Sunday, February 20, 2005

Venezuela, Chavez, Montesquieu and Vargas, or why we might never make it

We are slowly emerging from the disaster in Venezuela. We got a start in Vargas and due to our 1999 psychosis we thought the end of the world was coming again, but it came to the Andes and Southern Zulia. Scores of killed and missing, whole villages flooded, when not torn away by the torrents with levels of water not recorded in recent memory.

The heavy rains have ceased, though it still rained/drizzled all day in San Felipe today, and in Vargas it rains frequently in the afternoon. But anyone with clear thinking knows that it will happen again sooner than later. The Andes disaster reports are quite clear: deforestation, planting of crops close to river beds, followed of course by the shacks, that became small houses of the laborers lured by a false sense of security since for many years the river did not flood. No public officials to come and to tell them to move away, before or since Chavez for that matter. This prevention activity does not get you votes, and with the most populist government of our history I suspect that it will not get better no matter how many disasters we will go through.

My brother went last Friday to get the car he had to abandon when he was evacuated in Vargas. He sent me this picture he took while driving back to Caracas. As it can be seen, the mountain pretty much slid down to the road. There is no more road to be seen, only a mud trail through which only all terrain vehicles can circulate.


However a closer examination of the picture makes one detect that the truck ahead is carrying a BMW, a status car in Venezuela as you really need to be making lots of money to afford to import a BMW. Rich people, even in time of disaster can manage to retrieve their property, glorious bolivarian revolution notwithstanding.

This picture became quite telling for me. Even more when you add what has become now a pattern with Chavismo, natural catastrophes are taken advantage of. In 1999 as Jorge pointed out, while pretending to rescue folks in Vargas 1, Chavez was busy grabbing the judicial power. During Vargas 2, (and Andes 1?) the government is trying to expropriate more land and to put an end to University autonomous statute (details in a future post).

The link between all of it, you may ask? Well, it is Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu. But let's go by parts.

Montesquieu came to fame when he wrote L'Esprit des Lois, The Spirit of Laws. With this essay he was the first one to articulate on a practical way the concepts of separation of powers, one idea that would contribute greatly to the political movements of the XVIII century that would eventually produce the American and French Revolutions, real revolutions those. It was from the British tradition that Montesquieu was trying to apply to France that we get concepts such as an independent judiciary, and a separate executive and legislative, concepts which are now totally missing in Venezuela, and whose lack certainly explain the lack of accountability that is in my eyes the main cause of the present administrative debacle, corruption and all.

But back to the car picture. That picture is possible simply because the Chavez administration has been unable to decide what to do with Vargas after 1999. It could not decide to leave it as the pre 1999 mess it was, it could not bring itself to make it an elitist resort area and cash big on tourism taxes, it could not create a new plan, but it could not resist the temptation to pour money in it so as to benefit a few cronies of the regime. The rich anyway went ahead, rebuilt a few resorts on their own, got evacuated again 2 weeks ago, and managed to retrieve their cars back. Showing how useless the governmental action IS FOR ALL (if the sight of a BMW upsets your stomach, look at the photo galleries I linked earlier to see poor people in the mud, all classes suffer the contempt of the regime).

But there also the Chavez regime is just a new avatar of the past. Unable to understand wealth (though quite able to enjoy it, even if illegally acquired), Venezuelan politicians have always been unable to come to grips with tourism, an activity that even Fidel in Varadero has understood to the point of letting his Jineteras have a run at US dollars.

From its very nature Vargas is not a very viable state in classical economical terms, a narrow strip of land clinging precariously between the deep sea and the high mountains, it can only get some limited urban development, but no lush fields or powerful industrial complexes. Half of Vargas should be allocated to luxury resorts whose taxes would finance the other half for day time beach goers from Caracas. The only people that could afford to live there would be simply the workers of the port, airport and resorts who should get subsidies enough to be able to afford what would unmistakably become an expensive real estate (generating still more taxes by the way). After all this is what happens in Rio except that there is more room there and the favellas manage to cling next to the high rises of Ipanema. The favellas already exist in Vargas, what is needed is to rescue the sea front.

And thus comes again Montesquieu in his other famous opus, Persian Letters, an imaginative way to criticize French society as it entered the XVIII century. Letter 107 is still the best case of why a society needs luxuries, and by extension tourist resorts, the luxury of our times. The creativity of a government should be directed, among others, in allowing folks with disposable income to enjoy it while generating jobs for the less fortunate and revenue for the government. On this measure the lack of creativity of the Chavez regime is for all to see.

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PS: Not too unrelated. I did like the coincidence today where an old Venezuelan revolutionary, Jose Agustin Catala, who became one of our foremost editors, can declare at 90 years old, interviewed by Milagros Socorro:
Chavez mezcla una gran inteligencia con mucha incultura (Chavez mixes a great intelligence with a considerable lack of culture).
I wonder if Chavez ever read Montesquieu, and if he would able to understand the slight irony of the Persian Letters.

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