Thursday, March 31, 2005

Wondering, Germany, February 2005. Posted by Hello

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Mediocrity as government policy

Miguel posted an article today on yesterday's appearance by Venezuela's two Ministers of Education (yes, they have two: one for normal and one for higher education) before the Venezuelan legislature, where they defended their proposals for reforms of the education system. The proposals have garnered sharp criticism from many sectors of Venezuelan society. One of the ministers (A. Istúriz) elaborated on a pet peeve: apparently, he believes that Venezuela has produced too many "meritocrats" in the past.

Obviously, this situation cannot be permitted to continue, so he's proposing to modify the educational system so as to stop producing them. He allegedly considers "meritocrats" to be "stateless", i.e. insufficiently loyal to Chávez's ravenous revolution; what Venezuela's government apparently needs are larger numbers of patriotic, mediocre yes-men (and yes-women, of course) who won't cause any trouble through oligarchic activities such as thinking for themselves and demanding accountability from their leaders, for instance.

Permit me some idle speculation: I presume that when Minister Istúriz submits to surgery, he chooses a meritocratic surgeon who knows what he's doing rather than a Nick Riviera without qualifications. I assume that when his car needs fixing, he seeks the help of a mechanic who has proved his mettle rather than a mediocre junkyard meddler. I assume that when he needs someone to upgrade his computer, he chooses an experienced and reliable technician rather than an unskilled party member from the boondocks.

So if he -- as I assume, though of course I have no direct proof -- chooses quality over mediocrity for issues affecting his own life, then why would he be promoting mediocrity over quality for issues affecting his country?

[ROTFL of the week: Venezuela's Attorney General, Isaias Rodriguez, has declared that the country's recent buying spree for figher aircraft, assault rifles, warships, and attack helicopters is a "message of peace". I wonder what they would have bought if they were preparing for war?]

Monday, March 28, 2005

Autumn ivy, Germany, 2004. Posted by Hello

Measurement as a tool

An article on Unionradio's website caught my eye today. Though it was nothing exceptional in itself -- simply the edited opinions of a university professor specialising in public policy who believes that the Venezuelan government's social missions are inefficient -- it struck a chord.

A few years ago, a U.S. professor held a lecture at my university. He used one phrase that has stuck in my memory ever since: "If you can measure it, you can improve it." This, too, sounds like nothing special, but describes an amazingly powerful tool in almost all areas of social interaction. In the area of public administration, institutions that measure their own performance soon start improving it. It appears to be almost inevitable. As soon as individuals can see how they're doing, they try to do better (unless there are more powerful counter-incentives, of course).

Obviously, this does not just work in companies or public organizations. It also works on the level of governments. That is what makes the democratic system so successful when it is allowed to work properly: elections can be seen as a measurement instrument that gauges an government's performance in terms of how satisfied voters are. The better a government performs and the more citizens are satisfied as a consequence, the more votes it receives -- and the greater is the likelihood that it will be allowed to continue governing.

This is why tampering with the election mechanism, as was blatantly done before last year's recall referendum in Venezuela, is more than simply a disenfranchisement of voters (or, at the very least, a dilution of their votes): it is practically a guarantee for inefficiency in government. A government that is not accountable to its voters, that is as intransparent as black ink in an inkwell, that spins information and distorts facts on a permanent basis, has no incentive to perform efficiently. Corruption and squandering of resources on an immense scale are sure to follow.

This is interesting because an intransparent government provides little concrete data for factually establishing that resources are being wasted. But in spite of this, the inefficiency cannot be hidden: the intransparency itself is circumstantial, but no less incontestable proof. As shown in the article below, a lack of measurement can lead not only to resources being wasted, but even to lives being lost as resources are invested in the wrong areas.

Questioning the efficiency of the government’s social “Missions”

Marino González, an expert in public policy and professor at Simon Bolívar University, believes that the results of the government’s “Mission” programmes do not fulfil expectations because they follow political aims rather than [social] objectives such as helping citizens solve their problems.

“We are confusing measures with goals. The strategy of the Missions has much more to do with elements of an ideological or political nature than with services directed towards the communities. Barrio Adentro, for instance, has not been providing any information on its activities since January 2004. The data they do have only indicates the number of persons attended to, but does not provide any information on the types of problems solved”, said González.

One instance of the inefficiency of the policies the government is applying in the area of health, according to González, are the recent mortality rates as presented by the Ministry of Health.

