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Management and Responsibility in Venezuela

By Miguel Octavio | The Devil's Excrement

02.08.05 | Sometimes you read the local papers in disbelief. First there is Chavez himself, saying that he is not only very unhappy about his Government, but that he is very unhappy about the job his Minister of Housing is doing. He should be. During the Chavez administration, an average of 16,000 housing units have been built per year, down from 60,000 plus during the bad Governments of CAP and Caldera. You can see the graph here. The problem is that Chavez has been promising an improvement for a while and nothing happens. In fact, he promised 100,000 units in 2005 and 200,000 in 2006, but so far in 2005, only 17,000 units were built. The question is: Why is Montes still Minister? Chavez has scolded him publicly time and time again and if anything, things get worse rather than better.

The second statement that was surprising was that of the Governor of Miranda State and former Minister of Infrastructure Diosdado Cabello, who said that the highways of the country were coming to the end of their useful life. He did not clarify if he was referring to those built by Dictator Perez Jimenez in the 50’s, or the newer one from the 60’s 70’s, 80’s or 90’s. But all of them?

Let me explain what the context of this statement was. There are essentially three highways that lead in and out of Caracas. (There is also the Pan-American Highway, but in most countries that would be called just a road). The Caracas-La Guaira highway that goes to the port and international airport near Caracas (White line towards the North below), the Regional highway that goes South and West (White line out of Caracas below) and the Eastern highway (White line to the right below), the name of which says it all. During the last year there had been problems with two of them: The Caracas La Guaira highway, built in the 50’s by Dictator Perez Jimenez, has a viaduct that is being displaced by land movements and also had a stretch of surface of it that suffered a drop of about half a meter. The latter is being fixed and supposedly the displacement is also being worked on and has been slowed down. The Eastern highway had also had problems. Twice during the last six months part of the road had simply disappeared under the action of running water.

Fortunately the third one, the “Autopista Regional del Centro” the most important road in the country had not been affected. Until yesterday when the following hole opened up in it:

To give you a perspective of how big the hole is, it covers both sides of the highway including four lanes and two parking lanes. Sadly, a lieutenant that was helping out, was speaking on his cell phone and fell to his death in the hole yeasterday.

In the meantime, all traffic will have to use the Pan-American Highway until this one is fixed, which, to give you an idea, has so much traffic, that I used to live in the city of Los Teques up to six years ago, only 22 Kms (14 miles). away, but it would take me 2 hours to drive that stretch each way every day. So I moved to Caracas. For the next three weeks, which is the estimate to fix up the hole, the flow of both roads will go through the much smaller Pan-American Highway. Truly a mess. Venezuelan Governments have never been very good at maintenance; they are not “show off” projects that people see visibly. But what has changed is that, much like in the housing sector, which I have discussed before, Chavez looked for people loyal to him, rather than looking for people who support him, but are not unconditional. Such is the case of Minister of Housing Montes and Minister of Justice Chacon. Not that long ago (April?) Chavez named Chacon, who already is Minister of Justice and the Interior as Head of the Committee for Maintenance and the Prevention of Disasters. We have not heard anything from that Committee since and Mr. Chacon is no expert in either topic and has his ahnds fulll anyway. Maintenance is not something a committee decides or does. Maintenance has to be part of a state policy. In fact, it has to be almost a state of mind.

The sad fact is that despite the huge resources the Government has had in the last seven years, little has been spent in infrastructure or maintenance. The former Minister of Infrastructure is wrong in saying that these highways have come to the end of their useful life. The fact is that they were all built at different times, so it would be unrealistic for all of them to be in the same state at the same point in time. Furthermore, much like my airport story last month, maintenance is the key.

The scary part is that the situation has never been worse than it is today. The highway that was shut down yesterday is the one trucks use to supply Caracas from the Puerto Cabello port, the largest port for imports in the country. Alternate routes, nighttime shipping and other adaptations can compensate for the problem. But, should another problem occur or the Caracas La Guaira highway has a problem, it could truly become critical.

In the end, it is a matter of management and responsibility. Everyone speaks (This is not new!) as if it was never their problem, nobody takes responsibility for it. And then there is management. All of Chavez' close collaborators on these matters are former military, none of them with even distinguished careers in the Armed Forces, but they are loyal to Chavez. Unconditionally. Thus, he does not replace them, he does not look outside of that circle for Ministers and collaborators. In a country as complicated as this, that is surely a path to failure.

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