Monday, October 09, 2006

Look who’s a populist now 

Over the past few weeks I’ve been trying to digest the news coming from the Rosales campaign and figure out what it is all about. I think I’ve now seen enough to draw some conclusions.

First let me detail some of the main proposals that have to date been put forth by Rosales. By far most famous of his plans is “Mi Negra” which is a plan to redistribute oil income directly to the Venezuelan about half of all Venezuelans.

This is the ubiquitous advertisement for the “Mi Negra” program.

The plan aims to take a big chunk of Venezuela’s oil revenues and hand them out directly to people as a stipend of between $250 and $450 per month depending on oil revenues. This would be along the lines of what is called an “entitlement” in the United States. There would be nothing that the individuals getting this money would need to do. They wouldn’t have to work, go to school, make sure their kids go to school or anything else. All they would have to do is sit at home and wait for the money to show up.

Doing some back of the envelope calculations shows this program would cost at a minimum $7.5 billion per year and possibly up to twice that much.

And for a frame of reference the minimum wage in Venezuela (which is what most people who have jobs earn) is about $200 dollars per month or maybe a little more with benefits. If you are wondering if there would be anyone left working after the implementation of this program you are not alone. Yet without a doubt the “Mi Negra” idea is the idea that Rosales is pinning his hopes on for getting to Miraflores.

Later we saw that in his crime fighting proposals the money flowed just as easily. In addition to hiring hundreds of thousands of new police officers, prosecutors, and judges (and if you are wondering if Venezuela’s bloated government payroll really needs hundreds of thousands of more people on it again you are not alone) Rosales offered to pay over $2,000 for every gun turned in. Given that there are millions of guns floating around Venezuela that could turn out to be almost as costly as “Mi Negra”.

More recently, Rosales came out with his education plan which conformed to the developing pattern and called for huge government expenditures. In addition to giving free meals in all schools, free school supplies, and renovating schools (all things already being done to a large degree) it called for a massive new plan to put people left out of public universities into private universities all expenses paid by the government.

[as an interesting aside note this advertisement touting the same educational program as Rosales has put forth in his campaign appeared in newspapers courtesy the state of Zulia where Rosales was governor. Clearly the opposition has no problem skirting campaign laws]

So essentially the government would commit to giving everyone in the country a free education in a private university, no matter how expensive. Given that no numbers accompanied this proposal it’s hard to know how much it would cost but suffice it to say it would probably be quite expensive.

After looking at just a few of Rosales many proposals I think most people should be able to get the gist of it. The message of the Rosales campaign is “vote for me and I will give you money, in fact I will shower you with lots of money”. There is a term for this: populism.

For much of the past eight years the more serious critiques of Chavez have revolved around him being a populist, which, truth be told, to a large degree he is. Chavez has always campaigned around the idea of helping the poor get their fair share of Venezuela’s resources and helping improve their standard of living. As president he has governed in that way too, with a good deal of success as we have seen.

The opposition has always hammered away at those ideas and successes of Chavez by saying – “yes but it is all just redistributing oil rents not fomenting long term growth”, or “we don’t even know how effective the Missions are at teaching people anything”, or “Chavez is corrupting the country by making people look to the government for handouts”.

Now irrespective of the truthfulness of any of those statements what do we have in Rosales campaign promises? Handouts so huge they would make even the most committed populist blush. In the Chavez Missions one has to do something to get a stipend – learn to read and write, get a high school diploma, or earn a college degree. This didn’t spare them from criticism of just being handouts. Yet Rosales “Mi Negra” program would give out much MORE money and it would indisputably be a pure hand out – no need to work, study, read, write or anything. You would be perfectly free to sit around all day drink beer and watch TV, as would likely happen (actually with Rosales you might be able to double dip as he has vowed to also keep the Missions and even expand them!). And when you wanted to splurge on a trip to Margarita Island you could just sell a gun or two to the government and you would have all the money you could possibly need.

