Corruption in Venezuela

Accusing politicians of corruption is perhaps one of the favorite ways to discredit politicians in Latin America. It should thus come as no surprise then that now that Chavez has been in office for over eight years, that Chavez’s opponents, whether in Venezuela or internationally, should use this charge against Chavez.

The following is an excerpt from an article that was first published in the November/December 2006 issue of Extra! We re-post the excerpt here on the occasion of the release of the release of Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perception Index, which presents Venezuela as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. A more detailed examination of the data, however, shows that the CPI is an extremely unreliable measure for corruption in Venezuela.

Accusing politicians of corruption is perhaps one of the favorite ways to discredit politicians in Latin America. Chavez himself came into office accusing the entire political class in Venezuela of corruption, which made him very popular with many voters, who were tired of seeing their country slipping into poverty, despite its enormous oil wealth. It should thus come as no surprise then that now that Chavez has been in office for nearly eight years, that Chavez’s opponents, whether in Venezuela or internationally, should use this charge against Chavez.

A recent Newsweek article (July 31, 2006 “A question of Graft”), for example, stated that Chavez has, “fanned the same endemic corruption that thoroughly discredited Venezuela's two major political parties in the 1990s.” The article goes on to highlight some of the more emblematic corruption cases and cites Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, which ranks Venezuela as one of the world’s most corrupt countries. Similarly, a Washington Times article (Sept. 15, 2006, “New Role for a Sore Loser”) stated that there is, “rampant corruption within Mr. Chavez's inner circle of ministers and advisors.” Such claims are quite common in mainstream media discussions of Venezuela.

Indeed, according to transparency International (TI), Venezuela is in position 130 out of 158, as one of the world’s most corrupt countries, on a par with Burundi, Cambodia, Congo, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan, far below any other Latin American country. Also, between 2001 and 2005 Venezuela dropped from a score of 2.8 to 2.3, on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being no corruption. However, a closer examination of these seemingly authoritative statistical claims shows quite a different picture of corruption in Venezuela.

First of all, the TI corruption index is based on the perceptions of corruption in a particular country, for the most part by non-national and non-resident experts and business people. Given that the perceptions of Venezuela are to a large extent shaped by the international and national media, which overwhelmingly sympathize with the opposition in Venezuela and which constantly accuse the Chavez government of corruption, it should come as little surprise that the Corruption Perceptions Index would reflect this bias. Not only that, it becomes a vicious cycle, where each report about the increased perception of corruption increases the perception of corruption in Venezuela.

Second, there are at least two far more objective measures of corruption in Venezuela, which the international media never refer to and which show that Venezuela does not rank any worse in terms of corruption than most other Latin American countries. Of the two alternative measures of corruption one is also conducted by Transparency International and is known as the Global Corruption Barometer (GCB) and the other is the Latinobarometer (LB).[1] Both conduct fairly similar surveys among nationals of the countries in question.

For example, when TI asked whether corruption affects their lives to a large, moderate, small, or no extent, Venezuelans say that it affects them to a large or moderate extent 55% of the time, which is comparable to the answers given in Colombia (54%), Costa Rica (56%), and Ecuador (57%) and far below what Bolivians (73%) and Mexicans (67%) answered. Similarly, when LB asked Venezuelans to estimate the percentage of public officials involved in corruption, the answer was three points below the continental average, at 65%, compared to 68% for all of Latin America.

However, such questions about how a country perceives its own level of corruption is vulnerable to biases that might exist within each country, where citizens might unrealistically under- or over-estimate corruption based on purely national idiosyncrasies. Other questions, though, such as progress in fighting corruption can perhaps provide more objective comparative data.

In this case, the LB survey shows that Venezuela ranks third highest in terms of the percentage of citizens that say that there has been progress in the fight against corruption in the past two years (42%). Only Colombia and Uruguay have a higher percentage (both 45%). The TI survey finds completely opposite results to this question, though, where 72% of Venezuelans say that corruption increased “a lot” or “a little” in the past three years. This is comparable to Bolivia (70%), Costa Rica (79%), and Ecuador (81%) and the U.S.A. (65%).[2]

The perhaps most objective measure of corruption in a country is whether those surveyed personally experienced an instance of corruption in the past year. According to Latinobarometro, only 16% of Venezuelans said that they personally knew of or participated in an act of corruption in the previous 12 months. This is 4 points below the Latin American average of 20% and 11 points below the 27% figure Venezuelans provided in 2001. TI asks a similar question (“In the past 12 months, have you or anyone living in your household paid a bribe in any form?”) and finds that only 6% of those surveyed answer in the affirmative, which is the same percentage as in Colombia and far below the percentages in Bolivia (20%), Ecuador (18%), and in Mexico (31%).

In short, when one compares more objective data on corruption in Venezuela with that of other countries, corruption in Venezuela is either as high as in other Latin American countries either or even slightly lower. Blanket statements that there is “rampant corruption” in Venezuela under Chavez, implying that this is a significant departure from pre-Chavez governments or from other governments in the region do not hold up to close scrutiny.

[1] http://www.transparency.org/policy_research/surveys_indices/gcb and www.latinobarometro.org All data is based on surveys conducted in 2005. Both institutions are highly respected organizations that derive their funding for a wide variety of international foundations and development organizations.

[2] One should note that Latinbarometro’s survey size of 1,200 was more than twice that of TI, which surveyed only 500 Venezuelans.