Another Casualty of Venezuela's Revolution: Work Ethic

Last Thursday, an annual Venezuelan ritual took place. Venezuelans of every social class and all sides of the political spectrum sat down to watch and comment on the Miss Venezuela, the country's national beauty pageant. As a Venezuelan expatriate, I find it hard to take the whole thing seriously. As an analyst, though, I have to find a way to explain it.

Putting the obvious, snarky comments aside ("We Venezuelans are vain and sexist" would be the knee-jerk explanation), it's worth pointing out that the pageant is one of the few remaining places where Venezuelans can watch honest competition and hard work play themselves out. Beauty queens go through months of rigorous training, and in the end the competition is deemed fair, with the outcome based (mostly) on merit alone.

This is a rare occurrence in revolutionary Venezuela, since chavismo has done its best to extinguish Venezuelans' work ethic.

The notion of work ethic -- grossly defined as the idea that, on average, the harder you work and the more productive you become, the further you will go -- is a hard sell in Venezuela. In a country where taxes literally spout from the ground, and where generous public spending allows for goods like gasoline to be practically free, there is little incentive to be productive. This may reflect what academics term the "natural resource curse."

Chavismo took this shortcoming and exacerbated it. Its policies and laws view competing on merit as a "bourgeois," capitalist idea, contrary to the Twenty-First-Century Socialism it espouses.

Take, for example, the nation's banking sector. Venezuelan banks have few branches, and most customers usually have to wait for hours for the simplest of transactions.

Before Chávez came to power, Venezuelan banks competed for their customers. Now, the government sets everything. It fixes the interest rates they charge. It decides how to allocate their loan portfolio by forcing banks to loan X percent of their deposits to Y industry. It forces banks to act as middlemen for its bizarre foreign exchange policies, and it sets the guidelines through which banks must comply with all of these aspects.

The end result is that banks simply have no incentive to compete. The only time they do "compete" is when the government decides who gets to purchase government bonds. Even then, "competition" is just a byword for "political lobbying," as the allocation of bonds is not done via an auction but, rather, assigned discreetly to banks whose owners are on good terms with the governing clique.

When it comes to the military, the situation is similar. Before Chávez, military promotions were decided on a fixed set of criteria -- courses taken, awards obtained, etc. Of course the process was politicized, but it was not unheard of for non-political military men to ascend to the top of their ranks.

After Chávez centralized all decisions on military promotions in the office of the president, all of this changed. Merit-based competition inside the military has completely disappeared. Instead, the president promotes the people who show the most loyalty to him, his party, and his policies.

Venezuela's labor regulations are a prime example of how the government has declared war on hard work. Instead of rewarding productivity, it forbids companies from firing inefficient workers. It also sets limits on overtime. The end result is that private companies frequently complain that their workers simply do not show up for work -- and they can't do anything about it.

There isn't an industry or sector in Venezuela that isn't hampered by overbearing government regulations, whether they are price controls, labor rigidities (as outlined above), or foreign-exchange restrictions. The result is a society that expends most of its energy on schemes for getting rich quick.

Venezuelans waste countless hours looking to take advantage of the opportunities in the country's dual exchange-rate system. By traveling overseas, they can access cheap dollars they can then sell at seven times their value in the black market. This practice, colloquially known as the "raspaíto," has become one of the main growth industries in Venezuela. Everyone, from the country's millions of informal street vendors to the businessmen making billions off juicy government contracts to provide electrical plants, seems to be exploiting opportunities to seek arbitrage that have flourished under the government's policies.

Venezuelans are not lazy. People there work very hard, as witnessed by the massive traffic jams one encounters in Caracas at six in the morning. But it seems their hard work is not geared towards being productive, but to dealing with, and trying to take advantage of, the country's socialist policies. This means the link between hard work and reward is broken.

This week, President Nicolás Maduro asked for special powers to "fight corruption." It's ironic, given how the corruption of Venezuelans' values is part of his movement's legacy.

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions, co-editor of Caracas Chronicles, and author of Blogging the Revolution. Read the rest of his posts here.



