Monday, September 16, 2013

Caracas lights

Caracas, Venezuela (Dec 17, 2004)

--- Originally published on December 17, 2004 ---

The Christmas lights of Caracas slums, seen from the terrace of Mayli’s uncle house, as they follow the contours of the mountains around the city. We spent our last night in Caracas at an exquisite family dinner, eating hallacas and other delicacies. Hallacas is the typical Christmas-time dish in Venezuela. A sort of corn tortilla filled with meat and vegetable (a kind of “stuffed polenta”, the specific ingredients vary for different areas of Venezuela) wrapped in banana leaves. If you go to Venezuela at Christmas time you cannot avoid eating hallacas, as everybody prepares them according to an almost-secret recipe which is a family heirloom.

The main ingredient of hallacas is of course the corn flour, which is something very common in Venezuela. During the Christmas holiday of two years ago, anti-government demonstrations took the form of a two-months-long lockout of Venezuelan business, including the oil refinery business. To prevent a food scarcity due to the disruption of the private transportation involved in the lockout, the government started a system of basic goods distribution (with the help of the army) at subsidized price. These “mercals” become so popular among the lower classes (strongly supporters of the government) that have been maintained even after the defeat of the lockout, and the normalization of the situation. One of the typical items sold at the mercals is the corn flour for hallacas. As an effect of the prize subsidies, the private companies producing the flour had to lower their production costs, allegedly (I am not a corn flour expert to judge) resulting in a lower quality flour. This is apparently of great concern, in these days, for Caracas higher classes, that complain they have to buy re-imported corn flour (from Puerto Rico) to have the same quality as before.

This is quite typical of the venezuelan opposition: to find every day a new petty reason to complain against the government, and losing sight of the overall situation in their own country. One can dispute that the mercals are a good or bad initiative for venezuelan society (they guarantee the accessibility of basic goods for the large impoverished majority of venezuelan population, but at the same time they introduce unfair competition to the private business), but for sure are a very minor inconvenience for the social classes that often import luxury items paying in hard currency. Nobody seems to note that these same mercals (together with other social initiatives like literacy campaigns, “misiones” to provide basic health care in the lower-classes barrios) are having a much broader effect on venezuelan society that just changing the quality of the corn flour. For the first time since the oil boom in the ‘70s, the lower classes of Venezuela are seeing a government that is actually acting to reduce the effects of their impoverishment (again, one can dispute that these measures are the most effective, but still this is the perception of the people for which these initiatives are carried on). This means that for every new mercal, the government is increasing its popularity in the lower classes, which is more and more motivated to vote at the next election. Consider that the lower classes make up almost 80% of the total population, and it is easy to predict how slimmer and slimmer are getting the chances of the opposition to regain the lost power (at least in a democratic way; the opposition did try and narrowly failed a coup in April 2002).

To all the above, you should also add a small but significant detail. All the “misiones” for basic literacy and health care are managed according to plans inspired by international organizations (like the UN), but developed in Cuba, with the help of cuban doctors and teachers. This is not something entirely new. Cuba has a great expertise in providing health care and basic education in remote and impoverished areas, and has successfully done it in many parts of the world (including Cuba itself, that has a very high education rate and expectancy of life despite decades of US-led economic embargo). What is new is the scale in which these initiatives are carried-on in Venezuela (more than one million people involved in the literacy program only), thanks to the high revenues from the venezuelan oil, now at an historic maximum. People learn by example, and is sensible to think that the communities involved in the misiones will be ideologically affected by the contact with cuban volunteers that for a very low salary are significantly improving their life.

All this is something the venezuelan opposition seems to ignore, too involved in petty arguments with the government for issues like the quality of the corn flour, to realize the political shift toward the left that their country is living, and the increasing political awareness of the traditionally disenfranchised lower classes.


--- Updates (September 16, 2013) ---

After a decade of "Misiones" one can start looking at their effects on the overall venezuelan society, and check if they have accomplished their stated goals, and at what cost. We can have a quick look at the three misiones cited above, the Mision Robinson (basic literacy), the Mision Barrio Adentro (basic health care) and the Mision Mercal (basic food security). If you trust the numbers provided by the government, all these misiones have been a resounding success. Over 1,500,000 venezuelan have received basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills, essentially zeroing the rate of illiteracy in the country. In a decade, infant mortality rate fell from 21.3/1,000 to 13/1,000, and extreme poverty was reduced from 20.6% to 9.41%. From the point of view of the lower venezuelan classes, where extreme poverty, illiteracy and barriers to health care access were highest, the misiones have become an essential part of ordinary life, and studies (Briggs et al., 2009) show that their influence was crucial in determining the ongoing support of the venezuelan electorate for the "bolivarian" government.

From the point of view of the middle class, however, the results have been very different. Despite one of the goals of the Mision Mercal was the development of food sovereignty, the government subsidies, together with the recourse to price control (often below cost), have indeed destroyed the local industry and agriculture. This has led to severe and recurrent shortages of basic food staples, including Harina Pan which is now entirely produced and imported from Colombia. While this is nothing new for the venezuelan in the lower economic brackets, this has resulted in a considerable degradation of the quality of life for venezuelan middle classes, that were used to economic standards comparable to the US middle class. Similarly, the influx of resources towards the misiones had not been matched with efforts aimed to preserve the services that are crucial to the development of Venezuela as a modern industrialized society: infrastructure (which is crumbling), hospitals (suffering the same shortages as always) and universities (see my previous post for an example).

Even in 2004, the main criticism against the misiones was that they were unsustainable populistic measures. This has been proven true, as all the gains obtained by these initiative are conditioned to a large influx of funding derived from Venezuelan oil revenues. The misiones have been heavily and successfully used as an electoral tool but, were the funding be discontinued due to a sudden depression of the oil revenues, they would leave behind a country which is even less equipped than before to deal with the enormous problems that the misiones are temporarily addressing. While it is unlikely that the international price of the oil barrel will dramatically decrease, the oil revenues of Venezuela have already being reducing due to decreased oil production which is the consequence of, guess what, lack of proper maintenance of the extraction equipment.

PS: I added the strike through in the text above because 10 years later I now realize the language I used was unfairly harsh. It is wrong for me to describe as "petty" the complains venezuelan had (and have) about shortages, since I am not the one subjected to them. Even knowing that one needs to look at the venezuelan population as a whole, to understand the overall effects of the misiones on the country, I would still be very upset if the result of these initiative was the depression of my standard of life. Other countries (e.g. Brazil under the government of Lula) have achieved similar advances in regard of literacy, food security and health care than Venezuela, without destroying their middle class in the process, and preserving the basic civil liberties that are now too often violated on the altar of the "ideological purity" of the bolivarian government.

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