The Insidious Bureaucracy in Venezuela: Biggest Barrier to Social Change

Merida, May 17th, 2010 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – For some reason, it was important to society to know how many grains of sand there were on a beach. A Venezuelan, Antonio Aponte, told this story. Four people were assigned the task of counting the sand. The first started to count the sand, grain by grain. The second went to his office and imagined the beach, wrote poems about it then wrote a thesis, then gave lectures, and became very busy. The third named a commission, which solicited offices for the work, created teams to order computers, then nominated a leadership and tried to get that leadership elected to the management of the ministry, and didn’t have much time in the end to count sand. The forth counted the number of grains in a cubic centimetre, then used maths and measuring to arrive at a rough, but close figure.


Aponte says that the first person is a pragmatist, or one who prefers to act without theory, the second is an intellectual who prefers only theory, the third is a bureaucrat and the forth a scientific revolutionary.


Venezuela has all four kinds of people, but the bureaucrat is a special and dominating phenomenon within the government, its institutions, some unions and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and it is holding back the quality of people’s individual lives as well as the development of participatory and popular power.


 What bureaucracy looks like in Venezuela


It might have been my mother who came up with the most succinct definition of bureaucracy, “It’s like coming to a lot of closed doors that say ‘open’”, she said. Einstein, called it “the death of all sound work”, Javier Pascal Salcedo said it was “the art of making the possible impossible,” and Marx of course, added class to the definition, “it’s a circle from which one cannot escape…the top entrusts the understanding of detail to the lower levels, while the lower levels credit the top with understanding the general, and so all are mutually deceived.”


Getting a little more concrete, Mandel defines the bureaucracy as a social layer which has appropriated administrative functions previously exercised by society as a whole, though in Venezuela’s case we might say functions that should be organised by society, movements, or communities, or the country as a whole.


The bureaucracy in Venezuela is basically a layer, or some would argue, a class, of people which hinders productivity and efficiency, and has a virtual monopoly on decision making, and resource allocation.


Venezuela’s large bureaucracy prevents people, collectively and individually, from controlling their lives and achieving what they are trying to achieve as movements or communities, by requiring exhausting amounts of documents and waiting, by not providing people with the correct information. It is a strategy which allows the bureaucracy to maintain itself in employment.


It is a bureaucracy that adapts to each new government. Antonio Padrino wrote in Aporrea, “The bureaucrat.. is a person that is proficient at what they do. They have the ability to blend into whatever governing party until they achieve their final objective, the “fruits of power”. They are the civil servants who are incompetent, inefficient, arrogant, scheming, extreme suck-ups and “fishers” for good positions or posts. They… hound the most efficient and productive workers in the department or ministry because the existence of such workers makes their own mediocrity and lack of revolutionary conscience evident… they act like true mafias.” (My italics).


I interviewed Jose Castro, who is part of the financial unit of my communal council in Merida, is also a communication promoter, and was a teacher in the experimental university for 27 years.


“During the fourth republic [the 40 year period of government before Chavez] it was impossible to get a loan for a house, and now, it pains me to say, under this revolutionary government, I’m experiencing something very sad. I retired from the ministry of education in 2007 and to this date I haven’t received any response about the payment of my pension, of all of our pensions. I sent a letter, with all the necessary documents, directly to the minister explaining my situation, I have severe hypertension. … and until now I still haven’t received a response. It’s likely we’ll have to wait four years to receive our pension, and as you can understand, one loses buying power and with the recent devaluation, we lose half the amount when they finally pay us. For me, this is a clear example of what bureaucracy is,” Castro said.


Everyone here has many stories of their own battles with bureaucracy. Myself, I have stories of needing information, and going from the university administration, who told me to go to the humanities faculty, who told me to speak to the dean, who told me to go back to university management, who sent me back to the dean, and so on until I gave up. Or of going all the way to Caracas to go to the SAIME (passports and identification) head office, and of being sent from room to room, all the workers looking very bored and being very vague, and of getting nowhere.


Marta Zerpa, a long time revolutionary activist and currently a substitute legislator in Merida, is experiencing bureaucracy from the other side. I met her in her office in the legislative building and she literally ran into the room, apologising for being half an hour late. It was just 9.30am, but she’d already spent a few hours working at the primary school, and had a long busy day ahead.


Putting up with the bureaucracy from the inside is also a battle, “If you don’t take on the bad habits of the bureaucracy, you’re a pendejo [idiot],” Zerpa said.


“If you don’t receive favours from friends, you miss out on the benefits. We’re still a rentier state… and bureaucracy is everywhere, above all in public administration. The revolutionary process basically hasn’t changed anything,” she continued.


