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Venezuela: a construção do desastre - José Nino (Mises)

Home | Blog | Venezuela Before Chavez: A Prelude to Socialist Failure
Venezuela Before Chavez: A Prelude to Socialist Failure
05/04/2017José Niño
This is Part One of a two-part series. Part Two is here.

Venezuela’s current economic catastrophe is well documented. Conventional narratives point to Hugo Chávez’s regime as the primary architect behind Venezuela’s economic tragedy. While Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro deserve the brunt of the blame for Venezuela’s current economic calamity, the underlying flaws of Venezuela’s political economy point to much more systemic problems.
Observers must look beyond stage one, and understand Venezuela’s overall history over the past 50 years in order to get a more thorough understanding of how the country has currently fallen to such lows.

Socialism Before Chávez
Analysts like to point to rosier pictures of Pre-Chávez Venezuela, but what these “experts” conveniently ignore is that the seeds of Venezuela’s destruction were sowed during those “glory years.” Years of gradual economic interventionism took what was once a country bound to join the ranks of the First World to a middle-tier developing country. This steady decline eventually created an environment where a demagogue like Chávez would completely exploit for his political gain.

The Once-Prosperous Venezuela
To comprehend Venezuela’s long-term decline, one must look back at what made it so prosperous in the first place. Before the completion of its first oil field on April 15, 1914, Venezuela was essentially a Banana Republic marked by political instability. This was largely a consequence of its colonial past and the period following its independence from Spain. Despite gaining independence from Spain, Venezuela maintained many of its primitive political and economic practices, above all, its exclusionary mercantilist and regulatory policies that kept it in an impoverished state.
However, the discovery of oil in the early twentieth century completely changed the entire ballgame. The powerful agricultural aristocracy would be supplanted by an industrialist class that sought to open its oil markets to multinational exploitation and foreign investment. For the first time in its history, Venezuela had a relatively liberal, free market economy and it would reap countless benefits in the decades to come.
From the 1910s to the 1930s, the much-maligned dictator Juan Vicente Gómez helped consolidate the Venezuelan state and modernized an otherwise neocolonial backwater by allowing market actors, domestic and foreign, to freely exploit newly discovered oil deposits. Venezuela would experience substantial economic growth and quickly establish itself as one of Latin America’s most prosperous countries by the 1950s.
In the 1950s, General Marcos Pérez Jiménez would continue Gómez’s legacy. At this juncture, Venezuela was at its peak, with a fourth place ranking in terms of per capita GDP worldwide.

More Than Just Oil
While oil exploitation did play a considerable role in Venezuela’s meteoric ascent from the 1920s to 1970s, this only scratches the surface in explaining how Venezuela became so prosperous during this period. A combination of a relatively free economy, an immigration system that attracted and assimilated laborers from Italy, Portugal, and Spain, and a system of strong property rights, allowed Venezuela to experience unprecedented levels of economic development from the 1940s up until the 1970s.
As mentioned earlier, Venezuela was at the height of its prosperity during the military dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez’s regime. Like Juan Vicente Gómez’s regime, Pérez Jiménez’s stewardship of Venezuela was characterized by heavy political repression.
Venezuela’s capitalist structure remained largely intact during Pérez Jiménez’s tenure, albeit with creeping degrees of state involvement. Pérez Jiménez did introduce some elements of crony capitalism, pharaonic public works projects, and increased state involvement in “strategic industries” like the steel industry. Nevertheless, the Pérez Jiménez regime was open to foreign investment, let the price system function normally in most sectors of the economy, and did not embark on creating a profligate welfare state.

The Road to Social Democracy
Despite the prosperity brought about by Venezuela’s booming economy in the 1950s, Marcos Pérez Jiménez’s government drew the ire of many left-leaning activists due its heavy-handed measures. The tipping point came in 1958, when these leftist activists, working in tandem with a sympathetic military, successfully overthrew Pérez Jiménez in a coup. Pérez Jiménez would live the rest of his life in exile and would be a figure of derision among Venezuelan intellectual and political elites, despite the unprecedented economic and social development under his watch.
Following the 1958 coup, naval officer Wolfgang Larrázabal occupied the presidency briefly until general elections were held later that year. Notable social democrat political leader Rómulo Betancourt would come out on top in these elections and assume the presidency from 1959 to 1964. The Fourth Republic of Venezuela — Venezuela’s longest lasting period of democratic rule, was established under Betancourt’s administration. In 1961, a constitution was introduced, dividing the government into 3 branches — executive, legislative, and judicial — and establishing an activist role for the Venezuelan state in economic affairs.
This political order was further consolidated by the establishment of the Punto Fijo Pact. The Punto Fijo Pact consisted of a bipartisan agreement between two political parties — Acción Democratica (Democratic Action) and COPEI (Christian Democrats) — that laid the foundation for a social democratic political order and alternation of power between the two parties.
What seemed like a genuine move toward democratic stability, Venezuela’s Fourth Republic marked the beginning of a process of creeping socialism that gradually whittled away at Venezuela’s economic and institutional foundations.

