Venezuela remains at the bottom of most international rankings that compare social and economic progress among nations. This is true of quality of governance, transparency in the management of the public wealth, global competitiveness, alimentary self-sufficiency and many other aspects of national life. I believe that some of the main reasons for this sad state of affairs have to do with the existence of at least five dogmas and/or myths cultivated by the Venezuelan political leadership. There are more but these five will illustrate the issue.
Myth1. The State requires total control of basic industries.
In Venezuela governments of different political tendencies have maintained for decades that the state should have total control over the so-called basic industries. A large part of the problem lies in the definition of what is a basic industry. In the U.S., for example, no industry is as basic that should be in control of the state, not even the industry of armaments. In Venezuela the concept of basic includes almost everything: oil, iron, steel, aluminum, weapons, while there is always political pressure to include others such as pharmaceuticals, aviation, banking and even tourism. At the very least the government will insist in having its “national airline”, a hotel chain, worker’s and women’s banks and will strictly regulate pricing of medicines and hospital care or what is taught in elementary and secondary schools. Nowhere is this ideological strait jacket more damaging than in the oil industry. From the extreme left to the extreme right most Venezuelan political actors agree on state control of the oil industry and consider it an almost religious dogma. As a result the Venezuelan oil industry has never belonged to the nation but to the state. In Venezuela state has often been synonymous with the small group in power, sometimes only one man. As a result oil income has never benefited the people at large. Venezuela has never been able to use oil income in an efficient and transparent manner. To dismantle this myth about state control will be difficult but essential if the country ever wants to escape from the third world.
Myth 2. Social vindication in Venezuela can be done by putting money in the pockets of the poor
Even prominent private entrepreneurs, like young Venezuelan businessman Alberto Vollmer, will tell you that Hugo Chavez made social vindication of the poor a cornerstone of his government. Hugo Chavez as a champion of the poor has become part of the international lore, just as Che Guevara has become a martyr. This is a very harmful myth as it sanctifies the policy of direct subsidies and handouts that characterized the 14 years of ruinous Hugo Chavez regime. From Ramonet to Weisbrot to Monedero, international hired guns of the defunct leader have sung the praises of Chavez as a modern Robin Hood, taking away from the rich to give to the poor. Although it is true that substantial amounts of money have been transferred to the poor as a result of Chavez policy of handouts, it is also true that this mechanism has been motivated by a desire to consolidate political power. It has not made possible a real escape from poverty for the millions of Venezuelans who received its temporary benefits. Insulin will cure diabetes only if given throughout the life of the diabetic. The day is not administered diabetes returns. Today the Venezuelan poor are as “diabetic” as ever, as oil money has essentially run out. Redistributing wealth could be an acceptable strategy only as long as wealth increases. If it remains the same or, even, diminishes, as has been the case in Venezuela, redistribution leads to the impoverishment of all, not to a satisfactory equalization of income. Chavez’s handouts were the proverbial fish a day, never the teaching of how to fish. Today, millions who were dependent in the welfare state of Mr. Chavez are over dependent in a state no longer prodigal, since it approaches financial ruin.
Myth 3. The Venezuelan armed force as a protector of democracy and freedom
The Venezuelan military represents an untouchable caste, the object of political flattery and distinction, its true nature masked by its motto: FORJADOR DE LIBERTADES = defenders of freedom. In fact, the Venezuelan armed force has rarely been a defender of our freedom. More often, it has been an accomplice of dictatorships, such as Gomez’s and Perez Jimenez’s in the 20th century and of the autocratic and abusive Hugo Chavez regime in this century. Even during our democratic periods the armed force has been a nest of intrigue and military promotions a highly politicized affair. The military have been supporters and beneficiaries of dictatorial regimes, up to the level of being co-chairs in the running of the government. Perez Jimenez was a military dictator and so was Chavez, who went farther than Perez Jimenez in installing a military regime, with over 100 active members of the armed force holding high-level bureaucratic positions. During Chavez presidency the military even allowed the presence of terrorist groups in Venezuela (FARC, ETA, possibly Hezbollah) while several of the high-ranking generals have been connected with drug trafficking, named as such by the U.S. government.
