CARACAS (Reuters) - President Hugo Chavez’s ambitious project to bring “21st Century socialism” to Venezuela is running into obstacles -- easy cash, corruption and an expanding class of citizens who are growing rich by exploiting economic distortions.
Chavez promised a revolution when he won his first election in 1998. Since his third election victory in December, he has pledged to accelerate Venezuela’s transformation into a society where a “new man” is free of selfish urges and devoted to the common good.
But nine years into Chavez’s rule, some analysts say the idea of creating a “new man” and a classless society has even less chance of success in Venezuela than past attempts in other countries, from Russia to Nicaragua and Cuba.
“Venezuelans are individualists,” said Luis Pedro Espana, director of the Economic and Social Research Institute at Venezuela’s Andres Bello Catholic University. “They are not inclined to work for the community. They are very consumerist, even the (Chavez) faithful.”
The popular perception in Latin America of Venezuelans as happy-go-lucky, live-for-the-moment people draws few denials from either side of the deep divide between Chavez followers and opponents.
A few snapshots of life in Venezuela help explain skepticism over the emergence of the “new man.”
Standing in front of a poster that says “The Informal Economy is Forbidden,” a woman in a prim white blouse whispers “dollars, dollars, dollars,” offering them at twice the official exchange rate. A pair of bored-looking policemen watch.
At a luxury hotel in the center of Caracas, a guest in a pinstripe suit pays his bill with wads of cash the size of bricks.
At a bustling supermarket, the shelves are stacked with imported whiskey but bare of meat and eggs.
In a small town in the Andes, police drive around in a shiny new Hummer that barely fits through the narrow streets.
“VIRUSES” IN SOCIETY
Venezuela’s currency black market stems from rigid currency controls. Shortages of basic goods result from price controls. And wads of cash and luxury cars originate from an oil boom and public spending that have contributed to the fastest economic growth and highest inflation in Latin America.
All this combines to create petri dish conditions to perpetuate what Chavez describes as the viruses that have infected successive generations of citizens in his oil-rich country.
“While these viruses exist in abundance in our society, it is impossible to build a fatherland and even less socialism,” he said in a recent speech. Quoting Karl Marx, he added: “Each new society is born infected by the old society.”
At least one of the old infections -- corruption -- appears to have worsened since Chavez took office in 1998 with the support of the poor majority of Venezuela’s 26 million people.
According to Transparency International, a Berlin-based anti-corruption group, Venezuela has steadily slipped towards the bottom of an index measuring corruption in 163 countries and now ranks 138th, the worst in Latin America.
“There is no socialism in our country,” said Teodore Petkoff, a former left-wing guerrilla who became minister of economic planning in the government that preceded Chavez. “This is the same country as ever. There has been no revolution.”
Chavez has used a bonanza from oil -- global oil prices have quintupled since he began his first term -- to spend billions of dollars on social welfare, infrastructure projects and direct cash subsidies for the poorest.
Government statistics show that the percentage of Venezuelans living in poverty shrank from 42.8 percent to 30.4 percent under Chavez. Poverty researchers at the Catholic University outside Caracas put the present rate at around 45 percent, below what they measured in 1999.
NEW CLASS - THE BOLIBURGESIA
But while poverty has declined, the country’s class divisions have remained and a new class sprung up -- the boliburgesia. The phrase is a contraction of the words Bolivar, Latin America’s liberator, and bourgeoisie -- a play on the “Bolivarian Revolution” Chavez declared in 1999.
To hear critics of the government tell it, the boliburgesia includes Venezuelans active in the black and grey markets, government bureaucrats who impose “surcharges” on routine services, middlemen in oil deals, money launderers, and drug trafficking organizations.
“This new class will stand more in the way of Chavez’s 21st Century socialism than the old aristocracy ever did,” said a Caracas businessman. “They have become part of the establishment.”
Chavez has acknowledged that his revolution is far from complete, despite far-reaching land reforms and a campaign to nationalize strategic industries.
His present term runs through 2012, but he has begun to talk about a new target date years in the future.
“If in just 140 days so many things have happened, imagine what will happen in the 5,134 days from today to June 24, 2021,” he said on June 2, marking 140 days since the start of his third term. “5,134 days of revolutionary acceleration.”
June 24, 2021, has nothing to do with Venezuela’s six-year presidential terms -- it is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Carabobo, when Simon Bolivar led South American independence fighters to a victory over Spanish forces.
By 2021, Venezuelans born when Chavez began his first presidential term will be 22 years old, and Chavez will have been in power for a whole generation.
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.