The Venezuelan Story: Revisiting the Conventional Wisdom
By Moises Naim, April 2001
"Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt
from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.
Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy
from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of
vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment
of ideas…. But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which
are dangerous for good or evil…."
It has become something of a cliché to use the rise to power of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez as evidence of a brewing backlash against globalization, American-style capitalism, corruption and poverty. His fiery anti-globalization rhetoric, his strong alliance with Fidel Castro, his outreach to Saddam Hussein and Muammar Ghaddafi, his anti-Americanism and his sympathetic overtures to Colombia's guerrilla's and other insurgent groups in Latin America have all captured the world's attention.2 The popularity among Venezuelan voters of Chávez's anti-corruption, anti-globalization message is seen as the concrete manifestation of a popular sentiment that echoes worldwide.
The Venezuelan story: the common wisdom
A common description of Venezuela's path to its deeply troubled present runs along the following lines: Venezuela is one of the wealthiest countries among emerging markets, a country blessed with all kinds of riches - most notably, huge petroleum reserves. This national wealth could have generated a richer population and an advanced economy and society. Instead, a small elite managed to grab most of the country's wealth. This concentration of political and economic power resulted in a country with abominable poverty and outrageous inequality. The situation was further complicated by the imposition in the early 1990s of market reforms that benefited the private sector and foreign investors at the expense of the poor. Not only were these reforms undertaken without consulting the Venezuelan people, but they were imposed from above by the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez in connivance with the IMF, the World Bank and the United States. The neoliberal model came with its customary lethal dose of fiscal austerity measures, which forced cuts in public budgets and subsidies that benefited the poor. It also led to large-scale privatization that transferred prized national assets to foreigners who then proceeded to eliminate thousands of jobs, and to the liberalization of trade and foreign investment which made the country more vulnerable to the vagaries of the international markets and globalization. The combination of corruption, financial deregulation and globalization created the conditions for the banking crisis that hit the country in the mid-1990s. Again, this crisis hurt the middle class and the poor while enriching corrupt bankers who then fled the country with their bounty.
What's wrong with this picture?
It is true that Venezuela is a country with widespread poverty and profound inequities, governed for too long by inept and corrupt politicians who looted the country's riches in cahoots with greedy and equally corrupt economic elites. But that is not the whole story. A closer examination of the assertions commonly used to explain Venezuela's present plight and the factors that caused it reveal a somewhat different picture.
Venezuela is a rich country
Corruption is the main cause of Venezuela's social and economic problems.
This belief too, is deeply held by a large majority of Venezuelans. If the country is rich and its wealth belongs to the state but the population is poor, then somebody must have stolen that wealth. That "somebody" is obviously "the politicians" and " the rich13." Thus, corruption becomes the central theme in the national psyche, and mistrust in government is a pervasive, and often justified attitude. The corollary is the belief that a small elite has unduly appropriated the country's wealth at the expense of the poor14. Thus the mantra --- tirelessly repeated, seldom scrutinized and deeply ingrained -- is that in Venezuela, corruption is the main, if not the only roadblock to prosperity. Once corruption is eliminated, the popular expectation goes, the wealth that after all is already there, will spread almost instantaneously and effortlessly throughout society. For years, politicians, the media and the educational system have fed and amplified this expectation. Thus, the eradication of corruption has become Venezuela's single most important political promise, policy goal and developmental strategy. Meanwhile, corruption has become pandemic in part thanks to policies that stimulate it by relying on the discretion of largely unaccountable government officials and the enormous role of the state. Paradoxically, the national obsession with corruption has also made it more socially accepted because of the assumption that "everybody is doing it" and impunity reigns. Also, corruption is often justified as the only means of appropriating one's legitimate portion of the country's wealth, a portion that would be stolen by others anyway15. For some, corruption is either the quickest and safest way to make a fortune and for many, it is the only way to make ends meet. Not surprisingly, moral condemnation of corruption has utterly failed to curb it. Yet even after decades of failure, such condemnation continues to be the only tool the country's leaders and voters seem to have in mind for dealing with it.
The belief that corruption is the main culprit behind the country's woes, is at the core of Venezuela's political and economic instability. The national debate about poverty alleviation is reduced to one centered on corruption eradication with scant attention paid to the policies and institutions needed to create new wealth or improve the country's performance. Moral condemnation and promises of ethical behavior find more support and are more readily accepted than any legitimate policy proposals. The perception of honesty becomes the only relevant credential in the recruitment and appointment of leaders; presumed honesty overrides any concerns about lack of qualifications or technical competence in the appointment of government officials. Proposals to create new wealth or reform policies that stimulate corruption are seldom advanced or simply overwhelmed by the anticorruption crusade.
