Apr 01/06 - On corruption in revolutionary times: it's deja vu all over again
(Image courtesy of The Economist)
PMBComment: once upon a time, and not that long ago, I read that corruption was one of the things the Bolivarian revolution was going to vanquish; together with poverty, crime, unemployment, inefficiency, homelessness, street urchins and cronyism. That is why I am “stunned” (chuckle) by what the Economist delivers to it’s many readers – which includes me, and some MUCH MUCH MORE gullible than I (i.e. London’s “red’” and obnoxious Mayor Livingston and a surprisingly large number of lobotomized – or plain clueless - Labour MPs that recently formed a Hugo Chávez fan club - why did they wait so long?).
I guess the disappointment must come from the fact that some did not read the fine print which reads: Warning to the public: none of the above saintly goals can be achieved if oil prices exceed $35, because the temptation to steal might be too great to beat. If this occurs, consult your swiss banker and blame the distraction on a “
Note: Chavez’s old and recently minted apologists are in for a big surprise. Hint: it is a report, from a very relevant, and respected body of a regional entity, about wrongs on humans of all sorts, and the key number will be a 4. Stay tuned, coming into your inboxes by mid April.
Note 2: so you are not confused, I am NOT talking about this MUST SEE report from
The sickly stench of corruption
Mar 30th 2006 | CARACAS
From The Economist print edition
A campaign against sleaze raises more questions than answers
AS A supporter of Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez, in the country's National Assembly, Luis Velásquez Alvaray was the author of a law to pad the supreme court with a built-in government majority—and give himself a seat on it. He is now embroiled in an epic exchange of corruption claims that go to the heart of the Chávez administration. Accused of taking kickbacks of $4m for a new judiciary building, he has retorted that drug traffickers are running military intelligence, that the brother of Jesse Chacón, the interior minister, is illegally lobbying for a bank, and that the minister is a pawn of organised crime. Such is the rot that the “Palace of Justice should be blown up”, he says.
Both Mr Velásquez and Mr Chacón deny wrongdoing and claim to have tapes incriminating the other. Mr Chacón still has the president's backing. But the allegations come as no surprise to Venezuelans on either side of their country's bitter political divide.
Mr Chávez claims moral superiority for his “socialist revolution” over “savage neo-liberal” capitalism. He was first elected in 1998 on an anti-corruption platform. In power, he has revealed a taste for designer suits and Cartier watches. He has placed several members of his family in government jobs. Such foibles apart, there is no evidence that he is personally corrupt. But he has repeatedly said that corruption and bureaucracy are his revolution's greatest foes. Eustoquio Contreras, a chavista on the parliamentary audit committee, says bluntly that if the government does not put a stop to corruption, “corruption will put a stop to the government.”
Venezuela has long been notorious for corruption. But in the past, at least the opposition held the job of auditor-general and often that of attorney-general, while the judiciary was bipartisan. Mr Chávez has grasped all the powers of state into his own hands, and eliminated all independent oversight of his government. The opposition argues that the inevitable result of this is graft on an increased scale.
Last year, Transparency International, a Berlin-based group, placed Venezuela a lowly 130th out of 159 countries in its annual survey of perceptions of corruption. It was one of a dozen countries where more than half of respondents said this had “greatly” increased. The government's response was tetchy. José Vicente Rangel, the vice-president and once an anti-corruption campaigner, claimed that the group charges countries a “tariff” for their position on the corruption table.
Under Mr Chávez, no prominent official has been jailed for embezzlement. That may now change. A small but emblematic case involves the grandly titled Ezequiel Zamora Agroindustrial Sugar Complex in Sabaneta, Mr Chávez's sleepy hometown in the state of Barinas, where his father is governor. Officially touted as “the most modern sugar mill in South America”, it is now a monument to a different kind of sweetener: the $1.5m in bribes, kickbacks and commissions that have delayed its opening were exposed in parliamentary hearings in February (after a newspaper broke the story).
Mr Chávez, a former army officer, presides over a regime which is as much military as civilian. An engineering regiment was told to build the sugar complex. It contracted out some of the work and charged a 10% commission on all contracts, many of which went to companies belonging to friends and relatives of the regiment's officers. Many of these companies did no work at all. The regiment's commander paid for a $25,000 pick-up truck for his brother with a cheque from the mill.
The project's director, Antonio Albarrán, told parliament that although he had known about the kickbacks since early 2004, he kept quiet because “we were in the middle of campaigning” (to defeat a recall referendum against the president). By the end of 2004, Mr Chávez had been told, but chose to maintain the policy of secrecy, opting to deal with it as a matter of military discipline. He also promoted Mr Albarrán, making him agriculture minister in January 2005. Several suspects are under arrest, but Mr Albarrán, though no longer a minister, is not.
In half a dozen previous cases under the Chávez government, military officers have been accused by parliamentary committees, the auditor-general and others of embezzlement or misuse of public funds totalling hundreds of millions of dollars. None has yet been charged. Several still hold government jobs.
Civilians have not been immune to temptation. Mr Contreras cites half a dozen cases where the government's agricultural-development fund gave cheap credits to fake co-operatives, or which covered much more farm land than the village in question possessed.
Does the sugar-mill case presage a serious crackdown? Opponents note that a presidential election is due in December. At issue will be whether or not a massive increase in public spending, funded by high oil prices, is translating into better public services—or whether, as the opposition claims, much of the money is being skimmed off. A few show trials of scapegoats would be politically useful.
What needs to be established is whether such cases are the exception or the rule, and whether they involve petty pilfering or grand larcency against the state and, as Mr Velásquez claims, massive bribery of its agents. The only way to get an answer would be through the fearless application of the rule of law. There is little sign of that. Dalila Solórzano, a former police officer, was hounded out of the force for pursuing a case against the head of the investigative police. “We've been in this struggle since 2002,” she says, “and no one has done anything. They talk a lot of rubbish because it's an election year, but the political will doesn't exist.”