“In 2003, the infant mortality rate increased in two consecutive years from 18.2 to 18.5, which is primarily a consequence of the increase of easily preventable illnesses such as lung disease, the incidence of which increased by 40 percent, and digestive disorders such as diarrhea, which increased by more than 30 percent,” he explained.

González believes that the mortality rates “confirm that in Venezuela, malnutrition is a public health problem that should be a focus of public policy, and in terms of mother-child care, the state does not dispose of any adequate services for avoiding the deaths.”

“President Chávez’s government is working towards building and extending an immense, inefficient state structure that consumes many resources and that is completely removed from the real problems of the citizens; military, political, and strategic objectives take precedence over what is happening to citizens on the street”, added the public policy expert.

He believes that it is because of this strategy that the government “cannot hide a large number of failures in companies, extending from electricity generation to any other type of production”.

In González’s opinion, Venezuelans should be worried about the perspectives offered by a country with large income on the one hand, but disproportionate expenses on the other hand. These resources, which should be directed towards areas such as health, education, social security – which is what gives us quality of life – are not being controlled or monitored.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Fireworks in Caracas, December 2004. Posted by Hello

History repeating?

I'm back after a somewhat prolonged absence -- apologies to my readers! As so often happens, I was busy with events in my... other? real? physical? wetware? life. But things seem to have quietened down a bit now on that front, and I'm hoping to post more regularly in the future.

An interesting observation about the current developments in Venezuela is how often one has the impression that a low point has been reached, and that things should now begin to improve -- only to be shown time and time again how the Chávez regime manages to outdo itself once again, plumbing new depths every few months.

Events this past week have continued that trend. Two young soldiers were burnt while being held in a military confinement cell. They died of their injuries yesterday, after their conditions had reportedly started improving. It is hard to believe that this was an accident. There are presumably not that many flammable substances in a prison cell (the mattresses?), nor that many ways of lighting them (or are Venezuelan military prisoners issued with matches and petrol?). And incidents of this type are, as far as I know, not common in other parts of the world.

The agony of being caught with a fire in a confined space, with no way to escape, must be indescribable. What makes it even more terrifying, not to mention suspicious, is that this was not the first time that something like this happened. Almost exactly a year ago, on 30 March 2004, a similar incident occurred at Fuerte Mara, a military base in Zulia state. Eight soldiers, who had reportedly signed in favour of the referendum to revoke president Chávez and who were being held in a confinement cell, got burned. Two of the soldiers died, one after his condition had already been improving and he had stated to the media that the fire had originated outside the holding cell.

After the first fire, the authorities promised a complete investigation, the results of which were inconclusive, except that an army general (General Usón) was condemned to five and a half years in prison for daring to state on TV his belief that the fire could have been caused by flamethrowers. Needless to say, the authorities have again promised a complete and full investigation into the more recent burning. Odds are that they will again present no concrete findings, but will use the investigation to target anyone who dares disagree with them.

Finally, even if we assume that both of the burning incidents were accidental, would it then not behoove the government authorities to undertake steps that would prevent such a thing happening again? Of course it would. Like so many other examples, these events show that the Venezuelan government is characterised above all by an intransparent mix of criminal negligence and just plain criminality.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Church in Maracaibo, Venezuela, January 2005. Posted by Hello

Chávez and the church

A German-language, catholic newspaper, Die Tagespost, has published an article on President Chávez's Venezuela and the president's relationship with the catholic church. This is a relationship increasingly fraught with difficulty, as the article shows. There is a significant potential for conflict here because the catholic church still exerts a strong influence in Venezuela, like in most Latin American countries (even though secularisation is increasing, as is the influence of the so-called evangelical churches).

Open hatred against anything spiritual
In Venezuela, a severe conflict between the church and the state is brewing – the process of cubanisation under Hugo Chávez continues
By Jürgen Liminski

As the conversation moves to the topic of politics, the bishop takes his cellular phone out of his pocket, turns it off and removes the battery. Now he can be sure that he can’t be overheard. Since the meetings between Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez and the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro over the past few years, he says he can sense the government in Caracas toughening its stance vis-à-vis the church. During the past year, the government has singled out the bishops for attacks and has been trying to incite the people against the shepherds. In public speeches, Chávez reviles the church for being corrupt and the bishops for being “pigs”, according to the cleric, and is trying to set up his own national church. He has not managed to do so yet because the people have no faith in such initiatives. But in individual cases, he has managed to “buy” some priests. Overall, there’s a climate of intimidation. Some bishops can’t travel on their own anymore, and certainly not at night.