Whereas before some in the opposition talked about the need to develop other industries and have a competitive workforce now they have thrown that to the wind as there certainly aren’t many export oriented manufacturing businesses that would want to open in Venezuela when their potential employees would get paid more for just sitting around than they could offer to pay them for working. This is really the height of the rent seeking and petro-populism that up to two months ago the opposition was decrying.

On education the turnaround has been equally sharp. Whereas before the government was criticized for trying to jam to many ill-prepared students into universities now the opposition seems to think that is just fine and even more should be sent. No more talk about admission tests, if you want an expensive private education you deserve it and we’ll pay for it. Again, petro-populism in its purest form.

What the Rosales campaign has done here is a few things. First, clearly they are feeding off the recent oil revenue windfall to promise Venezuelan’s the world. With Rosales there is no mention of pain or sacrifice for a better future, just money, money, and more money. It simply takes ones breath away to see how fast all their Harvard, Oxford, and Yale learned economics goes out the window when it comes to winning power for themselves.

Second, they clearly think that by doing this they can somehow outflank Chavez on his left, or populist, side and steal away enough votes to win. Of all their miscalculations over the years this has to be the silliest and dumbest. Countless Venezuelan politicians have campaigned as populists only to quickly move to the right once they assume office. Carlos Andres Perez did it in 1989 famously brining about the huge Caracazo riots and Rafael Caldera did it in the mid 90s. A huge part of Chavez’s appeal is he campaigned from the left, and he has GOVERNED from the left. Any poor or working class person in Venezuela who wants the government to do as much as possible to help them sure knows who to vote for come December 3rd, Hugo Chavez.

One polling question could very quickly reveal the stupidity of what the opposition is doing if asked – “who do you think would care more about you and people like you once in office, Hugo Chavez or Manuel Rosales”. I’d be stunned if among the bottom half of Venezuelan society the answer wasn’t something like 80 – 20 in favor of Chavez. Which is of course why most of the polling firms will either never ask the question or never release the result.

Lastly, the idea has to be entertained that this is all a big lie – pure paja as Venezuelans would say. Maybe Rosales has no intention of doing any of these things, or doing them for more than a couple of years, if elected. It is just your typical bait-and-switch clap trap where they make all sorts of promises which are promptly forgotten about once in office. Honestly, I think this is quite possible.

But this too reveals their cynicism. By promising so much and then not delivering they are courting a social explosion. It also shows their lack of respect for the intelligence and memory of average Venezuelans – do they think your average person who has heard the opposition constantly bash the Missions for years now believes that that same opposition has now embraced them?

Whatever is the truth in all of this, whether they are truly new converts to the ideas of extreme populism or if this is all a big lie, the opposition is once again doing Venezuela a very big disservice. The reality is that with a three year long economic boom it is unlikely anyone with any program could defeat Chavez in an election.

Yet if the opposition truly had points that they believed in, points where their ideas on how best to take Venezuela forward diverge with Chavez’s, they could at least spend these many months of campaigning talking to people about what should be done to bring lasting prosperity to Venezuela. The least they could do is talk about all the ideas that up until a couple of months ago at least some of them professed to believe in.

Yes, they would still lose the election but anyone with their head screwed on straight knows that is a foregone conclusion anyways. But they could plant the seeds of some important ideas that in another time, under other conditions, could begin to grow and bear fruit. By doing this and by refusing to give in yet once again to the “immediatismo” that seems to govern everything they do they could be a REAL opposition with a real alternative to offer Venezuelans. And believe it or not that might even be appreciated by a lot of Chavez supporters who also know that Chavez isn’t the be all and end all for Venezuela.

Instead, Venezuelan’s on December 3rd will get to chose between two types of populism: the real one of Hugo Chavez and the almost certainly phony one of Manuel Rosales. It’s not hard to see which one they will choose. And once again the opposition will have let Venezuela down. With their insatiable lust for power and dollar signs in their eyes they really have nothing to offer Venezuela. Again they are leaving Hugo Chavez Frias as the only game in town.


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