For example, during his second administration in the mid-1990s, Rafael Caldera appointed a "Presidential Commission to Combat Corruption" without however, giving it much power or resources and after several years of activity, ceased to function having achieved very little. President Caldera also insisted on making corruption the central theme of the 1997 Ibero-American Summit hosted by Venezuela despite the reluctance of other heads of state who were more interested in discussing initiatives to further trade, investment and economic integration among their countries. Yet alongside his anticorruption campaign, Caldera reinstated price controls, foreign-exchange controls and a variety of other government initiatives which obviously encouraged corruption. His administration was also particularly ineffectual in bringing to justice the many regulators and bankers responsible for the country's massive banking crisis. Despite Caldera's repeated promises not to let a single act of corruption go unpunished and his constant homilies about clean government, during his term corruption was common and impunity continued to reign.
The reality is that while corruption undoubtedly was and continues to be an important determinant of Venezuela's poverty and inequality, the fundamental causes of its dismal socioeconomic performance lie elsewhere. Wrong policies, woefully incompetent institutions, adverse international circumstances, incompetent leadership, and the noxious effects of being an oil economy and society have played a far more important role than corruption. True, many of the wrong policies, poor institutions and nefarious leadership were either determined or sustained by corruption. Yet corruption is a symptom, not a cause of the country's problems. In the last 20 years, the single-minded focus on fighting corruption has either undermined or altogether blocked efforts aimed at reforming policies and institutions, adapting to changing international circumstances, or breaking the vicious circles that have hindered the country's politics. In the same way that economic dominance of oil stifled the development of other industries, the dominance of the corruption issue in the national debate has stifled the development and emergence of ideas about how to deal with the country's more pervasive problems.
Venezuela's turmoil is the consequence of the excessive concentration of power by traditional elites
Excessive concentration of political and economic power was certainly a problem in Venezuela's past. Yet in part as a reaction to such concentration and the incompetence of those who held this power, the opposite was true during the late 1980s and most of the 1990s.
In reality, the proliferation of new centers of power especially at the local level, the growing influence of civic organizations and neighborhood associations, the disappearance of party discipline, the weakening and even the disappearance of politically influential business groups and organized labor, and the balkanization of politics were all characteristics of Venezuela in the 1990s. Instability, gridlock and the incapacity to react to new domestic and international realities, resulted from having too many weak political actors, rather than too few powerful ones.
The demise of Venezuela's two-party system was largely due to the inability of party leaders to react adequately to the changes brought about by the end of the Cold War, low oil prices and by the process of political decentralization that began in 1989. Acción Democrática and COPEI once seemed invincible and used and abused their power without compunction. Their large political base, widespread national organization and party discipline with which the members of each party responded to the designs of the leadership, made them powerful electoral machines. The glue that provided party cohesion was not ideology but the promise of government favors and jobs. The basic and often only mechanism used by the parties' leadership to ensure their members' discipline was their ability to regulate access to the resources of the state, rather than membership loyalty or doctrinaire commitment to the party line. Once in government, the leaders and public officials of Acción Democrática and COPEI managed the country by simply relying on the income from oil, their electoral dominance and the geopolitical certitudes created by the superpower rivalry. Eventually however, oil revenues dipped and the country found itself heavily indebted. While the end of the Cold War and globalization changed the international landscape, urbanization, immigration from neighboring countries and demographic change altered the domestic landscape. Moreover, in 1989 direct elections were instituted for state governors, mayors, and all local authorities that had hitherto been unilaterally appointed by the President and the party in power. Thus after the 1980s, the parties found themselves with less oil money to disburse, mounting demands for social services and physical infrastructure while chronic fiscal crises forced shrinkage in public expenditures. Acción Democrática and COPEI also had to contend with long recessions, inflation, currency devaluations, unemployment, capital flight and the banking crises that replaced the economic stability and the steady, rapid growth to which the country had been accustomed to16. In addition, political devolution ensured that the reputations and personal charisma of the candidates to state and local governments mattered more than the party's support. Under this new political dynamic, pleasing local voters became far more important than pleasing party elders who had already lost influence as a result of the fiscal crises that cut back their ability to support candidates or reward party loyalty. Most importantly, Acción Democrática and COPEI faced a furious electorate, nostalgic for a more prosperous past and fed up with unfilled promises and constantly deteriorating social conditions.
