Accusing Latin American politicians of corruption is one of the most common ways to discredit them. President Hugo Chávez himself came into office accusing the entire political class in Venezuela of corruption, which made him very popular with many voters, who were tired of seeing their country slipping into poverty despite its enormous oil wealth. It should thus come as no surprise, now that Chávez has been in office for nearly eight years, that Chávez’s opponents at home and abroad should use this charge against him.
A recent Newsweek article (7/31/06), for example, stated that Chávez has “fanned the same endemic corruption that thoroughly discredited Venezuela’s two major political parties in the 1990s.” The article went on to highlight some of the more emblematic corruption cases, and cited Transparency International’s Corrup-tion Perceptions Index, which ranks Venezuela as one of the world’s most corrupt countries. Similarly, a Washington Times article (9/15/06) stated that there is “rampant corruption within Mr. Chávez’s inner circle of ministers and advisors.” Such claims are quite common in mainstream media discussions of Venezuela.
Indeed, according to Transparency International (TI), Venezuela is one of the world’s most corrupt countries, in position 130 out of 158, on a par with Burundi, Cambodia, Congo, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, and far below any other Latin American country. Between 2001 and 2005, Venezuela’s score dropped, on a scale of 1 (most corrupt) to 10, from 2.8 to 2.3.
However, a closer examination of these seemingly authoritative statistical claims shows quite a different picture of corruption in Venezuela. First of all, the TI corruption index is based on the perception of corruption in a particular country, for the most part by non-national and non-resident experts and business people. Given that the perceptions of Venezuela are to a large extent shaped by the international and national media, which overwhelmingly sympathize with the Venezuelan opposition and constantly accuse the Chávez government of corruption, it should come as little surprise that the Corruption Perceptions Index would reflect this bias. Not only that, it becomes a vicious cycle, with each report about the increased perception of corruption increasing the perception of corruption in Venezuela.
Second, when Venezuelans themselves are asked about corruption in their country, their responses rank Venezuela as no worse than most other Latin American countries. Two such surveys, virtually never referred to by international media, are the Global Corruption Barometer (which is also conducted by TI) and the Latinobarometer (LB).
Fifty-five percent of Venezuelans told TI that corruption affects their lives to a large or moderate extent (Global Corrup-tion Barometer, 2005), comparable to the answers given in Colombia (54 percent), Costa Rica (56 percent) and Ecuador (57 percent), and far below the responses of Bolivians (73 percent) and Mexicans (67 percent). Similarly, when LB asked Venezuelans to estimate the percentage of public officials involved in corruption, the answer was 65 percent, 3 points below the continental average of 68 percent (Corruption Latinobarometer, 2005).
A country’s self-perception of its level of corruption is vulnerable to national biases, where citizens might unrealistically under- or overestimate corruption based on local idiosyncrasies. Because of this, questions on progress in fighting corruption may provide useful comparative data.
In this case, the LB survey ranked Venezuela third-highest in Latin America in citizens’ perception of progress against corruption in the previous two years; 42 percent saw such progress, only bested by Colombia and Uruguay (both 45 percent). The TI survey, however, found a different result with a similar question, with 72 percent of Venezuelans saying that corruption had increased “a lot” or “a little” in the past three years. This is comparable to Bolivia (70 percent), Costa Rica (79 percent) and Ecuador (81 percent), not to mention the U.S. (65 percent).
Perhaps the most direct measure of corruption in a country is whether those surveyed personally experienced an instance of corruption in the past year. Only 16 percent of Venezuelans told LB that they personally knew of or participated in an act of corruption in the previous 12 months. This is 4 points below the Latin American average of 20 percent, and 11 points below the 27 percent figure Venezuelans provided in 2001. When TI asked, “In the past 12 months, have you or anyone living in your household paid a bribe in any form?” only 6 percent of Venezuelans answered in the affirmative, the same percentage as in Colombia and far below the percentages in Bolivia (20 percent), Ecuador (18 percent) and Mexico (31 percent).
In short, when one compares more objective data on corruption in Venezuela with that of other countries, corruption in Venezuela is either as high as in other Latin American countries or slightly lower. Blanket statements that there is “rampant corruption” in Venezuela under Chávez, implying that this is a significant departure from pre-Chávez governments or from other governments in the region, do not hold up to close scrutiny.
