The politics of beauty

The Hugo Chávez government has always seized opportunities to insert itself into the economy in ways that will bring political payoffs. The bureaucrats in Caracas have been known to subsidize gasoline, sell dollars to Venezuelans traveling abroad at below-market rates, or give away washing machines to poor voters. (See, for example, this video, in which Chávez himself is offering appliances to buyers at 40 percent off the market price:)

Late last year the national assembly passed a measure called the "Law of Fair Costs and Prices." The new statute forces private businesses to provide detailed cost information that will allow the government to set all the prices in the country.

This is, essentially, price regulation on steroids. It goes without saying that the few private businesses left in the country shuddered when the law came to pass. But the main target of this new bureaucracy so far has been a curious one.

In late February, SUNDECOP (the unfortunate acronym of the new Fair Prices Superintendency) announced that it was applying its broad powers to regulate the prices of, among other things, deodorant, hair conditioner, shampoo, soap, and toothpaste. A recent report by the Caracas daily El Universal found that the shelves remain stocked up with the products in spite of the regulation, but that the quality and variety of brands has decreased substantially. Premium toilet paper, for instance, is expected to slowly disappear from the shelves.

The move was met with a mixture of relief and derision. Why, some asked, would the government go to such great lengths to regulate the price of...  beauty care products?

The reason is simple: Venezuelans are obsessed with beauty and personal care. Anything that feeds into that part of their culture is bound to reap political benefits.

How important are beauty and personal care to Venezuelans? This is a nation with the highest ratio of beauty queens per capita, but other statistics are even more telling.

A survey conducted a few years ago by Roper Starch, a consulting company, found that Venezuelans were the vainest of all the countries studied. A full 65 percent of women and 47 percent of men owned up to worrying about their looks "all of the time."

It shows. Venezuelans spend an average of $115 per year on cosmetics and toiletries on a per capita basis, according to Euromonitor, a consultancy. The Venezuelan figure is higher than those for Mexico ($74), Argentina ($78), Colombia ($56), and Chile ($90). Only Brazilians, at $149, spend more in the region.

Venezuelans are also regional leaders in plastic surgery. According to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, Venezuelans rank eighth in the world in terms of per capita aesthetic surgical procedures. They have about the same number of per capita aesthetic surgical procedures as Americans, even though Venezuela is, of course, much smaller and poorer than the U.S.

There is, of course, a dark side to this obsession. Last August, for example, Rosa Pérez, a 40-year old janitor and grandmother from a poor slum in Caracas, died from complications following a botched breast augmentation procedure done in a makeshift clinic. Two months later, Elizabeth Veloz, a slim 23-year old business major from Maracaibo, died from complications during a combined breast, buttock, and liposuction surgical procedure. Most of the victims of these apparent malpractice cases are poor working women.

This obsession with beauty is undoubtedly behind SUNDECOP's moves. Price controls can yield political benefits in the short run, even if the distortions they create hurt production. Initial results apparently show inflation in the targeted products slowing down, while demand appears to be picking up.

Obviously, the effects of these distortions will be felt at some point, and scarcity is bound to rear its head. Venezuela's soaring inflation and intermittent shortages of goods are a major  political problem for the administration. For the moment, though, the prices and supplies of these particular products remain stable. If the government can pull off its latest attempt at regulation without emptying the shelves, it could a big boost for a president who has an election just around the corner. In this respect, a bit of economic populism that plays up to what voters like may be just what the doctor ordered -- at least if you're a Chavista.


Democracy Lab

From ballots to bullets in Aceh

Earlier this month, leaders of the former separatist group Aceh Free Movement (GAM) in Indonesia's northern province of Aceh won gubernatorial elections for the second time since giving up their armed insurgency in 2005. But they learned that governing by democratic means is just as challenging as waging guerilla warfare from the jungles -- if not more so.

Zaini Abdullah, who eight years ago served as foreign and health minister of the Aceh government-in-exile in Sweden, won the election, beating incumbent governor Irwandi Yusuf. Zaini's running mate, Muzakir Manaf, formerly the military commander of GAM, will serve as deputy governor.

