Chavez Outpaces Change in Venezuela

(International Relations and Security Network, 29/09/2007)


Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is the most traveled Latin American leader in history. His late-night meetings around the globe have fostered a network of anti-establishment contacts who share in one way or another his vision of "21st Century Socialism."


But when Chavez departs for foreign lands, he leaves behind him a vast government bureaucracy in charge of implementing change inside Venezuela. New ideas, announcements and decrees within Venezuela match his globetrotting rhythm but it is not clear if his ministers and other members of the bureaucracy are able to maintain the pace.


Chavez, at times, is a micromanager. His long days extend into nights of reviewing project plans and deciding upon everything from top to bottom. At the same time, the larger-than-life visionary calls for sweeping reforms and massive projects. The combination of two disparate leadership styles has evolved into a leader that is unable or unwilling to delegate decision-making authority, while he simultaneously pushes the bureaucratic institutions of the Venezuelan government beyond institutional capacity.


Meanwhile, extra budget spending facilitates the dissolution of accountability. The result, as many have observed, is corruption - a stain on Venezuelan politics that Chavez promised to remove during his first presidential campaign.


Nevertheless, some Venezuelan government programs, though vast and seemingly innumerable, have worked, especially in the pockets of poverty where Venezuelans had not had primary medical care or had not been able to afford a liter of milk until Chavez became president.


The strains of leadership


Larry Birns, director of the Washington DC-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, believes Chavez is a serious leader attempting to enact real change in Venezuela for the benefit of its people.


"If achieved, Chavez's revolution [in Venezuela] would evoke a real discussion," Birns told ISN Security Watch.


However, he said, "Chavez must [now] turn his attention to administration, a devotion to the day-to-day details."


Birns noted that Cuban leader Fidel Castro had admonished Chavez for picking a fight with the US. "[Castro] reminds Chavez to administer the revolution," Birns said.


Chavez's visionary character soars during the popular weekly radio show, Alo Presidente. Often running over five hours, the show features the president interviewing numerous individuals, from ministers to school teachers and street sweepers, saluting friends and checking in with various individuals about the status of dozens of projects.


"Chavez is always announcing new social missions, new programs, new plans," one political scientist in Caracas who asked not to be named told ISN Security Watch. "The problem is that those under him have a very difficult time keeping up."


As a result, Chavez's administration style creates a demand on Venezuelan bureaucracy that foments a capacity problem. There are simply not enough people in place to drive forward, in a sustainable manner, Chavez's revolution, some analysts say.


At the root of this growing problem is the difficult task of containing within one leader the visionary and the details-oriented administrator.


Oscar Schemel, president of Venezuelan polling company Hinterlaces, echoed these concerns in a June Miami Herald article. "People feel that [Chavez] is prioritizing his ideological agenda over and above their practical concerns," he told the daily.


Thinly stretched good will


One political commentator recently admitted he stopped counting at 14 the number of social missions that Chavez had established. Another stopped counting at 22. Both admit there are probably more.


Of all the social missions, the one that has garnered the most international attention is perhaps the Barrio Adentro program, where the Venezuelan government has installed primary care clinics often staffed by Cuban doctors and nurses in low-income neighborhoods.


Another, known as Mercal, has established low-cost market stores in many of the same neighborhoods.


"The Mercal program has worked well," Director of Programs with the Center for International Policy, Adam Isacson, told ISN Security Watch. "Measures of poverty appear to be down because of [Mercal]."


Both programs are credited with having brought primary care and basic foodstuffs to Venezuelans who otherwise would have gone without. They are also a reason for Chavez's continued high levels of popular support.


Low-income housing construction is a very visible domestic development process. In Venezuela it has been a constant struggle to match demand, and expectations often outpace reality. It is a salient example of how bureaucracy struggles to keep pace with Chavez's revolution.


The new Minister of Housing, Ramon Carrizales, told reporters on 20 September that the government planned to complete construction on 94,000 housing units by the end of the year. He said the government was currently working on some 154,000 units in total.


But according to past Housing Ministers, promises for housing far exceeded the number of units constructed per year. In November 2005, then-housing minister Luis Figueroa declared a state of emergency in the country's housing projects. He admitted that promises made for housing in 2001 and 2002 still had not been met by 2005. At least 50,000 units were promised and not constructed.

Figueroa signaled a lack of funding as a primary cause for the backup. It is also possible, however, that too many houses were promised.


Clientelism and progress mix


Corruption has long been a problem in Venezuela. According to international corruption watch dog Transparency International, Venezuela is the second most corrupt nation in Latin America, outdone only by Haiti.


With a score of 2.3 out of 10, Venezuela falls under the threshold score of three, which indicates "a perception of rampant corruption." Transparency International's 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index, explains that countries with scores below three are subject to private abuse of public funds. "Clientelism and the abuse of discretionary power by leadership […] is prevalent, making public resources there subject to private interests."


Within this context lie Venezuela's thousands of community councils, one of Chavez's most progressive social programs. The idea that groups of citizen-leaders meet and decide upon community needs with the power and financial resources to implement those decisions is a new and interesting concept.


According to David Velasquez, minister of popular power for social participation and development, there are some 30,000 community councils currently in Venezuela. Each council works to improve large networks of families, focusing on their needs within a specific social sphere.


These councils propose projects as simple as a concrete staircase or more complex developments like a community center. The funding arrives directly from Caracas, often bypassing municipal leadership and oversight.


In the municipality of Sucre, located within metropolitan Caracas, over US$1 million (calculated at the official rate) has been earmarked for some 58 projects, 48 of which have been completed.


While local leaders and certainly many of the program's poorer beneficiaries praise the council's ability to push forward a number of projects that directly benefit the community, others disagree with the councils' existence.


Leopoldo Lopez, mayor of the Caracas district of Cacao, told National Public Radio in the US in May that the councils were not designed to place more power in the hands of citizens. Rather, he said they were about extending the central government's influence to the local level, by passing municipal governments.


Considered one of the last lines of resistance to Chavez's leadership, municipal government in Venezuela, some argue, has been crippled by the creation of community councils. And some worry that the lack of oversight is an open invitation to corruption.


Revolutionary challenges


Implementing a revolution has many challenges. Apart from the necessities of administration, capacity and the allures of corruption, is the economy, security and shortages.


Caracas is considered one of the most violent cities in the Americas, surpassing the notoriety of Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro.


Part of the spike in crime is likely tied to the growth of a parallel black market. The Venezuelan currency, the Bolivar, is currently trading at an official rate of some 2,150 Bolivares to one dollar. The unofficial rate is over twice that value. Such a disparity in official and black market exchange rates suggests price controls have left many starving for a currency that has real value. A parallel economy exists and is growing.


"We've seen reports that suggest inflation in Venezuela is at 17 to 19 percent," Isacson said, adding that government spending is up by 48 percent. If the Bolivar is suddenly devalued, the poor will be the hardest hit.