus, to get a passport, to enter a tribunal, to wait for a handout from the government, to get a medicine in a hospital, to obtain a place in a public school, to talk to a middle level bureaucrat, to obtain a micro credit from a government agency. In all these lines of patient, resigned people you can be sure that somebody with discretionary power is taking a "bite" off national monies, while forcing millions of miserable Venezuelans to become passive collaborators of this perverse system.

Words are totally ineffectual if they are not accompanied by actions that put teeth in those words. Chávez recently broke his own record when he spoke for seven hours on his Sunday telethon. But this new record has not translated into better housing, better health or better education for Venezuelans. Street children are more numerous than ever.

Mr. Chávez: I have a concrete proposition for you:

Take the windfall oil profits coming from the Orinoco heavy oil production, some $700 million according to your Minister of Energy. Put this money in an escrow account. Name a team of no more than three persons in charge of creating and supervising the execution of a program to eradicate or bring to a minimum the tragedy of street children in, say, three to five years (this can be done). Put very honest people in charge of managing this program, in a manner totally accountable to the nation. Name someone like Luis Ugalde, the President of Caracas based University Andres Bello as head of this team, a person of totally proven honesty. Act now and you will find that actions are much more profitable than words when dealing with our nation's ills.

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