Still, some members of the opposition still believe in the essential purity of the Venezuelan military. Alberto Franceschi, a well-known analyst in the opposition says: “How many corrupt military officers are there? More than during the past governments, I would say, but not the majority. The corrupt minority does not represent the Venezuelan armed force. For each corrupt officer there are 24 who are not”. He goes on to say: “since they have the monopoly of weapons the temptation [for corruption] is naturally greater”. Franceschi even says the military are forced to shout: “Fatherland, socialism or death” because they would be punished if they don’t do it, an explanation that I find unacceptable.
In previous articles I have said that the Venezuelan armed force should be eliminated, something that probably will not happen in the foreseeable future, due to the simple fact that they have the power and are not willing to commit suicide. They are a significant financial and ethical dead weight that keeps dragging Venezuela into the lower levels of the third world.
Myth 4. The dialog of the opposition with the Venezuelan regime is essential to national reconciliation
In 1938 Churchill said, talking about the policy of appeasement practiced by the government of Neville Chamberlain: “there can never be friendship between the British democracy and Nazi power, a power that spurns Christian ethics, which vaunts the spirit of aggression, which derives strength from persecution”. What Nazism was to European democracy and freedom in those years Chavism is to the Venezuela of today, a formidable agent of national destruction. And yet, there are increasing voices of appeasement in Venezuela, asking for dialogue and reconciliation with the gangsters who are in control of the Venezuelan government and who have, for 15 long years and with the complicity of the armed forces, killed, prosecuted, imprisoned, expropriated, exiled, insulted and abused millions of Venezuelans who did not agree with their autocratic philosophy of government. The rogue government has established relations with the worst regimes in the planet: Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Belarus and Syria, among others.
This is a moral problem, much more so than a political problem. Pragmatism is one thing, surrendering our principles and values is something entirely different. We cannot seat around a table and part bread or smoke the pipe of peace with people who reject the values we cherish. We would do this at the risk of losing our national soul. Venezuela will need justice, not a turning of the page, if it ever wants redemption and proper retribution.
Myth 5. Venezuelan Corruption can be combatted by structuring new laws, passing a new constitution and/or giving the president special powers.
After 28 constitutions, the current one a monster of 350 articles, excessively prescriptive in its regulation of the smallest detail of Venezuelan life, and after several verbose versions of anti-corruption laws the country ranks today as one of the ten most corrupt societies in the world, according to Transparency International. In particular, the regime that has been in power for the last 15 years has been the most corrupt in Venezuelan history, to judge by the amounts of money stolen and by its systemic dimensions. Corruption is the only “democratic” component of a regime since it has allowed almost every one of their followers, and even a few of their adversaries, to get their hands into the national treasury.
Venezuela is one of the most over-regulated societies on earth while being one of the most corrupt. Corruption is not a genetic trait but intensively cultural, made possible by the attitudes adopted by governments and governed about their handling of the oil income. While only about 30,000 Venezuelans would be needed to run the oil company and to generate the current oil income, there are 120,000 employees in the company, 2.3 million are in the payroll of national and state government and about 7 million followers of the regime (according the latest election results) are, directly or indirectly, getting paid by the prodigal state to keep being loyal to the people in power. This has led to a corruption orgy that, after 15 years, has left the finances of the nation in ruins. And now, suddenly, the government says that they are most eager to clean up their act and that, to do this, the president needs special powers to enact new anti-corruption laws. The opposition replies that no special powers are needed and some are increasingly calling for a Constituent Assembly that would, among other things, pass a new constitution. More rhetoric and laws but no action.
Few are calling for attitudinal changes, which are at the essence of the cure. Venezuela is hooked in the pretense of a cure, rather than on the cure itself. A hundred years from now, probably after we pass yet another constitution, the country will be as corrupt as ever.
Provided there is a country.