Little is known about all this in Rome, and nothing in Europe. Here, two main aspects are known of Venezuela: It has a lot of oil and good rum. And that is enough for most politicians involved in foreign affairs. As long as elections are held some way or another, the country imports lots of goods from Europe, pays its debts and the situation appears stable overall, then only the barrel and the bottle remain in the short-term memory. A disastrous mistake. A crisis is brewing in Venezuela that will probably have negative effects on European markets as well at some point in time.

The new, old president Hugo Chávez has a masterplan. He emulates his idol, Fidel Castro, and wants to turn the country into a communist dictatorship extending across the entire region, i.e. including Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, in the name of liberation – in Latin America, this is always carried out in the name of the historical hero of independence, Simón Bolívar. The plan is to extend his vision across the entire subcontinent via the new leftist governments in Brazil and Argentina. That may seem presumptuous. But Chávez has money, lots of money. In the past year alone, Venezuela exported oil worth 24 billion dollars to North America; daily production is equivalent to three million barrels – almost as much as Saudi Arabia’s. The state-owned oil company Citgo disposes over 14,000 petrol stations in the United States and is the second-biggest supplier there. This also explains in part Washington’s patience with the ruler in Venezuela, who buys his people and is giving an international rebirth to socialism.

Revolution according to the “proven” Cuban pattern

The pattern for the “Bolivarian Revolution” is also well-known. Chávez knows it from his brother, who gave him extra lessons in Marxism and is now the ambassador in Cuba. First, you ensure the population’s basic needs are met – food, health, education – then you restrict the liberties and finally you export the revolution from the basis of a solid dictatorship. This is how it’s happening: Chávez is buying his people with interest-free credits for cars, furniture, consumer goods. A taxi driver, for instance, is satisfied with the Chávez government. It has financed his car. The street sweeper is also satisfied: he is picked up in the morning, given a uniform, taken to his place of work and brought back home in the evening. He gets eighty dollars a month, enough to live on, because electricity and water are free of charge and he has food to eat during the day. The fact that he and many other Venezuelans are not engaged in any investment activities and that the economy is dependent on oil revenues, i.e. that the country is hardly producing, but instead only consuming and thereby not creating any wealth, is not apparent to him. But he does see that Chávez has removed the old, corrupt clique from the leadership of the nation. The fact that Chávez has installed himself with a different clique does not bother him.

Cuban experts, above all medical personnel, distribute medicines in first-aid stations and are now also beginning to indoctrinate people engaged in education; more than a thousand Venezuelan teachers have already completed courses in Cuba. The next step could be strangling or confiscating the catholic schools. TV and radio are mostly synchronized with the regime. The only opposition comes from parts of the press and the catholic church. Its credibility is a thorn in the eye of the regime. Leading bishops are electronically bugged and shadowed. Anonymous threats and open insults are no longer a rarity either. Officials stoke open hatred against anything spiritual. Up to now, only the Adenauer Foundation and the international aid organization “Kirche in Not” (Church in Need) have reacted to the Cubanisation and stealthily increasing dictatorship in Venezuela. The foreign policy establishment in Brussels, Berlin, Rome, Paris, and London, on the other hand, is sleeping the sleep of the just. It is like at the times of the “Speckpater” (Bacon Priest): There’s a church in need and “Church in Need” sees it and goes there.

A dangerous mix of oil, drugs, and terrorism

The revolution is being exported via the existing guerilla infrastructure in Colombia. When the Colombian government, which is supported by the United States in its war on terrorists and the drug mafia, recently had a guerilla leader kidnapped in Venezuela, the result was a diplomatic crisis. It became known that Venezuela serves as a safe haven for narco-terrorists, from where they plan and execute operations. Washington is restraining itself – up to now. But the connection between petrodollars, drugs, terror, and ideology has attracted its attention. It contains a potentially explosive effect on the oil markets, and on the oil price. This makes caution a necessity. But looking away is not a solution. And least of all an appeasement policy such as that practiced by Spain regarding Cuba.

Europe, and Germany especially, holds great prestige in Latin America. This should be thrown in the balance to contain Chávez, the revolutionary -- before it’s too late and the laments about the oil price and the rebirth of socialism from this corner of the world again drown out everything else.