The Socialist Origins of Venezuela’s Pro-Democracy Advocates
Venezuela’s current collapse did not happen overnight. It was part of a drawn out process of economic and institutional decay that began decades before.
When Venezuela returned to democracy in 1958, it looked like it was poised to begin an era of unprecedented prosperity and political stability.
However, Venezuela’s democratic experiment was doomed from the start, and one needn’t look any further at the political background of its very own founder, Rómulo Betancourt, to understand why it’s entire political system was built on a house of cards.
Rómulo Betancourt was an ex-communist who renounced his Marxist ways in favor of a more gradualist approach of establishing socialism. Despite evolving into more of a social democrat, Betancourt still believed in a very activist role for the State in economic matters.
Betancourt was part of a generation of intellectuals and student activists that aimed to fully nationalize Venezuela’s petroleum sector and use petroleum rents to establish a welfare state of sorts. These political figures firmly believed that for Venezuela to become a truly independent country and free itself from the influence of foreign interests, the government must have complete dominion over the oil sector.
Under this premise, a nationalized oil industry would finance cheap gasoline, “free” education at all levels, healthcare, and a wide array of other public services.
This rhetoric strongly resonated among the lower and middle classes, which would form the bulwark of Betancourt’s party, Acción Democrática, voter base for years to come.
At its core, this vision of economic organization assumed that the government must manage the economy through central planning. Oil would be produced, managed, and administered by the state, while the government would try to phase out the private sector.
Interventionism from the Start
Betancourt’s administration, while not as interventionist as succeeding 4th Republic governments, capped off several worrisome policies, which included:
  1. Devaluation of the Venezuelan currency, the Bolívar.
  2. Failed land reform that encouraged squatting and undermined the property rights of landowners.
  3. The establishment of a Constitutional order based on positive rights and an active role for the Venezuelan state in economic affairs
Betancourt’s government followed-up with considerable tax hikes that saw income tax rates triple to 36%. In typical fashion, spending increases would be accompanied with these increases, as the Venezuelan government started to generate fiscal deficits because of its out of control social programs. These growing deficits would become a fixture in Venezuelan public finance during the pre-Chávez era.

The Nationalization of the Oil Industry
While Betancourt did not achieve his end goal of nationalizing the Venezuelan oil industry, his government laid the foundation for subsequent interventions in that sector.
Thanks to the large oil boom of the 1970s, the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez capitalized on the unprecedented flow of petroleum rents brought about by the 1970s energy crisis where oil-producing countries like Venezuela benefited handsomely from high oil prices.
Betancourt’s vision was finally achieved in 1975, when Carlos Andrés Pérez’s government nationalized the petroleum sector. The nationalization of Venezuela’s oil industry fundamentally altered the nature of the Venezuelan state. Venezuela morphed into a petrostate, in which the concept of the consent of the governed was effectively turned on its head.
Instead of Venezuelans paying taxes to the government in exchange for the protection of property and similar freedoms, the Venezuelan state would play a patrimonial role by bribing its citizens with all sorts of handouts to maintain its dominion over them. 
On the other hand, countries based on more liberal frameworks of governance have citizens paying taxes, and in return, these governments provide services that nominally protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens. The state is not the owner, thus giving the citizens a strong check against the Leviathan should the government overstep its boundaries.

Oil Nationalization: A Pig Trough for Politicians
Pérez would take advantage of this state power-grab to finance a profligate welfare state and a cornucopia of social welfare programs that resonated strongly with the populace. As a result, deficit spending became embraced by the political class and increasing levels of foreign and public debt would become the norm in Venezuelan fiscal affairs.
At this juncture, Venezuela’s economy became overwhelmingly politicized. Oil boom periods were characterized by an inflow of petrodollars that the state used for pharaonic public works and social projects as a means to pacify the populace.
In reality, no real wealth creation took place during these boom periods, as the state redistributed the rents according to political whims and usurped functions traditionally held by civil society and private economic actors. When politicians and bureaucrats oversee businesses, decision-making is based on partisan and state interests rather than efficiency and consumer preferences.
Although the nationalization of the petroleum industry did not result in an immediate economic downturn, it laid the groundwork for institutional decay that would clearly manifest itself during the 80s and 90s.

Venezuela: Forty Years of Economic Decline
This is Part Two of a two-part series. Part One is here.

The brunt of the blame for Venezuela’s current economic catastrophe should fall on Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro. However, this does not mean that all was well in Venezuela before Chávez arrived on the scene. The ideological and institutional seeds of the current crises were sown decades earlier. A rising tide of government interventions in the marketplace during the 1960s and 1970s would soon lead to a host of new problems for Venezuela.