The picture of bureaucracy in Venezuela includes a red bureaucracy, or as is said here, a “boli-bourgeoise”, those who apparently support the government and the Bolivarian revolution but who act, or are, capitalist in their behaviour. Rumour has it, there’s a restaurant in Caracas where many such people go, and in their red t-shirts they spend all afternoon drinking at 20 bolivars per beer.


Such people come from a mixture of backgrounds; sometimes they are revolutionaries and left wing people who have changed their life style, and sometimes become corrupt, as a result of the financial and or power privileges they get from their position in the government. Sometimes these people are members of the opposition, who were in opposition parties previously, and have adapted to the new government and infiltrated it in order to profit from it career wise, or perhaps to hold it back.


Alejandro Lopez Gonzalez wrote in a Rebelion piece, “For the red bureaucracy the revolution is a torrent of agricultural and industrial credits with which they make their acquaintances comfortable and receive percentages [of the money] without doing anything other than handle a few bits of paper for some “comrades””.


Lopez Gonzalez argued that the reason the opposition in Venezuela lacks objective and specific denunciations against corruption in the public institutions is because they are “utterly complicit” in it all.


He continues, “The rightwing aren’t interested in denouncing [the bureaucracy] nor is the bureaucracy interested in confronting the right.”


Why Venezuela, of all countries, is so saturated with bureaucracy


The key to understanding the dominance of bureaucracy in Venezuela is the fact that Venezuela is a petroleum economy. Because petroleum is such an easy and  profitable export, Venezuela’s non-petroleum productive sector is small, and the number of people working for the state is massive. When you put this into the context of high unemployment – officially it is not that high but in 1999 55% of workers worked in the informal economy, leading an unstable existence selling products in the street, a figure which has since decreased to 45% – you can understand why these large numbers of state employees will do almost anything to justify the continued existence of their job.


Francisco Sierra Corrales, writing for Aporrea, agreed, “Venezuela…is a country that is dependent on just one valuable mineral, petroleum…One of the ways to beat unemployment was to create unproductive jobs in the public administration..and if we add to this the party based clientalism, really, bureaucracy is a good poison for the Bolivarian revolution.”


Another factor in the dominance of the bureaucracy is Venezuela’s condition as a developing country. This means that as well as a lack of experienced cadre revolutionaries, there is a shortage of adequately educated people to lead the government and its ministries, the PSUV, the nationalised industries, and the new social missions. I do not mean there are no doctors in the country to head up the health ministry, but rather there are fewer doctors, and most of the currently licensed ones come from middle to upper class backgrounds, and would be proportionately opposition.


 The Venezuelan government has spent the last 10 years obtaining complete literacy in the country, and many middle aged and older people are entering university for the first time. Many of these politically passionate or more “revolutionary” people may lack the confidence (as opposed to lacking ability) to fulfil such positions or to challenge the bureaucracy.


Ex vice-president of the PSUV, Alberto Muller Rojas, also agreed that there is a lack of cadre, “The thing is, there aren’t enough people, that’s the tragedy. The only party that had politically well trained cadre was the Causa R and later the PPT [Homeland for All Party]…the PCV [Venezuelan Communist Party] has been a bureaucratised party since the time of Medina [president of Venezuela in the early forties].”


Manuel Taibo in Aporrea made a related and interesting argument, suggesting that, “if the level of technology in Venezuela were as high as in developed countries, [Venezuela] would have produced everything necessary to satisfy the people’s daily needs right from the start. In that situation the bureaucracy wouldn’t be able to play an important role, as a high level of technology would imply a high cultural level and the people wouldn’t  allow the bureaucracy to impede it or give it orders.”  By level of technology I imagine Taibo is referring to level of development, and while that doesn’t necessary imply a high cultural level, I think he’s right that it helps.


He continues, “But we’re behind due to centuries of exploitation by imperialism and Creole slave-oligarchy. This is the reason why, despite all the progress; the nationalisation of hydrocarbons, the nationalisation of mining, the nationalisation of basic industries, the socialisation of land, Venezuela hasn’t been possible to produce the amount of goods necessary to satisfy the daily needs of the population. And scarcity of goods implies a struggle for them. The bureaucracy intervenes in these struggles…gives to some and takes from others.”


That is, the bureaucracy is capitalist in culture, desiring individual self reward, acquisition, material advancement and so on.


“And those who have their benefits and who get their salaries, it doesn’t matter if they do the work or not. Because there’s no supervision of the work. Sometimes the general secretary here will spend hours and hours talking on the phone and not doing his job. But he gets paid. And such people say they’re working for the revolution,” Zerpa said.


Finally, there is the legacy of decades of rotten governance, where, as in many countries, people lost faith in the idea of moral and ethical politics and institutions and were aware of how the governin

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