Catch and Release, Libyan Style

This morning Libyans woke up to the news that a militia had kidnapped Prime Minister Ali Zeidan. Even though he was released soon after, the news highlights the latest turn for the worst in post-revolutionary Libya, as political groups and militias struggle for power over the country's fragile institutions.

Around 4 a.m. local time, a group of armed men from the government's Crime Combating Unit and the Revolutionaries' Operations Room -- both security agencies formed and dominated by Islamists and nominally under government control -- stormed the hotel where the prime minister was staying and presented him with an arrest warrant based on allegations of corruption and mismanagement of public funds. These claims are related to a recent scandal in which government officials offered bribes to the groups shutting down Libya's oil terminals in the eastern region (Cyrenaica).

The arrest warrant turned out to be illegal, since it had been signed only by the head of the Crime Combating Unit and not by the relevant officials whose authorization would have been needed. A few hours later, the prime minister was released by his captors after an intervention from the interim legislature, the General National Congress (GNC), and other government forces. (The photo above shows Zeidan shortly after his release.)

Today's events highlight the growing security vacuum in a country where true power lies in the hands of the militias. Indeed, the prime minister described his kidnapping in a press conference as "part of everyday political fissures" in post-revolution Libya. The kidnapping comes just a few days after a raid in Tripoli that resulted in the capture of al Qaeda figure Abu Anas al-Libi. Many Libyans believe that the kidnapping was linked with Libi's capture, given that the group that kidnapped the prime minister is headed by an ex-jihadi named Abu Obeida al-Zawi, who was appointed as head of the Revolutionaries' Operation Room a few days ago by GNC President Abu Sahmain.

Both Libyan politicians and foreign governments have been quick to condemn Zeidan's abduction. Notably, Zeidan's political opponents were particularly quick to distance themselves from the group that seized him. However, the prime minister's use of the term "political fissures" seemed calculated to shift the blame for his "arrest" to one of his many political opponents. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups have been trying hard to unseat the prime minster through a vote of no confidence in the GNC, but so far they've failed to get the required 120 votes. Some of Zeidan's enemies may have seized upon the kidnapping as an alternative way of forcing him to resign. To their disappointment, however, Zeidan appears determined to go on with the job.

The prime minister's ordeal could conceivably win him some much-needed support and sympathy. Initially, though, the public reaction was one of notable indifference. No one has taken to the streets to demonstrate support. People interviewed by TV stations said that they had expected something like this to happen, while others said they had expected much worse than a brief abduction. This shows the extent to which kidnappings and killings have become the norm.

Even if this incident does buy the prime minister some support and time, it will not be enough. It has undermined Zeidan's leadership by demonstrating his government's inability to protect its own head, much less the Libyan people and their aspirations to create a successful democracy. Democratic process and elections are irrelevant in an environment where guns rule. This reality essentially makes the much-ballyhooed constitution-building process a lost cause, since the country has no national army that can uphold the constitutional values to be agreed upon by the Libyan people.

Even after today's events, the government is still reluctant to tell the truth to the public. This has been one of main factors contributing to people's indifference towards the prime minister's abduction. In addition, the lack of details about the incident has prompted people to come up with their own conspiracy theories about what happened. Some go so far as to claim that the prime minister orchestrated his own abduction to try to buy himself more time ahead of the planned vote of no confidence after the approaching Eid holidays. Lawmakers are increasingly frustrated with Zeidan, whom they blame for the country's ineffective institutions. The political bickering and the lack of transparency are damaging the democratic transition in the public mind.

The international community, and Libya's friends in the West in particular, have affirmed their support for the country's people and the government, promising their full support for the democratic transition. The reality, however, is that the time for statements of support or condemnation is over. Unless Libya's friends can find concrete ways to help the central government bring the armed groups under its control, Zeidan is bound to lose his security battle against the militias. The current situation is not sustainable. At this point, power will ultimately fall to the side -- either the government or the militias -- that succeeds in resolving the security situation. The niceties of democratic behavior will have little to do with the outcome.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his blog posts here.