Hugo Chavez has had a bad week. Everywhere he went, he found protests, except this time they were all protests by his supporters, not by opposition groups. And much like when the opposition held protests against him, Chavez showed his intolerance towards dissent, telling them to shut up in the name of the revolution and respect for him.
As farmers posted themselves all week in front of the Presidential Palace in protest, Chavez went around the country only to find the same, more protests. In Zulia, it was people asking for homes. The protetsers held placards asking to talk to him. But all they found was the President‘s ire. He told them the “leader” was talking and asked them to shut up. The scene occurred twice more during the week. Once he threatened to leave if people kept protesting. During the other, students protested and Chavez told them, once more, to shut up or he would simply leave.
Meanwhile, in the pro-Chavez area of Catia, in the West of Caracas, public transportation stopped for a full day, as drivers protested the death of another driver by criminals. As the President of the National Assembly accused the CIA of generating the protests, the head of the Catia public transportation union, said he did not know anyone from the CIA and challenged the President of the Assembly to even walk in Catia without bodyguards, guaranteeing that he would be robbed.
The problem is that Chavez promised too much but has delivered little. Direct handputs only go so far. At the same time he has managed to give the impression that none of the problems are his fault, but rather that of his collaborators. Thus, people are simply trying to get close to him to ask for what he promised, but nobody seems to be able to deliver. There is simply no accountability.
In some sense, Chavez’ own attempt to control every Government institution and eliminate the rule of law is working against him. There is little follow up to all of the plans and projects that the President announces and unless he asks what happened, nobody checks the progress of the new projects he announces daily. Chavez’s style is to go around the country announcing plans, programs and projects. Curiously, he seldom goes to inaugurate plants, facilities or new building or roads, which is what President’s have always done in Venezuela on election years. There is apparently very little that has been completed.
A case in point has been the sugar plant in Chavez’ own hometown in Barinas state. This project is a showcase of the inability of the Government to do anything as well as the unchecked corruption at all levels which simply blocks anything from getting done and the fact that there are no control mechanisms that work.
The sugar plant is emblematic of how money is being stolen hand over fist. This project was supposed to be the showcase of the military establishment working for the people. The President and the Comptroller have known about the corruption in it for over a year and half, but little was done. Only the publication in a pro-Chávez newspaper of the case in January has opened that can of worms, which has shown a mafia-like organization on the part of the military to simply steal most of the money assigned to the project. Meanwhile, the Minister of Agriculture admitted in his testimony that he had covered up the corruption in the case because elections were coming up. He is still Minister despite admitting to this and neither Chavez, nor the Comptroller nor the Prosecutor General have opened their mouths in the face of what is simply a cover up, which is a flagrant violation of the anti-corruption law.
Remarkably, the corruption charges being investigated talk about some Bs. 3 billion (US$ 1.4 million missing), but the scale of the graft is surely orders of magnitudes higher. So far, the Government has spent Bs. 596 billion or US$ 277 million at the current exchange rate in the project. Last week, the National Assembly approved an additional Bs. 216 billion more (US$ 100 million) because the project is out of money. But today El Nacional has picture of what has been built so far and US$ 277 million has been used only on cleaning the land and putting a skimpy steel structure in place, since it is being built on Government land and thus no money was spent on real state. And they used soldiers to clean the land, so it seems to me that the money, some US$ 277 million simply evaporated into the pockets of the military officers in charge of the project. But nobody seems to point this out, the investigation is for less than 0.5% of the total funds allocated, while the pictures below shows a structure that woudl cost less than 10% of the total in the worst case. That is why people call this the robolucion.
This may also explain why it is that despite record oil prices and revenues for the country, the Chavez Government has so little to show for it. It has always amazed me how, despite corruption and inefficiency, there was so little evidence of the Government doing anything. in terms of public works, creating infrastructure and generating employment.
Everywhere one looks it is the same, no accountability, no supervision, no follow up. The National Assembly does very little these days in terms of supervision. The Government currently holds US$ 18 billion in the two discretionary funds, the Bandes and the Fonden, which only report to Chavez and nobody knows how the money is used, spent or even if it still there. They report to nobody, it is the President’s petty cash fund.
PDVSA is very much the same. One of Chávez’ themes while campaigning for President in 1998, was the lack of transparency at the Government’s oil industry. All plans then had to be approved by the National Assembly, the financial statements of the company were published yearly, a “shareholder’s meeting” was held every year at the end of which the financials would be distributed to the press. Now, we have financials which are delayed for years (the 2003 was handed in October 2005 and the 2004 financials were promised for February, but time is running out). But today, the Minister of Energy says they will no longer file with the SEC after this report, which will close the only window we have into what is happening to the main industry of the country. In any case, these audited financials only tell us numbers, which is the only thing the auditors can check, and we can’t still confirm how much oil the country produces.
Meanwhile, PDVSA is signing contracts right and left without Assembly approval. It also forced the service agreements on thirty two oil projects, which had been approved by the old Congress, but the new contracts and commitments and costs to the country are unknown today, almost sixty days after the conversion. So much for increased transparency. Does Venezuela really make more money now under the partnerships? How much will PDVSA have to contribute to become a partner in these companies? Where will this money come from? Will foreign oil companies have or not rights over the reserves of each oil field? None of this is known or has been approved by the National Assembly or has been explained to the Venezuelan people. So much for any transparency.
The same with the harebrained gas pipeline to the South. Simple estimates based on the volumes the Government claims it will sell with this pipeline show that it will require from three to four times the available free gas reserves of the country. But in any case, at the cost of the pipeline, without talking about the environmental problems, gas would have to go up a factor of four or five in order to make the pipeline profitable. But nobody knows the details, nor do they appear ready to give them to us. Or to anyone in the country, the Brazilians and Argentineans seem t know more than us.
That is why Chavez is trying to bring the US into the electoral debate. He needs external factors to explain away his incompetence to choose collaborators and execute projects. To distract the attention from these. But the common Venezuelan could care less. They will protest more and more and they will see Chavez’ intolerance day after the day. And the more protests there are, the less he will go out in public for fear of confrontation with his own supporters.
That is why the opposition has a great chance if it can get a candidate and unite behind it, because a good candidate will bring all of these issues to the forefront and Chavez will not be able to avoid talking about them.