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Eight years of Chavez: a quick but complete balance sheet

Daniel Duquenal

This morning I was watching VTV, En Confianza. This is about the only talk show of VTV that pretends to be slightly objective, where even on rare occasions opposition figures can come. But this morning, a few days before the election, Villegas preferred to interview one of the oil tankers captains that did not go on strike in December 2002, preferring obviously to discuss the strike than the record of Chavez administration, or even its promises for a better future. I thought that as international observers are arriving in Venezuela and naively are searching for the truth in state TV, usually a reasonable source of information at home, they might carry quite an erroneous message from VTV. Thus to help them, in case some decide to check local web sources, it might be useful to focus on the Chavez legacy, to give it a name. Movies coming always on handy for such purposes, I will divide my summary of 8 years of chavismo into: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The Good

Chavista fans that haunt this blog have often criticized me of lack of objectivity and finding only negative things to say about Chavez. They are right on one thing, I have only negative things to say about Chavez. However some of the things that Chavez has done, willingly or not, have not been necessarily negative even though the positive effects might be decades away.

One thing is the political awakening of long suffering sectors of the country. Sometimes I suspect that chavismo is quite sorry about that since now 90% of the protests of Venezuelan come from these long suffering sectors, poor people of course, who now demand government officials to fulfill the promises made to them by Chavez. Any foreign observer would be well advised to go to one of these hot spots of constant protests such as CONAVI in Las Mercedes. There they will see people protesting continuously as to ho they are cheated of promised housing. These tales are also accompanied of extensive tales of woe and human misery. They can also try public hospitals if they have the heart for it.

Another good thing from chavismo is that it destroyed the old party structure. Maybe in fact the destruction was a little bit too fast as the lack of opposition explains certainly why chavismo has been so inefficient in managing the country. But at least it is important to recognize that the Chavez effect is forcing a general aggiornamento of the Venezuelan political class. One only wishes that Chavez were to allow his followers to organize a little bit better and generate the leaders of the future, but his drive for power will make his party a collection of non-entities that will eventually end up as AD who was completely repressed by the dinosaurs of the 50ies and 60ies that blocked any nascent political renewal within AD.

On the foreign front the only positive contribution of Chavez has been to restart the oil price increase in the year 1999. His mistake here is to believe still today that he is responsible of the high oil prices, forgetting completely to factor in Iraq, and China/India economic growth. But for the world at large, high oil prices are good as we must be forced to preserve oil, a finite resource (even as Venezuela is one of the most wasteful countries energy wise).

That is it, I cannot think of anything else positive coming from Chavez in his 8 year tenure.

The 1999 constitution? A deeply flawed document that chavismo is already preparing to change extensively.

Political inclusion of the masses excluded? Fake issue. These “poor masses excluded by previous regimes” were not excluded until the late 70ies as the administrations of Betancourt, Leoni and even Caldera 1 made a great effort to improve healthcare, literacy, and education and where 90% of the electorate participated in the elections. Today's Misiones such as Robinson of Barrio Adentro or Mercal have already being tried in the past by these democratic administrations. That the 80ies and 90ies became an ignorance and avoidance of the social problems of Venezuela cannot be used to pretend that it was always such.

Improved civil rights? Most of them existed before and the few brought in are not enforced. Crime is worse than ever and the judicial system has become a joke, more inefficient and more partial than at anytime in Venezuelan democratic history. What good it is to have a constitution chockfull of “rights” if there is no obligation for the state to enforce them? On this respect I was tempted to introduce in the "good" column" a better awareness of indigenous people’s rights, but the practice of the regime since the 1999 constitution was voted makes me rule out this as a positive contribution from chavismo. Or at least for the time being. Simply look at the beggars in Caracas and observe how many of them are indigenous people.

The Bad

The Bad is the poor management of the country, in fact, the sometimes deliberate mismanagement of the country. Two reasons for that: Chavez personal ambition and the subjection of everything to his drive for increased power, and that he has been unable to attract the best and brightest to work and help him out. I suppose that the second is a consequence of the first one, but even the most totalitarian regimes did manage on occasion to attract a luminary or two. This cannot be said for Chavez, at least for the time being.

Thus the Venezuelan economy is a mess. This might not be apparent for the casual observer that sees Caracas streets plagued with brand new cars spending most of the day all but parked in all the streets of Caracas as traffic has collapsed. But the savvy observer will see that this amount of luxury cars (BMW and Porsche in Venezuela where there are more potholes than actual roads?) does not match with the indigents begging at most street lights, or the people that routinely get robbed inside their cars while stuck in traffic. What gives? It is quite simple: all the huge dollar influx from the sky high oil prices is spent in grants, not on investments. Thus import and distribution have become the only two flourishing industries of Venezuela.

Careful analysis of the macro, and micro, economic figures point out to a severe lack of private investment except in sectors with a high speculative return such as communications or oil. But the industrial parks of Venezuela are still far from working at full capacity and very few new industries are opening, and certainly not enough to compensate the ones that have closed since Chavez took office. The consequences for the future of the country can easily be guessed as the Piper must always be paid.

There are may other factors that can be added to the negative list. But when the country is ill managed, and where accounting is inexistent, these are usually consequences. However there are some elements which are deliberate state policies and that can be added in the “bad” list. For example, the reversion of decentralization in Venezuela. As a way to improve administration in Venezuela and to try to unblock the stultified political system of the late 80ies, decentralization was promoted. Governors and mayors were now elected instead of being named by the President or the city hall council. This came along with increasing accountability as public administration started slowly but surely to get closer to the people.

