March 27, 2003

Mirador morning

You turn on the tube, and there he is, giving yet another speech. But after a couple of minutes, you start to realize this isn’t just any old Chávez speech. “I’ve had it, frankly,” he says, “the state redistribution system is just not working here.” Weird. You watch on. “The way we’ve been going about distributing the oil money is all wrong, and the time is ripe for a radical rethinking. From now on, the State is just going to redistribute all of Venezuela’s oil revenue equally to each and every citizen. Just send a check to each person with their share. After all, you can’t possibly do a worse job of administering it than we have, so we’re just going to divvy up the kitty and let each of you decide how to spend your share.”

President Chávez did not, of course, say this, nor will he…but just imagine for a second he did. How much money would each Venezuelan get? Guess. Remember now that this is (or was, until recently), the world’s fourth leading oil producer…and it’s a relatively small country, you’d only be splitting the loot 23 million ways. So how much do you think each person would get?

Pick a number.

The thought exercise is Gerver Torres’s, who has been putting it to audiences all over the country for years now. The answers he gets are a real eye-opener. The average response is about $100,000 per capita, yearly. Often he gets far higher estimates. (How much did you guess?) Very rarely do Venezuelans come even close to the actual figure, and almost always they’re shocked to the point of utter, stammering disbelief when they hear it - about $1/day…the price of a plain arepa.

I heard Gerver give this little spiel this morning, at a forum on corruption and how to fight it put on by Mirador Democrático, a local anti-corruption NGO. Gerver, a one-time communist activist turned World Bank technocrat turned right-wing pundit, makes a powerful case that Venezuelans’ fundamental misunderstanding of the scale of their oil wealth makes it impossible to have a serious debate about corruption in this country. If you live in a miserable shantytown with no running water, but you’re convinced that your fair share of national income is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars yearly, then nothing anyone says has the slightest possibility of convincing you that you’re not being skinned by some shady cabal of corrupt plutocrats. All that money has to be going somewhere, right? And you’re not seeing it. Ergo…

Gerver is at pains to explain that the misconception runs right across Venezuelan society – this is not about very poor, uneducated people having nutty ideas. Running his little mental exercise with audiences from widely differing social backgrounds, he gets more or less the same responses every time. University educated Venezuelans are just as taken with the myth of fantastic oil riches as the destitute.

The point was powerfully driven home just a few minutes later when opposition congressman Conrado Pérez took to the podium. Pérez is the chairman of the National Assembly’s main corruption-busting body, the Comptrollership Committee. According to an old parliamentary tradition here, the biggest opposition party in congress always gets to pick the chair of this committee - in this case, it's Acción Democrática. The Comptrollership chair is perhaps the most influential opposition-controlled post in the National Assembly, so you'd think they'd try to get someone good for the job, someone bright and sophisticated and articulate and willing to learn his shit and make the best out of the job.

Oh, but no. Conrado's speech seemed specifically designed to demonstrate even top-level political decision-makers here haven’t the slightest clue of what they’re talking about in terms of oil wealth, corruption, and the relationship between the two. Top heavy with almost infantile clichés, Pérez’s speech was astonishing in terms of sheer ignorance displayed.

His inability to understand basic concepts about corruption seemed almost staged to prove Gerver’s point. Literally minutes after Gerver had finished delivering his devastating critique, we heard the top congressional anti-corruption official argue that if corruption was stamped out completely, the funds freed up would be enough to pay off the entire National debt (about $45 billion, all in), build 100,000 low-income homes, 5,000 schools, and 300 outpatient clinics, not to mention thousands of kilometers of rural roads, and a monthly $18 “school attendance payment” to encourage low-income families to send their kids to school.

I admit I haven't the slightest idea as to what kind of delusional math got him to those figures, but they are nothing short of laughable. The tirade made it plain that this man simply didn't understand a single word of what Gerver had just said! It was amazing to behold - it's not that the guy's understanding of corruption is spotty, it's that Conrado Pérez knows nothing, understands nothing, and can be expected to contribute nothing to the fight against corruption. Still, when you go to the National Assembly and ask them to investigate a corruption allegation, it’s his desk your request eventually ends up at.

[Later, he managed to keep a straight face as he told the auditorium that while AD had had some problems with corruption in the past (the understatement of the decade), that these days 99.99% of adecos are squeaky clean - a claim so transparently false it actually elicited some audible snickering from the audience. The claim only reinforced my belief that adecos are genetically incapable of a straightforward mea can you expect them to do better in future if even today they refuse to own up to even the most blatant of their excesses?]

Good grief…hearing this babbling moron talk this morning depressed me to no end. It struck me that the morning conference captured perfectly Venezuela’s basic problem with development. It’s not that we don’t have bright, articulate, talented, intellectually honest people working on the issues of the day. We have plenty! It’s not just Gerver – who is a national treasure – it’s every single other speaker at that forum. People like Rogelio Pérez Perdomo of Iesa and Albis Muñoz of Fedecámaras and everyone else who spoke. Each set out a sophisticated, realistic, thoughtful contribution to the debate on corruption, each had clear and sensible ideas as to how it works and how it ought to be fought. But all have one other thing in common: they have no political power whatsoever, nor any real prospect at getting some.

Meanwhile, the one guy in an institutional position to do something about corruption is a bona fide imbecile.

It’s shocking, really, and deeply sad. The country has problems. The country has people with clear, serious, pragmatic ideas about how to solve those problems. But the country can’t seem to put the two together at all. For some baffling reason, only the clueless get power, while the clued-in are systematically ghettoized into academia or the private sector.

So forget about the angry tirades in the newspapers. Disregard the neverending, terminally boring ideological cat-fights between chavistas and antichavistas. The country's real problem is a shocking, almost limitless tolerance for mediocrity in the public sector. Somehow the gate-keepers to the key positions of political power and influence have no problem at all putting the likes of Conrado Pérez in leading roles. Doubtlessly, he’s earned his stripes by showing unending, canine obedience to AD party leaders, and they’ve rewarded him with a plum appointment. It makes no difference at all to them that he generates the intellectual wattage of a cucumber – he’s their cucumber.

Meanwhile, the Gerver Torreses of the world are reduced to going door-to-door, university-to-university, NGO-to-NGO desperately seeking someone, anyone who will value and reward their commitment to studying key problems honestly, meticulously, and seriously.

What’s sad is that it’s always been like this. It was like this before Chávez got elected, it’s like this now and, depressingly, it very much looks like it’ll be like this after he’s gone. Ultimately, the government/opposition fault-line conceals a far more relevant divide in Venezuelan politics: the huge chasm between the Mediocrity Party and the Excellence Party. The all-consuming fight between government and opposition boils down to a factional struggle between the right and the left wings of the Mediocrity Party. The real tragedy, though, is that Venezuelan society seems to have developed fail-proof mechanisms to make sure the Excellence Party never reaches power.