While many descriptions of Venezuelan politics in the 1990s characterize it as a period when the two parties held a tight grip on power, in reality, the decade saw massive electoral volatility with voters taking advantage of any and all opportunities to punish those in power, regardless of party affiliation17. Until the late 1990s when Hugo Chávez was elected, governments with weak mandates had to deal with profound economic crises, mounting civil disorder, two failed military coups, fractious politics and the proliferation of new centers of political power as popular governors and mayors bid for national recognition and influence18. Thus what for almost half a century had been an indispensable requirement to win almost any election in Venezuela, namely the support of Acción Democrática or COPEI, became a political scarlet letter in the 1990s. Even Rafael Caldera the founder and leader of COPEI, abandoned his party in order to run and win the Presidency for the second time in 1994, supported by many of the small leftist groups against which he had battled all his life.
Neoliberal economic reforms and their harsh social costs wrought havoc in Venezuelan politics and society.
The problem with this argument is that while every successive government since the early 1980s has tried its hand at some kind of economic reform, none have been able to sustain it. As Javier Corrales has noted, Venezuela has experimented with heterodox stabilization (1985-1988), shock therapy (1989-1992), gradualism (1996-1998), reforms by executive "special powers" (early 1980s, 1993-1994, 1998), reforms by negotiations with opposition parties (1996-1998), stabilization through price controls (late 1980s and 1994-1996), deep trade liberalization (1989-1993), concessions to the economic losers from trade liberalization (1994-1998) and direct subsidies to vulnerable social sectors (1990-1992)19. Policy experiments were usually abandoned before they could be fully implemented or suffered from substantial distortions in the implementation process. Economic reforms were consistently derailed by governments unable to shield them from the country's balkanized, predatory politics, by incompetent and corrupt implementing institutions, or by unexpected increases in oil prices that canceled any appetite for reform. Not surprisingly, the Interamerican Development Bank classifies Venezuela in the group of "slow reformers" among all nations in Latin America and the Caribbean20. This reality was never an obstacle for politicians who ran on electoral platforms whose essential message was the intolerable social consequences of economic reforms.
Venezuela is a victim of globalization
If globalization is defined by the number, variety and intensity of the links that a country has with the rest of the world, then in the 1990s, the globalization of Venezuela's economy and society was neither rapid nor intense. In fact, it lagged behind that of other large Latin American countries and even smaller ones like Chile or the Dominican Republic. Despite the huge volume of its international oil trade, Venezuela ranks only 36th in the A.T. Kearney/Foreign Policy Magazine Globalization Index, which classifies a sample of 50 countries according to their degree of interaction with the rest of the world22. Globalization may not be the solution to the country's many ills but today's Venezuela has experienced too little of it for it to be a major problem.
Conclusion: What is next for Venezuela?
President Chávez is a highly charismatic and astute politician. But charisma and astuteness alone cannot explain Chávez's extraordinary ascendancy and his almost complete hegemony over Venezuela's politics. What differentiates Hugo Chávez from his political rivals is not just his uncanny ability to align his message with the most deeply held beliefs of the vast majority of the population, but his enthusiastic willingness to tap into collective anger and social resentments that other politicians failed to see, refused to stoke, or more likely, had a vested interest in not exacerbating. Chávez broke with the tradition of multiclass political parties and the illusion of social harmony that prevailed in Venezuela for four decades. His rhetoric is based on the incessant reiteration of the beliefs that are at the core of the national self-diagnosis (a wealthy country looted by politicians) and prescription (rooting out corruption shall make us all rich.) Moreover, in contrast to other politicians, Chávez constantly caters to the emotional needs of a deeply demoralized nation. He does so with an often inchoate but very effective folksy mixture of Bolivarian sound-bites, Christianity, collectivist utopianism, baseball and indigenous cosmogony, peppered with diatribes against the oligarchy, neoliberalism, foreign conspiracies and globalization.
Many political leaders have retained power despite governmental incompetence or plummeting living standards and Chávez's penchant for constant campaigning may result in heightened popular tolerance for his failures at governing. But despite his current popularity, the failure of Chávez's government to deliver on its promises and the continual deterioration of living conditions, may erode his popularity and lead to a more volatile political situation. Moreover, while enjoying extremely high levels of popularity, Chávez also engenders an intense antagonism among a significant minority of Venezuelans, making him the most polarizing political figure the country has seen in decades.
