Slum Lord by Alvaro Vargas Llosa

January 23, 2008

As we learn today that “hard core” Chavistas are outnumbered for the first time by “hard core” opposition to Chavismo for the first time in nine years (25% to 22%) and that Chavez overall approval rating has fallen to 35%, it is perhaps appropriate to reproduce this article by Alvaro Vargas Llosa. Somebody should tell Chavez: “It’s the economy, stupid”

Slum Lord by Alvaro Vargas Llosa in The New Republic

CARACAS, Venezuela–After an extensive visit to the
slums of this capital, I am convinced that Venezuelan President Hugo
Chavez lost the recent referendum that would have extended the time he
could remain in office not because his countrymen value democracy so
much, but because his social programs are crumbling. In the barrios of
Petare, Catia, Baruta and other places, the nationalist/populist model
is collapsing.

Through a network of
“missions,” the government has been using oil revenue to provide food,
housing, cars, education and health care for millions of Venezuelans.
In theory, Venezuelans are enjoying the “social justice” denied to them
during decades of rule by the country’s elites. In real life, the
missions are plagued with corruption and inefficiency, and are severely
hampered by the insecurity and the shortages that have become the
hallmark of Venezuelan society.

The Barrio
Adentro mission was originally run by about 30,000 Cuban doctors and
medics. Many of those health centers are now closed; the rest are
seriously understaffed. “The Cubans are leaving,” explains Felix, a
social worker from Baruta, “because they don’t get paid, because they
are the victims of rampant crime or simply because they have moved
on–they only offered to serve in Venezuela as an excuse to get out of
Cuba.” In some cases, the government never provided the funds needed to
finish the construction of clinics. In Baruta, a desolate construction
site reminds the local neighborhood that there is, as Felix puts it, “a
gulf separating reality from speeches.” I was not surprised to learn
that, according to Andres Bello University, 60 percent of the Barrio
Adentro health centers are not functioning.

The
Mercal mission, a series of supermarkets in which the poor can
theoretically acquire food at extremely low prices, is not faring any
better. Because of price controls, essential products are missing from
the shelves. People stand in line for hours to buy food or milk. In
some cases, as I was told in Petare, producers have been put off by
price controls; in others, the people who manage the supermarkets sell
essential products under the table to those able to pay more.

The
soup kitchens, which supposedly have to serve free meals to 150
Venezuelans in each neighborhood every day, are also falling victim to
the chronic shortages. Jesus, a Chavez supporter who manages a soup
kitchen in Barrio Union Petare, told me that he would not be serving
his neighbors until next week, when he expects to get new provisions.
The result? “The squalid ones,” he concluded, using the term with which
Chavez refers to his critics, “are now a majority around here.”

Corruption
has eroded the prestige of the Habitat mission through which the
government supposedly dishes out checks to poor Venezuelans so they can
buy a house. It is not unusual for an aspiring homeowner to find out
that a mystery person has cashed the check using his or her name. “The
same people who hand out the checks cash them for the benefit of their
relatives,” explains Eladio, who told me a nephew recently suffered
such an experience.

The decision to make cars available to millions
of Venezuelans has meant that Caracas is now a traffic inferno. “The
money I spend on gas in one day in the United States will allow me to
drive for an entire month down here,” says Virginia, a television
producer who goes back and forth between Caracas and New York, and
spends a good part of her day when in Caracas driving from one place to
another. “What use is it for millions of people to have cars if they
are wasting much of their lives paralyzed in traffic jams?”

The
Sucre mission, which helps adults complete their secondary education,
is also creating problems. The beneficiaries tend to go to
government-controlled universities that require few qualifications.
Therefore, numerous professions are overcrowded and Venezuelans
complain of not being able to get a job despite their credentials.
Together with a 30 percent annual rate of inflation, the closing down
of thousands of businesses because of socialist regulations, land
confiscations and nationalizations have crippled the country’s
productive capacity–and therefore the demand for workers.

“The
government led Venezuelans to believe that they could become a consumer
society without producing anything,” says Luis Ugalde, the president of
Andres Bello University, “and the results are now speaking for
themselves.”

When I asked Beatriz, a social
worker who spends her time in Catia, to talk to me about Chavez’s
missions, she responded, “One cannot speak about that which doesn’t
exist.” That strikes me as an appropriate way to sum up Venezuela’s
nationalist/populist model.

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