Venezuela and Drugs:
Progress or Pipeline?
Another favorite line of attack against Venezuela is that it is becoming a safe haven for drug smuggling. For example, Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fla., recently charged (USA Today, 6/22/06) that Chávez has “turned Venezuela into a major pipeline for illegal drug shipments to the U.S. and Europe.” An op-ed piece in the Boston Herald (8/3/06) stated that Chávez has “been long-suspected of supporting the narco-terrorist FARC guerrillas in neighboring Colombia.”
In actuality, even U.S. government authorities have recognized that Venezuela has increased its drug control efforts during the Chávez presidency. Back in 2003 (International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, 2003), the U.S. embassy in Venezuela stated that despite the political problems in 2002 (the coup and oil industry shutdown), the government of Venezuela “maintained an active drug interdiction program and made progress in its overall counter-narcotics program. Seizures were high in all categories, thanks in large part to the implementation of several new programs.”
Unfortunately, this was the last report the U.S. embassy issued. After that, the reports were taken over by the U.S. State Department, and were much less favorable, despite year-to-year increases in drug interdictions. For example, according to Venezuela’s Anti-Drug Office (ONA), the volume of cocaine interdicted in Venezuela increased by 87 percent between 2004 and 2005, and of marijuana by 61 percent (Venezuelan National Anti-Drug Office report, 2006). The total volume of drugs confiscated by Venezuela in 2005, of 77.5 metric tons, represented an all-time high.
Still, the State Department has sanctioned Venezuela for not cooperating with U.S. officials and for not sufficiently patrolling its border with Colombia. According to Venezuela, though, the problems in cooperation stem from the U.S. DEA overstepping its authority in Venezuela, for example by engaging in wiretaps without Venezuelan permission.
The U.S. also imposed arms export sanctions on Venezuela that prevented Brazil and Spain from selling badly needed drug interdiction equipment, such as patrol planes and boats, to Venezuela (Venezuelanalysis.com, 5/16/06; AP, 5/15/06). Nevertheless, Venezuela has about twice as many soldiers posted along the Venezuelan/Colombian border as Colombia has (Latinamerica Press, 2/9/05).
Finally, as for Venezuela being a “major pipeline for illegal drug shipments to the USA and Europe,” as Representative Mack stated, only a tiny percentage (3 percent) of drugs confiscated in Venezuela in 2006 were actually headed for the U.S. (Venezuelan National Anti-Drug Office reports, 2006).—G.W.
Tracking Political Activism
The Chávez government has been accused of tracking its citizens’ political preferences and giving out political favors, such as jobs, government services or other benefits in accordance with their political allegiance. While there’s no basis to the more extreme version of the charge, that the government in totalitarian fashion tracks how all citizens vote (EU Election Observation Mission to Venezuela Parliamentary Elections 2005, 12/6/05), there is indeed evidence that some signers of the 2004 presidential recall petition have been denied government jobs (Atlantic Monthly, 5/06).
Some contextualization of this practice is needed. The Chávez government has dealt with an enormous amount of sabotage from within the public administration, which, when Chávez first came into office, was staffed with people loyal to the previous government. The anti-Chávez sabotage from within reached its high point in December 2002, when government oil company managers and administrative employees, prior to walking off the job, sabotaged the company’s computer infrastructure, causing an almost complete shutdown of the country’s all-important oil industry. It is thus understandable that some officials would want to protect their administration from further sabotage by checking on political affiliations.
Second, Venezuela has always had a problem with maintaining a professional, non-partisan public administration, particularly because before Chávez came into office, an important prerequisite for government employment was membership in one of the country’s two ruling parties.
Finally, there is little to no evidence that the signature list has been used more broadly, such as to deny government services like passports or access to social programs. And there is no evidence that this is a systematic policy of the central government; rather, individual department heads, following traditions that long pre-date Chávez’s presidency, have used the signature list as a replacement for checking on people’s party membership. While such a practice definitely violates human rights norms and Venezuelan law, it is not the totalitarian tool described by some critics of the Chávez government.
Gregory Wilpert is editor of the website Venezuelanalysis.com and author of Venezuela and the Quest for 21st Century Socialism, forthcoming from Verso Books.