Venezuelan leaders should also stress that corruption will not be rooted out by appealing to the same judicial threats and moral appeals that have failed to work for four decades, but that it will only be alleviated by reducing the incentives and opportunities for it. Finally, leaders should realize that despite the cosmopolitan look of Venezuela's major cities, the fashionable appearance of its middle class, and the volume of its oil trade, the country's global integration is limited. The great majority of Venezuelans, including important segments of its elite, live in relative international isolation as a result of the country's weak economic, political, cultural, scientific and technological ties with other countries. Economic reforms, broader international integration and a smaller, more focused role for the state are not panaceas for Venezuela's immense problems. But they are concrete steps towards a more hopeful and sustainable future.
It is tempting to dismiss the Venezuelan experience as simply one more example of the many kleptocracies that have flourished in Africa or the former Soviet Union. It is certainly correct to conclude that successive Venezuelan governments depleted both the country's coffers and its commitment to democracy, thus paving the way for an army officer and his allies to take over. This view however, leaves out many subtle and interesting lessons offered from the Venezuelan experience. In particular, it ignores the damaging impact of the national obsession with escaping the appearance, if not the reality, of kleptocracy. As understandable as the popular quest for probity and honesty may seem, it risks shackling the country to misconceptions that limit the adoption of better policies. Such a quest blinds Venezuelans to the fact that much of their hardships are due to the deficiencies of their leaders' ideas, rather than simply a lack of morality.
In spite of having been writen just over two years
ago, the basic arguments and conclusions of this article are still valid.
1- Editor, Foreign Policy Magazine and Venezuela's Minister of Trade and Industry from 1989 to 1990. Thanks to Robert Bottome, Thomas Carothers, Javier Corrales, James Gibney, Janet Kelly, Jose Malave, Minxin Pei, Michael Penfold, Ricardo Penfold and Marina Ottaway for their useful comments. The usual disclaimers apply. A shorter version of this essay appears in the Journal of Democracy April 2000, Volume 12, No. 2.
2- A Lexis/Nexis search shows that Hugo Chávez was the Venezuelan individual most cited by the international media from 1989 to 2000.
3- See Daniel Levine "Goodbye to Venezuelan Exceptionalism" Journal of Inter-American Studies and World Affairs, Vol. 36 No. 4 pp. 145-182 also Steve Ellner "Recent Venezuelan Political Studies" Latin American Research Review Vol. 32, No. 2, 1999 pp. 201-218.
4- Venezuela had five general elections and referenda in 18 months.
5- In 2000 the Ministry of Education instituted a countrywide high school essay writing contest. The subject was "Ernesto Che Guevara, an example for the youth."
6- For a recent analysis based on this kind of interpretation of the Venezuelan case see, Richard Gott In the Shadow of the Liberator: Hugo Chávez and the Transformation of Venezuela (London, Verso 2000, 2000). See also Angela Zago La Rebelion de Los Angeles (Caracas, Fuentes Editores, 1992 ), Juan Liscano Los Vicios del Sistema (Caracas; Vadell Hermanos, 1992). This is also the view that President Chávez and his fellow officers used to justify their 1992 failed coup. See "Carta de los Oficiales del MBR 2000" in Enrique Ochoa Antich Carta a los Militares de Nuestra Generacion (Caracas, Fuentes Editores, 1992) and Alberto Garrido, Guerrilla y Conspiracion Militar en Venezuela: Testimonios de Douglas Bravo, William Izarra y Francisco Prada (Merida, Editorial Venezolana, 1999).
7- According to an August 2000 survey, "Analisis del Entorno Sociopolitico Venezolano" Alfredo Keller y Asociados (Caracas, August 2000).
8- In constant 1999 dollars. In 2000, oil prices boomed and brought a $15 billion windfall which, following a longstanding tradition, was promptly spent by the government. See Gerver Torres op.cit. p 36.
9- See Terry Lynn Karl, The Paradox of Plenty:Oil Booms and Petro States (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1997).
10- The World Bank: World Development Indicators, various years, Gerver Torres Un Sueno para Venezuela (Caracas, Banco Venezolano de Credito, 2000).
11- Carlos Leite and Jens Wedmann "Does Mother nature Corrupt? Natural Resources, Corruption and Economic Growth" IMF Working Paper WP/99/85. Also Terry Karl, op. cit.
12- Cited in Gerver Torres, Un Sueno Para Venezuela (Caracas, Banco Venezolano de Credito, 2000) p.48fn 6.
13- See Anibal Romero, "Rearranging the Deck Chairs in the Titanic: The Agony of Democracy in Venezuela" Latin American Research Review Vol. 32 No. 1, 1997 pp. 7-36.
