Public Services and Market Logic

In her latest column, Jessica Dos Santos explains the emergence of a "hybrid" between the state and the market.
Jessica public services
A recent water issue exposed some of the contradictions of present-day Venezuela under US sanctions. (Venezuelanalysis)

A couple of weeks ago, the water pipe that supplies my building, the school next door and a number of small businesses, burst.

A local handyman examined the problem and did all he could. But on this occasion his solution was very “artisanal”. He lifted the drain and tied up a shitload of old shirts in the spot where the water was leaking.

Let’s say the leak became less obvious but still very much unsolved. It reminded me of one time when a pipe burst in my house and I temporarily fixed it with cork from a bottle cap. Only in this case there were hundreds of people affected.

It was obvious that a proper solution needed, as a minimum, to break the pavement and replace the pipe altogether. In other words, something to be done by the proper authorities.

Faced with this scenario, the local Socialist Party “street leader” (“jefa de calle”) suggested that we file a complaint via VenApp, a phone app the government created to improve public services through faster response to people’s reports.

After logging in, there are two options to report a problem: individual or community. Though nothing brings a community together faster than water problems, we decided I’d do the individual filing as it was faster.

Two days later, on a Saturday, after wrapping up my regular chores and given my bad habit of having the phone on silent mode, I noticed two unanswered calls from an unknown number.

To my surprise and horror, VenApp showed the following message: “Hidrocapital (Caracas’ water management company) has tried unsuccessfully to get in contact with you.”

Straightaway, as a desperate fool, I started replying to what is surely a bot: “Look, I’m here now, please call back,” “I did not think you would call me on a weekend.” It was to no avail and soon enough I saw a striking verdict: “Case solved,” with the name of the person responsible. All done. A positive statistic for the system.

As you can imagine, I was incredibly angry at myself for having missed that precious call, but also incredibly outraged. How can the case be declared solved? My conscience was also burdened by having let down all my neighbors who trusted me to take care of this. With the individual report exhausted, the only option left was the community report, which required getting 10 neighbors to submit their data.

This option was reassuring in a way. My mind constantly reminds me that collective initiatives are stronger, that together we can go farther. Not just that, but if I miss a call by any chance, there are nine other numbers on the list.

And so it happened, and the Hidrocapital technicians were there on Monday morning. I must say I was excited. I was already imagining this column while the examined the disaster out there. Finally, they gave us good news and bad news.

The good news was that the repair works required water supply to be interrupted. Since that happens every week, that would not be a problem. The bad news was that it was down to the community to purchase a number of spare parts. A far from obvious mission, since many people live in very precarious conditions and cannot afford to make contributions for these extra expenses. But with a lot of juggling, we managed to secure everything and the leak was fixed.

Once the obsession to fix the problem was in the rearview mirror, I stopped to take stock of the situation. The state had sent its technicians, but it was down to us to secure the necessary materials for them to do the job.

In many ways it was like hiring a plumber, with the difference that these workers did not charge for their labor, beyond some arepas, juices and other elements of Venezuelan hospitality that they can always count on, even more so with people aware of how low wages are.

So we have a mechanism that really allows institutions to provide quicker responses to issues, but it is taken by the market. Public services that are subjected to the logic of capital.

It is worth pointing out that this “figure it out” recipe has always been more prevalent in the popular barrios or even away from the capital where services are more strained. Also, this public/market hybrid is not exclusive to basic services.

Another example, and a much more despairing one at that, is what awaits us in most of the country’s hospitals. If someone needs an operation, the relatives are handed a long list of medical supplies to procure, from the most basic to the most complex things. Sometimes even the surgeon’s fees need covering.

Between money and favors, people end up seriously indebted. It is fair to say that in the present context it is especially undesirable to get sick (as if this was something we could control!).

Both situations showcase that the public infrastructure (like operating rooms) is still there, but we are at the mercy of the private market. There are likewise hundreds of thousands of people who, out of inertia or commitment, keep the state apparatus running in spite of so many issues.

The main question is, which way is this contradiction going to be solved? Will the state gradually recover the ability to assume all its responsibilities? Or will we end up with an Ebay-style environment, bidding to see what team of “self-employed” technicians can fix our problem for the lowest price?

It’s a debate that quickly leads to many others, such as what the priorities have been amidst this economic blockade, or even about the use of new technologies to create government tools. But what is certainly true is that we need to fight for what’s “public” in its broadest sense. Because if there’s anything we know by now, is that the market is not going to save us.

Jessica Dos Santos is a Venezuelan university professor, journalist and writer whose work has appeared in outlets such as RT, Épale CCS magazine and Investig’Action. She is the author of the book “Caracas en Alpargatas” (2018). She’s won the Aníbal Nazoa Journalism Prize in 2014 and received honorable mentions in the Simón Bolívar National Journalism prize in 2016 and 2018.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.

Translated by Venezuelanalysis.