Venezuela: a Crisis of Incompetence

How corrupt does a government have to be before it ceases to govern at all? Venezuela, once a strong economy with promising oil reserves and renewable energy programs, has now declined to the point where even such basic goods as food and toiletries have become commodities. Though Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s increasingly unpopular president, is quick to blame these shortages on American sabotage, almost all of the economic drag is caused by his own government’s rampant corruption. In this Socialist nation where almost all of the economy is state-controlled, mismanagement by government officials has been devastating. Some policies drop prices and taxes to the extent of destroying independent businesses, while the government throws away money on such pointless gestures as Formula-1 racecars and tailor-made Hollywood movies (the government spends an average of $45 million/year on its mediocre racecar driver, and sent another $18 million to Danny Glover in 2009 for a movie that still has not been made). The Venezuelan government is not coherent enough to be called a gang, but its corruption and inefficiency are undoubtably criminal.
Often the line between corruption and incompetence is blurred; while some government officials have grown rich by finding a way to exploit Venezuelan citizens, certain actions have no discernable purpose, even for the government’s interests. For example, in 2015, President Maduro announced a “crackdown” on crime which would hope to lower the outrageous 98% criminal impunity rate. However, that year, the marked increase in police brutality showed no signs of lessening the problem. The only real change was 245 civilian fatalities at the hands of police officers in which at least 20 cases were not provoked by the “criminal”, and 14,000 arrests of which only 100 led to criminal charges. One case even claims that a 16-year-old boy was killed in his bed by the police. Furthermore, these abuses were not even targeted at Maduro’s political opponents: most of the raids were concentrated in the poor neighborhoods of Caracas, where Maduro’s socialist policies still retain some support. Perhaps this police overreach was a sincere attempt to reduce crime, which simply failed. Perhaps OLP officers were simply settling old scores. At this point, it is difficult to know.
If this show of force was intended to boost Maduro’s popularity, it has clearly failed in that regard as well. Under Maduro’s presidency, starting in 2013, Venezuela’s poverty rate has risen from around 50% to over 70%. His Chavista programs are designed to reduce inequality in Venezuela: instead, it has brought catastrophe to almost everyone besides a few lucky government officials. All over the country, citizens are forced to wait in lines for hours at supermarkets, where food runs out before most people are fed. Countless people with treatable illnesses have died, simply because the medicines they need are almost impossible to find within the country. As mentioned above, even toilet paper is a commodity. When one business finally managed to acquire supplies for its employee bathrooms, they were quickly stolen, likely to be sold on the black market. The once-efficient hydroelectric power system, which is the biggest source in Venezuela, has been rendered almost useless by droughts and disrepair. Venezuela is commonly hit by country-wide blackouts. Not even the cities have reliable power. Again, this is not likely a deliberate sabotage by government officials, but is rather the aggregate result of deep-seated and pervasive corruption at most levels of control. Money often simply vanishes from the system, but it does not go to the President or his cronies. Rather, it goes to all levels of government employees who, like other Venezuelans
Deservingly or not, Maduro is the popular scapegoat. By October 2016, the first of three steps to impeach the president collected enough votes to succeed. Since then, the National Electoral Congress, likely in Maduro’s pocket, has slowed the proceedings. The Economist’s “World in Numbers” Report considers it likely that the impeachment process will either succeed before 2018 or be replaced by violent uprising. Maduro is not likely to go down easily. He has been known to use force against peaceful protesters: in 2014, 43 protesters were killed, while the protest organizer was sentenced to 14 years of prison.
There are a few areas where government corruption is both obvious and devastating. For example, the military has assumed control of the public food market at the bequest of President Maduro. It is now common to find soldiers guarding black market food vendors, or even selling the food themselves. According to one person, food is now “a better business than drugs” in Venezuela. Because it can take an entire day to get food at a normal supermarket, Venezuelans are often forced to go to the black market to buy the same food at a huge markup. The soldiers who have carved this niche for themselves have profited immensely. Some bypass the sales altogether, and simply keep the food to feed their own families. Overall this move has done nothing to help the Venezuelan people, and has profited a small group at the expense of others. This shows typical attributes of a gang-like group.
In a situation as dire and complex as that of present-day Venezuela, it is often difficult to assess motives or place blame on certain individuals above others. Certainly there is a failure of leadership, and corruption on many levels, but it seems an oversimplification to label the government as either gang-like or state-like. While many officials clearly act in self-interest, some programs indicate at least a flawed attempt to restore order and prosperity to the country. No matter how we judge the government, it is certain that this situation cannot remain as it is for long.

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