14- Paradoxically, while inequality is certainly an important reality in Venezuela, during the 1990s, Venezuela's average Gini Coefficient was lower than the average for Latin America. Only three countries (Uruguay, Costa Rica and Peru) in the region had a better income distribution than Venezuela. IDB Economic and Social Progress in Latin America: 2000 Report (Washington DC; IDB, 2000) Page 6. The more politically relevant statistic however is that Venezuela experienced one of the world's largest increases in inequality during the 1990s. See Miguel Szekeli and Marianne Hilgert "The 1990s in Latin America: Another decade of persistent inequality" Working Paper, IDB 2000.
15- This attitude also underlies the explosion in criminality that has devastated the country. One of President Chávez's most commonly used lines of attack against the political order he's dismantling is that most individual wealth was received from the state, through corruption and at the expense of the poor. Chávez has also stressed that he understands why the poor would resort to stealing and that he himself would do so if he had to live as most Venezuelans do. The collapse of police capabilities and of the penal system have also made criminal activity less risky. Thus in today's Venezuela, crime pays. Social legitimacy and acceptability, political tolerance, legal impunity and the dearth of other alternatives make it a low cost, high yield, and low risk occupation. In 2000, Venezuela ranked as the 6th most violent country in the world with 25.1 crimes-leading-to-violent-death per 100,000 population. The crime rate has doubled since 1990. See Veneconomia Weekly Vol. 18 No.45, October 11, 2000.
16- See Javier Corrales "Reform-Lagging States and the Question of Devaluation: Venezuela's response to the exogenous shocks of 1997-1998" in Carol Wise and Riordan Roett's Exchange Rate Politics in Latin America (Washington, D.C.; Brookings Institution, 2000).
17- See Michael Penfold-Becerra "El Colapso del Sistema de Partidos en Venezuela: Explicacion de una Muerte Anunciada" mimeo IESA 1999 and Javier Corrales, "Venezuela in the 1980s, the 1990s and Beyond: Why citizen-detached parties imperil economic governance" in DRCLASNEWS, Fall 1999. Pp.26-30. For examples of literature that emphasizes the oligarchic nature of the Venezuelan system see Pablo Medina Rebeliones: Una Larga Conversacion con Maria Cristina Iglesias y Farruco Sesto (Caracas, private printing, 1999), Goff Op. cit. and Zago Op. cit.
18- For an excellent analysis of the political and economic
consequences of Venezuela's political decentralization see Michael Penfold-Becerra:
"Federalism and Institutional Change in Venezuela" in
19- Javier Corrales "Venezuela in the 1980s, the 1990s and Beyond: Why citizen-detached parties imperil economic governance" in DRCLASNEWS, Fall 1999. Pp. 26-30.
20- IDB, Economic and Social Progress in Latin America: 1997 Report (Washington, IDB, 1997) See Table 4. Page 50.
21- See IDB, Economic and Social Progress in Latin America: 1998 Report (Washington DC, IDB, 1998); See also See Javier Corrales "Reform-Lagging States and the Question of Devaluation: Venezuela's response to the exogenous shocks of 1997-1998" in Carol Wise and Riordan Roett's Exchange Rate Politics in Latin America (Washington, D.C.; Brookings Institution, 2000)
22- See Foreign Policy Magazine, January-February 2001, pp. 62-63. Also www.foreignpolicy.com
23- Institute for International Education "Open Doors: Annual survey of international students at U.S. Universities" (New York, IIE, 1999).
24- A.T. Kearney/Foreign Policy Magazine Globalization Index. In Foreign Policy Magazine January-February 2001. See also www.foreignpolicy.com
25- "Distribucion de libros y revistas en Venezuela: Estudio de mercado" Editora El Nacional; Internal memorandum, 1998.
26- A.T. Kearney/Foreign Policy Magazine Globalization Index. - op. Cit.
27- Personal and phone interviews conducted by the author with 14 officials of Washington-based multilateral organizations. December 2000 and January 2001. The question was: How do you rank the current Venezuelan cabinet in comparison to all others in Latin America in terms of its professional quality: Among the best five? Among the best ten? Among the best fifteen? Among of the worse ten? Among the worst five? All the respondents selected the "Among the worst five" option.
28- Author's interview; Caracas, December 19, 2000
29- Interview in the Brazilian magazine Epoca March 5, 2000.
30- This old trick in the hat of all embattled presidents is actually welcomed by Chávez's more extreme opponents who hope that a self-inflicted international debacle may lead to Chávez's political demise. They call it the Galtieri scenario for the head of the Argentinean military Junta who lost a disastrous war against England thus opening the door for the reemergence of democratic rule in Argentina.
© by Vcrisis.com & the author