A physician by profession who joined the independence fight in the 1970s, in recent press interviews Zaini has said that he will now focus on bringing peace and economic development to Aceh. Like most other former rebel leaders, however, he has not openly renounced his separatist aspirations, saying rather that he is "putting them aside."

Zaini was the chief negotiator for GAM when it signed the peace agreement with Jakarta in Helsinki in August 2005 that ended 30 years of bloody warfare. In return for giving up weapons and pledging allegiance to Indonesia, the former rebels are allowed to organize politically and contest the local elections if they want to govern the autonomous territory.

The GAM gambit paid off. The group transformed itself into the Aceh Party, which has since won local elections that have put many of its own people in charge of the provincial and district governments and the legislative councils.

Irwandi also won the gubernatorial elections in 2007 on the Aceh Party tick, but this year he had to run as an independent after the party withdrew its support and gave it to Zaini Abdullah. As a result, this month's gubernatorial elections were essentially a two-horse race -- and both of the candidates were ex-guerillas. Between them the two former rebel leaders won over 80 percent of the votes, sidelining the three candidates representing the interests of Jakarta-based political parties. The Aceh Party candidates also won many of the elections at the district level.

A strong reminder of the precarious situation facing the new Aceh leaders came just two days after the April 9 elections, when an earthquake measuring 8 on the Richter scale rocked the territory. The tremor set off a massive panic (the photo above shows people fleeing to higher ground), but the early tsunami warnings turned out to be unfounded. Ten people died, some from fear or heart attacks.

Ironically, it was the massive devastation of Aceh after the even bigger earthquake and ensuing tsunami in December 2004 (which killed over 200,000 people) that forced GAM and the Indonesian government to meet halfway and sign a peace treaty that enabled them to rebuild the devastated territory together.

Since then, the elected GAM members now in charge of running Aceh have had to learn the ins and outs of governance even while bearing much of the responsibility for rebuilding a territory ravaged by war and natural disasters.

As outgoing governor Irwandi has learned the hard way, failing to meet the people's expectations means being voted out of office. Zaini, who moves to the governor's office in May, could meet the same fate five years from now. And next time around, there's no guarantee that the Aceh Party will be as popular as it is today.

With peace and security remaining one of the biggest problems facing Aceh (since many former rebels have kept their weapons in contravention of the Helsinki agreement), Zaini will have to work together with the Indonesian police and military, the very same forces he and his GAM colleagues fought bitterly for more than 30 years.

In spite of the peace deal, violence remains the order of the day in Aceh. It increased during the election campaign, and the polling day had to be delayed by two months.

Aceh's precarious security condition also made it an ideal base for a breakaway group of the Jemaah Islamiyyah, the deadly Indonesian terrorist organization. The group set up a military training facility there that was discovered by the police only in 2010.

Zaini will also have to decide about what to do about sharia. At the height of the military campaign against the rebels, Jakarta gave the local government in Aceh leeway to impose Islamic law. It was all part of an attempt to drive a wedge between GAM and local Islamic leaders. GAM has largely been a secular independence movement and has never taken up Islam as its cause. Today, Aceh is the only province in Indonesia governed according to Islamic law. While beheading is not practiced, the caning of "sinners" has become a public spectacle after Friday prayers in some towns.

The biggest challenge facing Zaini and his GAM colleagues is how to bring prosperity. The people in Aceh count among the poorest in Indonesia even though the province is rich in oil, gas, and forestry products. Prolonged war, poor governance, and the fact that most of the gas revenues in the past went to Jakarta and its American oil contractors, have combined to keep Aceh impoverished. Today, under the autonomy deal, a larger share of revenues from natural resources stays in Aceh.

The former rebel leaders in Aceh have so much on their plates, and so many challenges to overcome, that independence seems a remote if not irrelevant issue, at least for now. The autonomy deal gave them the main thing they were fighting for, namely, control over their own destinies. Now they have to show that they can do the rest.