Coffee and cake: A luxury in Venezuela

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

A few days ago, I came upon a radio reportage about Venezuela, in which a local lady was being interviewed about how she was going about her daily life, what with the ongoing crisis in the country. She was in a café, where she was having a cup of coffee and a slice of cake – and that slice for her was luxury. How come? – asked the reporter. To which she replied that previously she used to come here regularly, and she would have, in addition to coffee, biscuits and some pastries, and in the company of friends. Now mostly she came alone, that too infrequently, and would only have a cup of coffee. But today was her birthday, she said, and that’s why she allowed herself this little indulgence which was nevertheless under the present circumstances a luxury.

Like her and friends, she explained, the working class to which they belonged wereliving under severe penury. Supplies were scarce and expensive, even unaffordable to many. Shop and supermarket shelves were practically empty, people were standing in queues impatiently waiting for their turn to fill their containers, long lines waited at petrol stations, power supply was irregular, hospitals were battling to treat and save people with meagre resources – and all this was taking place in the very heart of the country, its capital Caracas. But elsewhere around the country the situation was pretty much the same.

The rich may have money to splash in expensive restaurants, she added, but if they fall sick even with their money they wouldn’t be able to buy medicines because these were unavailable. Theyand the superrich went abroad for treatment.

The supreme irony is that this is happening in a country which apparently at one time was home to the largest oil reserves in the world. It now faces a ‘devastating humanitarian crisis, with severe shortages of basic goods, such as food and medical supplies. In 2017, Venezuelans lost an average of 24 body weight. Nine out of ten live in poverty. Roughly one in ten have fled the country’.

Many expert articles are available online analyzing the phenomenon of the rise (boom due to discovery and exploitation of petrol) and fall (bust due to political mismanagement of this ‘resource wealth’that petrol represents) of Venezuela as a ‘petrostate’ – which has led to its descent into economic and political chaos that we are currently witnessing, citing it as a ‘cautionary tale of the dangerous influence that resource wealth can have on developing countries’, also known as the ‘oil curse’.

There are several characteristics that apply to petrostates, but those that have some relevance for us relate to how they are led into an economic crisis. The factors responsible are listed as:

  • government income is deeply reliant on the export of oil and natural gas,
  • economic and political power are highly concentrated in an elite minority, and
  • political institutions are weak and unaccountable, and corruption is widespread.

Everyone is welcome to read into these where our country fits, barring the reliance on oil and naturalgas which we don’t have.

No, we are not in the type of political, social and economic chaos prevailing in Venezuela. It’s a complicated story, but basically after an allegedly controversial election which saw President Maduro – who had succeeded his mentor Hugo Chavez – being elected for a second term at the beginning of the year the government accused opposition leader Juan Guaidó of trying to topple President Maduro. Violence has erupted through street protests, and accusations of US interference levelled.

As usual when there are such political conflicts it is the people that suffer, and we have seen that in any number of countries, dictatorships and democracies alike. It would seem that we are never far from spiraling down if we do not remain vigilant, for both government and opposition always claim to seek power to serve the people. But the oft-seen and repeated scenario is that they serve themselves as a priority and the people pine away until, exasperated and disgusted, they vote in the opposition by default to be betrayed anew.

From past experience, people are realistic enough to appreciate that no incoming government can ever fulfill all that it has promised during an electoral campaign – but the least that is expected is that some tangible and concrete steps are taken for long-lasting solutions to problems that are only too well known, and that each party puts forward a selected series of what in Australia, in view of the general elections due this weekend, they have called ‘policy offerings’.

I find the term ‘policy offering’ rather elegant and attractive, if only because ‘offering’ connotes a certain generosity of heart, which is absent from the mere and austere ‘policy’ or ‘policy decision’. These ‘policy offerings’ have been published by each contender, and the priority ones highlighted, with facts and figures and timelines included for reaching specified objectives. Perhaps for our next general elections this formula could be adopted, instead of the usual ‘manifesto’ that smacks of iron hands in iron gloves, and may have more appeal. But they must be seriously prepared well in advance, which will require solid documentation.

Of course there are several areas and issues of concern, but two that come to my mind are the recurrent problem of wastage in the public sector identified in the annual Director of Audit Report, and the cost overruns associated with big projects. I am not aware of any serious analysis having been done to understand these two phenomena that gobble up taxpayers’ money by the billions, nor of any serious proposal having been made to tackle them. Could the concept of ‘policy offering’ be a trigger to work out a definitive,concrete and long-term solution that would save our billions that could then be put to more effective use in public projects?

So that the day never comes to be that in our island too a mere slice of cake may turn out to be a luxury…The onus lies squarely on the shoulders of those who are readying to govern us.

* Published in print edition on 17 May 2019

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