10/10/2012 3 comentarios
Hugo Chávez’s resounding election victory in Venezuelan presidential election on Sunday set me at war with myself. My thinking self isn’t at all surprised by what happened: it’s easy to account for the charismatic president of a petrostate being re-elected in middle of an oil boom. But my feeling self is crushed. My country has squandered its last best hope to stop its descent into all-out personalism. More than a president, Venezuela has something like an elected monarch, who rules with absolute authority, no checks+balances. (Francisco Toro – NYT – 09/10/2012)
The argument about how difficult it is to dislodge a populist leader when oil prices are in the triple digits is straightforward. Petrostates aren’t like normal countries, where governments depend on people and the companies they tax to ensure a reasonable funding stream. Instead, they depend on the black goo they pump out of the ground, and in turn the people and companies depend on them. The basic balance of power between the state and the individual is upended. The related political economy is simple: black goo goes out of the country in tankers, and finished goods come in in container ships. Since the black goo belongs to the state, so do imported goods. And when the state controls the distribution of finished goods in an economy, it becomes hyper-empowered; it gets to control many levers that are easy enough to turn into votes. That huge amounts of money are squandered, wasted, stolen in the process is neither here nor there: sums involved are astronomical, certainly great enough to afford both runaway populism and hardcore graft. Over the last few months, as I’ve hoped against hope that a brilliant opposition campaign could somehow short-circuit this bedeviled logic, one Chavista program kept bringing me back to a dour realization it just wasn’t likely. Program, called “My well-equipped home,” essentially is an oil-for-appliances deal signed with China under which over 1.3 million Haier brand appliances, stoves, washers and dryers, flat-screen TVs, were distributed to government supporters at discounted prices. Chávez’s face is, as you’d expect, stenciled right into program’s logo.
It was a brilliant gambit, cynical and effective. Imagine, for a second, your life without a washing machine. Then imagine how thoroughly it would be transformed if you suddenly got one. And now multiply that by 1.3 million households, and you begin to see the extreme, possibly insurmountable structural advantage an incumbent has in a re-election race in a petrostate. It may be that such populism is immune to challenge at the ballot box, at least when energy prices are high. When Chávez was first elected, in 1998, oil prices were hovering around $10 per barrel; that crippled the ability of old system to turn oil into votes. Today, a barrel of oil sells for more than $100. To the average Venezuelan voter, access to the basics of a decent life means access to his or her little parcel of the petrostate pie, and supporting Chávez is the smart way to do that. That this ends up giving the incumbent carte blanche to pursue policies are wasteful, corrupt, authoritarian, sporadically downright criminal doesn’t necessarily register. Abstractions of constitutional government are distant indeed when you feel you owe the guy in power everything makes your life bearable.