Thursday, May 19, 2005

The neglected Venezuelan provinces

This past few days I was set to think about how the provinces in Venezuela have been neglected in the whole recent debate. After all the scandalous actions at PDVSA, and the multiple Human Rights violations have distracted a lot. In addition I have stopped covering my home state. In part I must confess that I do not want the exposure and enough thuggish things have happened recently here that I prefer to keep a low profile. But also the general principles of civility are broken in Venezuela and amiable provincial information pales when basic rights are threatened.

But two items brought me back to mull over the fate of us, Venezuelan residents far from Caracas.

A Potemkin Barrio Adentro?

The Economist had an interesting and long report in Venezuela, a report that on occasion is even somewhat sympathetic as it recognizes that indeed some of the Misiones have had a positive impact. No argument here, my argument as always being that if Barrio Adentro and Robinson were good ideas, I would still like to see the accounting. As for the other Misiones, well, they are more electoral vote buying than anything else, and people do understand it as such, the doubt even surfacing through the Economist article. It remains that the article is a clear description on how populism has run away with Venezuela without a thought for the consequences to out future. The numbers reported by the Economist are quite chilling:
Under Mr Chavez, spending by the central government has risen from 19% of GDP in 1999 to 31% of GDP last year. [snip] More than ever, what sustains Venezuela is oil. Last year, oil exports brought in $29 billion (85% of total exports), up from $22 billion in 2001. In the past, when oil prices were high, the government saved some of the windfall, to spend when they fell. But Mr Chavez scrapped that arrangement. He is spending as if there were no tomorrow. Last year, oil provided 52% of government revenue--some $25 billion. On top of that, PDVSA provided another $3.7 billion, off the books, for social programmes. Even so, last year the government ran a fiscal deficit of 2.8% of GDP. Under Mr Chavez, public debt has risen from 29% of GDP to 39% last year.
However to come back to the subject in my mind this morning: all what the Economist saw was located in Caracas, namely the Catia/23 de Enero neighborhoods. Only the showcase of the revolution where all visitors are taken. A Potemkin village.

Indeed when you are in the country side things change a little bit, and the glamorous "desarollo endogeno" described by the Economist is less frequent. No, chavismo has done a lot in the provinces, but not as much as what was done in Caracas lovingly tended to create a support base all around Miraflores Palace. The truth is that from what I hear, people in Yaracuy go to see the "el cubano" because it is cheap, but they have a limited trust. The Mercal are not as well stocked as in Caracas. I went into a couple of them recently and their offering are limited and their prices not really a major bargain, although certainly a family of 6 would get some significant savings as far as basic staples. What makes the success of chavismo in the provinces is that the provinces had much, much less than Caracas and in far reaches putting a single Cuban doctor was enough to gain the electoral support fo the area. The Adecos of course are the main culprit as the heirs of the 60 and 70 generation which developed some the Venezuelan hinterlands were only to happy to remain in Caracas in the 80 and 90, far from the smelly farm as reported by Milagros Socorro. It was easy for Chavez to earn points. And since he knows that Caracas is the hot spot, a nice Potemkin Catia is all what he needs to shore up his image as universal benefactor.

Revenge in Lara

But the disregard of Venezuelan provinces is much severe than what the casual observer might think. A political vendetta has been taking place in the provinces where chavistas have found it quite easier to get rid of the opposition leadership than Chavez in Caracas where I suppose that the observing eyes of the embassies do cast a protection of sorts.

Tal Cual editorial, translated by Miguel, gives the tale of Orlando Fernandez, the ex-governor of the next door state Lara. He has had to leave the country as his personal safety was at stake. It is to be noted that OFM (as he was called) was a main supporter of Chavez, and even abandoned a seat that he could have easily retained to let Luis Reyes Reyes, a coup monger of 1992, come into office at the request of Chavez. But Reyes Reyes revealed himself is a perfect nonentity, going as far as imitating Chavez tics in his sycophancy. He got reelected only thanks to the good performance of Barquisimeto mayor, with whom he actually has had a few problems, and to the popularity of Chavez in Lara. As Chavez revealed himself to be an autocrat wanna-be OFM had some misgivings. OFM might have a lot of defects but one quality he has is to be a democrat and a reasonable competent administrator, with, by Venezuelan standards, an ability to deal with the other side even if his rather open talk made him run into many problems. In other words, a free thinker and that is a sin that cannot be forgiven within chavismo.

The amazing thing is that even though OFM barely got 18% in the last election (see my analysis of Lara October results) that was too much for Reyes Reyes et al. who just cannot stand to be confronted to their mediocrity, a task that OFM delighted in doing through his weekly TV show (he used to be a radio personality). Reyes Reyes now feels that he can do as he pleases. With the complicity of Velazquez Alvaray who is now in charge of the judicial system organization (akin as to put the fox in charge of the hen house) Reyes Reyes is fast transforming Lara in the prototype of what is in store for us: the fascist provincial state and its Kommissar. The only question left is how long will Barquisimeto mayor, Henri Falcon, last. After all he is guilty on all counts: semi efficient, semi responsible, semi dedicated to the well being of its electors, semi free thinker. Right now Falcon is too popular, so perhaps they will get rid of him by forcing him to go the National Assembly in December? But mark my words, Falcon will not be the next Lara governor as long as Chavez and Reyes hold the upper hand.

Meanwhile, they all happily remove any trace of influence that Orlando Medina might have had left in Lara, going to all the dirty tricks of the book. And since it is not in Caracas, who cares!

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