CARACAS, Venezuela After an extensive visit to the slums of this capital, I am convinced that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez lost the recent referendum that would have extended the time he could remain in office not because his countrymen value democracy so much but because his social programs are crumbling. In the barrios of Petare, Catia, Baruta and other places, the nationalist/populist model is collapsing.
Through a network of "missions," the government has been using oil revenue to provide food, housing, cars, education and health care for millions of Venezuelans. In theory, Venezuelans are enjoying the "social justice" denied to them during decades of rule by the country's elites. In real life, the missions are plagued with corruption and inefficiency, and are severely hampered by the insecurity and the shortages that have become the hallmark of Venezuelan society.
The Barrio Adentro mission was originally run by about 30,000 Cuban doctors and medics. Many of those health centers are now closed; the rest are seriously understaffed. "The Cubans are leaving," explains Felix, a social worker from Baruta, "because they don't get paid, because they are the victims of rampant crime or simply because they have moved on they only offered to serve in Venezuela as an excuse to get out of Cuba." In some cases, the government never provided the funds needed to finish the construction of clinics. In Baruta, a desolate construction site reminds the local neighborhood that there is, as Felix puts it, "a gulf separating reality from speeches." I was not surprised to learn that, according to Andres Bello University, 60 percent of the Barrio Adentro health centers are not functioning.
The Mercal mission, a series of supermarkets in which the poor can theoretically acquire food at extremely low prices, is not faring any better. Because of price controls, essential products are missing from the shelves. People stand in line for hours to buy food or milk. In some cases, as I was told in Petare, producers have been put off by price controls; in others, the people who manage the supermarkets sell essential products under the table to those able to pay more.
The soup kitchens, which supposedly have to serve free meals to 150 Venezuelans in each neighborhood every day, are also falling victim to the chronic shortages. Jesus, a Chavez supporter who manages a soup kitchen in Barrio Union Petare, told me that he would not be serving his neighbors until next week, when he expects to get new provisions. The result? "The squalid ones," he concluded, using the term with which Chavez refers to his critics, "are now a majority around here."
Corruption has eroded the prestige of the Habitat mission through which the government supposedly dishes out checks to poor Venezuelans so they can buy a house. It is not unusual for an aspiring homeowner to find out that a mystery person has cashed the check using his or her name. "The same people who hand out the checks cash them for the benefit of their relatives," explains Eladio, who told me a nephew recently suffered such an experience.
The decision to make cars available to millions of Venezuelans has meant that Caracas is now a traffic inferno. "The money I spend on gas in one day in the United States will allow me to drive for an entire month down here," says Virginia, a television producer who goes back and forth between Caracas and New York, and spends a good part of her day when in Caracas driving from one place to another. "What use is it for millions of people to have cars if they are wasting much of their lives paralyzed in traffic jams?"
The Sucre mission, which helps adults complete their secondary education, is also creating problems. The beneficiaries tend to go to government-controlled universities that require few qualifications. Therefore, numerous professions are overcrowded, and Venezuelans complain of not being able to get a job despite their credentials. Together with a 30 percent annual rate of inflation, the closing down of thousands of businesses because of socialist regulations, land confiscations and nationalizations have crippled the country's productive capacity and therefore the demand for workers.
"The government led Venezuelans to believe that they could become a consumer society without producing anything," says Luis Ugalde, the president of Andres Bello University, "and the results are now speaking for themselves."When I asked Beatriz, a social worker who spends her time in Catia, to talk to me about Chavez's missions, she responded, "One cannot speak about that which doesn't exist." That strikes me as an appropriate way to sum up Venezuela's nationalist/populist model.
Alvaro Vargas Llosa, author of "Liberty for Latin America," is the director of the Center on Global Prosperity at the Independent Institute. His e-mail address is AVLlosa@independent.org.