Unlike past years of polarization and launching of social plans and projects, 2009 in Venezuela was not one of the most remarkable. The international financial crisis, which during the first half of the year led the executive to a conservative application of the budget, was the first of many blocks to the promise of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to “rectify, re-launch and revise” his government’s project. For the Venezuelan analyst and writer Luis Britto, 2009 was a “static” year.
The inefficiency of the public administration and corruption are the main criticisms heard from Chavez’s base of support and even amongst some senior officials. It is a scenario which the right intends to use to seek its re-formation as a political force in the 2010 elections. The opposition is committed to pursuing all opportunities to prevent the governing base from maintaining the current parliamentary majority.
For Britto, among other things, one of the challenges of the government from now on will be to redefine a strategy for the consolidation of a socialist economic model. For the Venezuelan analyst, who describes the Venezuelan model as mixed, the structural crisis in the country is aided by the lack of a clear definition of the project. “It’s like having foxes inside the chicken shed. In the end, there will only be foxes and they will end up eating the poultry man,” he said.
Brasil de Fato – Earlier this year, President Hugo Chávez vowed to “rectify, re-launch and revise” the Bolivarian project, the so called policy of the three “R’s. Did it happen in 2009?
Luis Britto – 2009 was a static year with regards to a re-launching of reforms and the behavior of public administration. It saw a lot of inefficiency, slowness, and old habits from previous administrations persisting. This is not unusual, because the large majority of the officials in this administration are from the opposition. It is one of the great paradoxes of this government.
Has the international financial crisis affected the performance of the government?
It is astonishing the only moderate effects that the crisis caused in Venezuela. The announcement of the crisis was catastrophic in developed economies. Here, preventive measures were taken before the crisis, the government diversified in order not to rely exclusively on the [US] dollar. Some of the reserves were exchanged to euros, yen and other currencies with greater stability, and therefore the dollar’s fall did not directly affect the Venezuelan economy. Another factor was the conservative estimate of the value of a barrel of oil in calculating the budget [$ 60], in that sense there was an increase in the value of investments in the country. [Until the end of the first half of the year, the average selling price of a barrel fluctuated between $ 70 and 65].
But there was a drop in gross domestic product (GDP), did the economy go into recession in the third quarter?
Yes, but the impact took almost a year. The major economies went into recession a year ago. Our economic system is still mixed: capitalism with some socialist aspects. Being inside the world capitalist system, of course we were affected.
In what areas could the government have made more progress?
One of the areas that could have advanced, a critical factor of the Venezuelan economy, is food dependency. Venezuela currently imports more than 70% of the food it consumes, and this is a very delicate situation. The government should have a greater focus on food production. However, as a result of this mixed regime that still exists here, there is a significant presence of idle large land holdings. It is necessary to carry out profound agrarian reform, in order to integrate these large land holdings into agricultural production and livestock. Partial measures have been made for land concessions, but our food dependency is still very significant and strategically sensitive.
Why doesn’t the government implement this reform?
The government is gradually implementing socialist measures, but as it is committed to the idea of a capitalist-socialist mixed model, it respects private property. It has implemented some measures for social appropriation of land in cases where the abuse of the large land holdings was obvious, but not in every case. In one example, it has expanded the participation of private companies, which here, unlike Brazil, do not have entrepreneurial characteristics. A Venezuelan private company is characterized by relative low productivity. They prefer to seek government subsidies, in terms of protection, or invest in financial and real estate speculation. The bourgeoisie basically imports goods, generates little employment and mobilizes the productive forces of the country in limited ways . This scenario shows a very vulnerable economy, and it is quite surprising that the impact of the crisis has not been greater.
Chavez has been in power for over ten years. In your opinion, what are the main problems that the government has proved unable to solve so far?
Venezuela dragged itself throughout the 20th century, and now in the 21st century faces difficulties to industrialize itself. The country is not capable of implementing an industrial system to produce consumer goods for the vast majority of the population, essential goods such as, for example, agricultural machinery. On the other hand, we have an agrarian economy based on large land holdings, most of which have no legal basis and do not produce food. This factor, coupled with non-industrialization, produces great weakness in the economy. The lack of agricultural activity also increases the exodus from the countryside to the city, which is still happening today.
The social missions (programs), which are the basis for the support the government receives among popular classes, are being increasingly criticized. What happened with those programs in the areas of health and education?
The missions represent the factor that led to an extraordinary increase in the living conditions of the population. Illiteracy has been eradicated, the enrollment in higher education doubled, access to medical appointments was extended to the whole population with the Barrio Adentro program, and the program Mercal brings subsidized food to the majority of the population. The missions were a sort of large improvised effort to replace the structure of a dysfunctional state.
The Ministry of Education, with a huge apparatus of officials, had not been able to eradicate illiteracy. It was necessary to create this improvised structure, with specific tasks and with the participation of a national taskforce of volunteers. It’s necessary to deeply restructure and legally reform the state as well as to remove the public servants who do not comply with their duties. Instead of doing this, which certainly would unleash strong criticism from opponents, the government created this kind of strike force to address specific problems.
But the missions are already showing signs of exhaustion …
In Venezuela, we have two states: one that is formal, which hardly ever works, and another one that is informal, with the missions, which had spectacular results, but due to the lack of institutionalization, they are starting to fail. To solve this dichotomy, a single state should be created, an efficient one, which completes tasks and implements far-reaching projects.
