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Authoritarianism and Corruption: Venezuela's case

By Gustavo Coronel

November 11, 2004 - Dictators or just authoritarian political leaders, of the right or the left, fascist or communist, tend to share one unpleasant characteristic: they all become corrupt during their time in power and end up using national property as if it were his or her own. Queens, Sheiks, Sultans, despots, populist and paternal political figures, from Brunei to Cuba, from Palestine to Zimbabwe, sooner or later become corrupted by power. The case of Arafat is illustrative. His illness has brought up to the surface some of the highhanded ways in which he used his country's money. His wife, who has not been with him during his political ordeal but living in Paris, has admitted receiving millions of dollars from Arafat for her personal use. The Associated Press, reporting in the Jerusalem Post (09-11-2004), mentions that Arafat has "run a murky financial empire" which includes airlines, banana plantations and money hidden in bank accounts across the globe. Adds the report that Forbes ranked Arafat as the 6th richest in its list of "Kings, Queens and Despots" and estimated his personal worth at some USD $300 million. His main "in-betweens" are his financial adviser, Mohammed Rashid, and his wife Suha. At this point in time, with the life of Arafat in imminent danger, the wife is already acting to protect the money that he handed over to her. The Palestinian government used to give Arafat $10.25 million per month for his unrestricted, unaccounted use. This money was used, according to Arafat, for "national security" purposes. A small fraction of this amount, used at one time by Venezuelan President Carlos Andrés Pérez for the security of Nicaraguan President Violeta Chamorro, resulted in his impeachment and ousting from the presidency. In those days Venezuela was a full-fledged democracy and the Attorney General was not a lackey of the President.

In Cuba the story has been very similar. Castro inherited from his father, a rich landowner, his disregard for the sanctity of public monies. He soon got rid of honest revolutionaries such as Hubert Matos or Camilo Cienfuegos and started to rule with a small circle of very corrupt friends. He claims to receive a modest salary and, yet, Forbes magazine listed him in 2003 as having a personal fortune of about $110 million. For all practical purposes whether planes, cars, villas or plantations are in his name or not is rather academic. He uses them all at his sole discretion. Can the reader imagine a public officer in Cuba daring to object to Castro's use of national property? Cuba has no checks and balances. And if Castro decided to have presidential elections or a new "referendum" on the revolution, just as he did some years ago, he would certainly win 99% of the "vote," as Hussein also did just before being ousted. Castro would certainly claim that his electoral victory legitimized his dictatorship. Cubans have come to call the socialist revolution of Castro "sociolism" socio being partner or crony in Spanish. Back in the 1990's, Alexei Novikov, a Russian journalist from Pravda reported that Castro had 32 mansions all over the island and described the hedonistic ways of the revolutionaries, contrasting this style of life with the extreme poverty and hunger of the Cubans. When Castro went swimming, Novikov claimed, "all naval forces go on alert and a special unit of 122 divers combs the sea."

In Libya, Muammar Ghadaffi illustrates yet a different type of, less harmful? corruption. He claims to have created a new political and economic philosophy, equally separated from Marxism and Capitalism, the so-called Third Universal Theory. Libyans have no political or civil rights while their authoritarian leader indulges in writing essays (he published a book called Escape to Hell and Other Stories) and trying to unite the Arab World, in spite of what the Arabs think. He is an eccentric and has long been perceived as soft on terrorism. He recently awarded Venezuelan President Chávez an award as an idealist and a humanitarian. In Venezuela we have a saying: God create them and they get together. . . .

In Iraq Sadam Hussein made the oil for food program allowed by the United Nations his main mechanism for corruption. It seems that he had most everybody in his payroll, European diplomats and businessmen, international bureaucrats and one or two U.S. oil brokers. Again, Forbes estimated his personal fortune at some $2 billion, while his countrymen were dying of hunger and torture.

In Venezuela it is still early to say what will ultimately happen. President Chávez already has far too much political power, checks and balances do no exist and he is the only one who decides how money will be used. When this absolute power is combined with enormous amounts of money entering the country via oil income and new indebtness, some $180 billion in the last five years, and when this power and wealth are further combined with a total lack of transparency, it is easy to presume that high levels of corruption will result and/or have already taken place. As everyone knows, proving corruption is not an easy affair, but the last report by Transparency International ranks Venezuela as one of the mot corrupt nations in the World, more so than the previous years. Obsequious reporters, eager to demonstrate their loyalty, write: "The top echelons in the current government (of Chávez) can be described as incorruptible" and try to pin the blame for corruption in government on "middle-management bureaucracy" but never on the "honest and idealistic ministers and heads of major departments." (See "Venezuela's corrupt bureaucrats and politicians . . . a step away from. . . ." in These fawning admirers of the Venezuelan authoritarian regime, living on the other side of the world, without first hand knowledge of what is really going on in Venezuela, ignore the simple fact that there cannot be corruption at lower echelons unless the high level managers allow it, either through complicity and/or sheer incompetence. To talk about honest idealistic leaders surrounded by corrupt middle managers reveals a desperate desire to absolve the true culprits of the high levels of corruption which exist today in my country, as well as much ignorance of how management should behave. The sad truth is that corruption in the Venezuelan government is systemic, a product of ill paid bureaucrats, lack of controls and a lot of money waltzing around. What is needed to combat it is more than empty, pompous words over TV on a Sunday afternoon. The true combat requires leading by example. I have said it before: while President Chávez keeps his airbus, his expensive watches and suits; while his generals run programs without accountability; while PDVSA hands the money directly to the executive power, in open violation of the laws of the country; while Chávez openly violates electoral procedures but his collaborators say that they will pay the fine (instead of forcing him to comply with the law); while his unconditional stooges in the Electoral Council refer to an opposition leader as Mr. Chicken. . . . In summary, while we do not have a decent government running the country, we are going to continue witnessing hyper corruption in Venezuela.

Corruption is minimized in a country when:

* The leaders have the will to fight it, beyond empty words

* Clear administrative procedures are established

* Bidding is conducted (the Chávez government awards contracts directly)

* Not only small fish are fried but also big fish

* There is transparency and accountability in government

* Absolute power and improvisation are replaced by managerial decisions

In my view the current regime does not comply with anyone of these conditions.

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