All of this was cancelled by chavismo who has been hell bent in bringing back decision making to Caracas, directly and indirectly. Directly by increasing the power and preponderance of the central government. Indirectly by promoting local committees of diverse nature above elected officials. That is resulting in an atomization of power, and thus a better control of governors and mayors that are not to be relied upon.

Another example of deliberate bad policies is the purposeful weakening of the judicial system. The consequence of this are obvious to anyone averagely informed about how things are supposed to work in a civilized and organized country: the more independent the judiciary, the better off a country generally is. It will be enough to explain how this subjection was achieved in Venezuela. First it was the atomization of justice by creating more controls than necessary and thus creating the reverse effect that no control could effectively be exerted. Second action was to name only faithful to the regime in all key positions of the judicial system in Venezuela. From packing the high court to naming non entities as Clodosvaldo Russian to crucial positions was enough to kill justice in Venezuela. Now justice is inefficient, highly partial, and actually obeys political lines and orders. Basically any law suit against the government is certain to fail, or to be stored for years until finally some trial date is set.

The consequences are obvious: Venezuela is now considered one of the most corrupt countries of the hemisphere and a crime wave is subjecting the country, a crime wave which of course affects most the lower classes that have no resources to protect themselves.

The Ugly

And it is Ugly by all standards of civilization.

There are three items which I will grade in increasing order, to simplify discussion for the reader patient enough to have reached these lines.

Bringing politics into the Army (and public services, and stat owned companies, etc…)

Now the armed forces of Venezuela, we are told, have weapons to serve the revolution. That is the armed forces participate in the revolution, are ideologized by the revolution, or rather the regime, to serve Chavez personal ambitions. This is extremely dangerous as the army has the weapons and if it becomes a political actor it has the upper hand as civilians are by definition a pacific set who has at most a few handguns to oppose to war quality weapons. IF this is enough to frighten the political opposition to Chavez, it should also frighten Chavez who will become more and more dependent on the good will fo the army to maintain his power. Chavez has reopened the Pandora box that we thought had been closed after Perez Jimenez fal in 1958.

Unfortunately this project of politicization of the army is now so advanced, the armed forces have received so much power and privileges since Chavez has reached office that for all practical purposes we are under a military regime, with the peculiarity that this one did not even need to make a coup d’état: all was handed to the army by Chavez. Foreign observers are urged to count how many ministers, governors, directors of ministry divisions are issued from the armed forces. In fact one could even argue that the army is the principal political party of the coalition supporting the Chavez government! In short: in Venezuela, outside of Chavez, only active or ex soldiers exert some real authority, as all civilians are placed in office at the sufferance of Chavez.

The drive for personal power

This is actually quite simple to observe for foreign visitors: the cult of the personality for Chavez can already be observed clearly in the campaign propaganda of the government. It can also be detected when we observe how Chavez speaks for hours without anyone interrupting him or asking tough questions. It can be sensed when Chavez grants few interviews or press conferences and dodges questions ridiculing whenever he can journalists accusing them to work for the Empire. It can be appreciated in the extraordinary partialization of state owned media. In short you can measure the personal power of Chavez as a direct proportion of how unaccountable are public servants in Venezuela. Here, if Chavez says so, it is the law. Need a recent example? Look at the recent announcement for a third Orinoco bridge during the visit of Lula last week. Chavez announced that it would be given to the Brazilian Obredecht, the civil engineering consortium. No bidding, no shopping, no comparison. Obredecht will get the contract at any price it deems suitable because Chavez said so.

The Apartheid of Venezuelan politics

This is an unacceptable development that is only too quickly dismissed by foreign sympathizers of the regime. Simply put, the government has elaborated a tool where it measures the degree of support of the population towards Chavez and his regime. The classification goes from fervent supporter (you belong to Misiones, you work for a Mision, you belong to the militia) to opposition (you signed against Chavez in 2004 to petition for a Recall Election). Using this list all sorts of political discrimination happen, ranging from simple denial of passport issuance, to being fired from a public job even if you fulfill your duties with satisfaction. On the right side column of this blog there are plenty of links that refer to this discrimination official list, once called the “Tascon list”, recently Maisanta program and now probably Maisanta 1.1 or something like that.

If you doubt of the intention of the government to intensify the application of this modern day apartheid you can search for the declarations of the Oil Industry head, Ramirez, caught on video threatening to fire whomever did not support enthusiastically Chavez. That is, it is not enough to support Chavez and do a good job. Now, the only thing that matters for you to keep your job is to be a fervent supporter of Chavez.

Or you can also watch the recent video of Vielma Mora, the SENIAT (IRS, tax agency) receive live, in front of the cameras, a piece of paper from one of his assistants where there were a few names as to them belonging or not to the Tascon list. That is right, at the Venezuelan tax collection agency, employees seem to handle routinely the list of tax payers that support or oppose Chavez. Do I need to explain the consequences of this?

A conclusion?

Yes, there is one. No matter what Chavez has done over the last 8 years, he has created a deep division in Venezuelan society, a division that will lead inevitably to either repression or civil disturbance, or worse. This is simply unforgivable, to deliberately create such a division to ensure one’s personal power, to eliminate deliberately any communication between the two sides of the divide, to radicalize the political discourse constantly, to welcome any radicalization of the opposition as an excuse to push up the ante. Dear foreign observers, you might want to look into this.

PS: this post comes with no links, too many will be required. Anyone interested in details can contact me, read my blog, visit Miguel or Alek blogs to find a wealth of article on this matter. OR if you handle Spanish and have the time to do some research, you can read El Universal, the only paper which archives are compeltley available on the net. All that I have said here can be verified fully, be it recent occurences or historical references.

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