Criticisms focusing on the corruption of the state, the inefficiency of public management and violence have been increasingly frequent. How can these problems be addressed?
There are criticisms about violence all over the world. In Venezuela, what happens is that there has been a gradual penetration of Colombian paramilitaries who have crossed the borders onto the Venezuelan side without greater control from the state. These paramilitaries are based in some popular sectors and often replace the role of local criminals. The difference is that they have military weapons and funding from the drug dealers, and places for money laundering, such as casinos and bingo. This is an extremely serious factor in increasing insecurity. Some types of violence have emerged that did not exist before, such as kidnappings or Sicariato(mercenaries). Trade union disputes have often been “resolved” using such methods. More than 200 peasant leaders have been murdered. Add to that the murder of at least two trade union leaders in labor conflicts with Colombian companies. This insecurity is immediately attributed to the Bolivarian government. However, Zulia state, under the administration of the opposition for a long time, is one of the states with the highest rate of violence across the country.
Still, the state should be responsible for combating violence as a whole, don’t you think?
Venezuela is a country, like many others, in which much of the population is involved in deregulated work. Many people move from one side to another, between informality and delinquency. But we can minimize the effects of this silent invasion of the paramilitaries. The state should have been much more effective in defeating this infiltration and its implications for money laundering. This is a security and defense issue and the government has to face it.
How can corruption and inefficiency in public administration be fought?
It is necessary to implement a radical reform of the state, to promote morals and implement corrective measures with effective fiscal control. The state has large investments in public companies, enterprises and the greater the degree of autonomy, the less control there is. The missions do not have any kind of institutionalized control. This should be corrected. Another problem is that money is spent without achieving the targets of the budget. Estimated targets should be mandatory. If the wrongful act was tackled immediately, corruption would decrease.
Do you think that corruption is a major concern for the government?
No. The main problem for the government is the aggression of the United States and to a large extent of the opposition, which is dedicated to sabotaging many of its initiatives. We have a judiciary which is an absolute opponent. Why are there so few prosecutions for acts of corruption? Corruption is not as important as the opposition makes out, and the opposition itself is involved in it, including the powers that it maintains within the state.
We have just seen the scandal of a bank fraud, in which Arné Chacon was involved, the brother of the former Minister of Science and Technology, Jesse Chacon, one of the trusted men of the president. That indicates that people close to the government are also involved in corruption.
But this person has been arrested. The irregularity was discovered and he is in jail.
How can one justify the emergence of what is being called the boliburguesia (the new social elite linked to Chavismo)?
The boliburguesia is the same bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie and businessmen have no ideology, other than money. When it is appropriate, they wear a red shirt. This is the logic of this mixed government. As long as there is capitalism that is the way it is going to be. In a game of chess, if one respects the rules and the other doesn’t, of course the one who does not respect the rules wins, unless their behavior disqualifies them from playing the game.
What are the challenges that the Chavez administration will face next year?
The first challenge is that Venezuela has the number one world imperialist power surrounding the country with a belt of at least nine military bases, seven in Colombia and two in Curaçao and Aruba. This is a disturbing challenge. Colombia has an army of 500 thousand troops, which for a country with about 47 million people, is an excessive number of soldiers, higher than the number of troops in the Brazilian army. The first challenge is to continue to exist before the threat of war of that magnitude, given that the two major wars today are over the seizure of hydrocarbons.
And the internal challenge?
It is a question of ideology. It is very difficult to have a mixed process, capitalist and socialist, because at some point the tendencies of one or the other will become more prevalent in the process. The biggest challenge is to advance an essentially socialist project. If we have a model destined for solidarity, but a part of the population is exclusively dedicated to personal gain, it’s like having chickens and foxes, in the chicken shed. In the end, there will only be foxes, and they’ll end up eating the poultry man. Either the government allows the state to go back to what it used to be, before the beginning of the Bolivarian government and all the kinds of inefficiencies will continue to occur, or an attempt is made to restructure the missions, and to have an effective state. The militants of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) should be an example of militancy, honor. Bad examples discredit.
The government has viewed the legislative elections of 2010 with some concern. Do you think the government coalition might not maintain its majority?
An opposition with legislative power could paralyze the executive. In the case of losing the majority, the situation of the government would be very difficult. But the picture is not clear. In previous elections, the government has won 60% of the votes and the opposition 40%. This has favored the government, with the exception of the constitutional reform referendum in 2007. Using this logic, it is likely that the government will win a majority. One of the difficulties for the opposition continues to be its inability to unify itself. This affects the opposition candidates a great deal.
In the event that the opposition wins a parliamentary majority, can we predict a scenario of ungovernability for Chavez? Would the president rule by decree?
It’s unlikely. And anyway, for more than half a century here the government has legislated by decree. This is a tradition that has been extended to social-democratic, social-Christian and now the Bolivarian governments. Even now that the process has an absolute majority, the president issues decrees. It would not be strange for that to happen. But the problem is not in drafting laws, but in their implementation.
LuisBritto is a Venezuelan political analyst, historian, writer and play writer, he is the author of more than 60 books.
Translation by Ana Amorin, editing by Venezuelanalysis.com