The Oil Boom Party Ends
The 1970s looked like a never-ending boom period for Venezuela thanks to high oil prices. The then-President Carlos Andrés Pérez took full advantage of this boom to implement his lavish social spending program. Eventually, the boom period came to a crashing halt by the early 80s, and Venezuela had to face a harsh economic downturn.
Luis Herrera Campins would succeed Carlos Andrés Pérez’s government. From the start, he came to the realization that Pérez’s spending bonanza was unsustainable. In fact, Herrera had choice words for Pérez's policies, claiming that Pérez left him a "mortgaged" country.
Although Herrera was correct in his assessment of the Pérez administration’s fiscal irresponsibility, he would ironically continue more of the same cronyist policies as his predecessor. The chickens eventually came to roost as Venezuela experienced its very own “Black Friday.”
What once was one of the world’s most stable currencies, the Bolívar, experienced it’s most significant devaluation to date. Unfortunately, Herrera’s administration responded with heavy-handed exchange controls to stem capital flight. These controls would be administered by an agency called the “Differential Exchange Rate Regime” (RECADI), effectively creating a multi-tiered system of exchange rates.
Considerable corruption scandals emerged during the succeeding government of Jaime Lusinchi, as countless members of the political class would exploit the multi-tiered exchange rate system for their own gain.
Despite its abolition in 1989, RECADI would serve as a precursor to the byzantine exchange rate systems that the Commission for the Administration of Currency Exchange (CADIVI) and its successor, the National Center for Foreign Commerce (CENCOEX), would later preside over during the United Socialist Party of Venezuela’s period of dominance throughout the 2000s.
All in all, Venezuela’s Black Friday devaluation marked the beginning of a lost decade of sorts for Venezuela throughout the 1980s that set the stage for subsequent devaluations, currency controls, and irresponsible fiscal policy further down the line.

IMF to the Rescue?
Rising poverty rates, increased foreign and public debt, corrupt state enterprises, and burdensome regulations contributed to an environment of growing social tension and economic malaise throughout the 1980s. Venezuela’s previous growth miracle became an afterthought at this point. And it’s golden goose, oil, could not bail it out thanks to the low oil prices of the 1980s.
For Venezuela to right its ship, it would have to undergo painful fiscal reforms.
Ironically, it was Carlos Andrés Pérez that was entrusted with reigning in the excessive government largesse; the very same leader that established Venezuela’s profligate welfare state and laid the foundations for its collapse in the 1980s.
In 1988, Pérez campaigned on a platform that promised to bring back the splendor and prosperity of the 1970s. But once he assumed the presidency, Pérez realized that the Venezuela before him was on the verge of bankruptcy and crippled by excessive state intervention in the economy.
Under the auspices of the IMF, Pérez made a half-hearted attempt in reforming Venezuela’s broken petrostate. When broken down and analyzed, these reforms consisted of tariff reductions, tax hikes, flawed privatizations, and marginal spending cuts that ultimately did not address the underlying problems with the Venezuelan political economy — its flawed monetary policy, burdensome regulatory framework, and entrenched crony capitalist policies.
However, these reforms were too much for Pérez’s very own party, Acción Democrática (AD). AD was incensed by these reforms that hacked away at certain facets of the cronyist petrostate that it depended on to maintain its political power.
Of note, the phasing out of gas subsidies by the Pérez government — a popular social program that artificially kept gas prices low for the impoverished sectors of Venezuelan society — was used by the AD to channel discontent among the general populace.

Enter Hugo Chávez
Countless individuals would then take to the streets and protest the so-called “austerity” policies of the Pérez government. This eventually led to the infamous “Caracazo” incident in 1989, where the capital city of Caracas was engulfed in a series of protests, lootings, and riots. The government responded in a heavy-handed manner, leaving hundreds dead.
In the midst of the political chaos, radical groups took advantage of Venezuela’s political turmoil to advance their agenda. One of the most famous was then Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez´s group, Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement-200 (MBR-200).
Chávez took advantage of the political disarray by consolidating an anti-government movement within the ranks of the Venezuelan military. This culminated in the failed coup attempts of 1992.
Even though Chávez was imprisoned for his coup attempt, Chavez’s agitation was enough to put the whole bipartisan Punto Fijo model into question. Eventually, corruption scandals and rising degrees of social unrest would whittle away at the Pérez administration’s legitimacy. The final nail in the coffin came when Pérez was impeached for corruption charges in 1992, thus putting the Punto Fjio model on the ropes.

Collapse of the Punto Fijo Model
Two coup attempts and the impeachment of Carl Andrés Pérez, marked the beginning of a tumultuous 1990s for Venezuela. The Venezuela of the 50s to 70s — characterized by its unprecedented economic prosperity and political stability — was starting to become a distant memory.
By 1994, the Punto Fijo model was in shambles as Rafael Caldera assumed the presidency under a new coalition, Convergencia (Convergence), of disaffected political parties.
Policywise, Rafael Caldera did not rock the boat. He pursued several of the IMF’s half measures, while not addressing structural problems such as the privatization of the oil industry, Venezuela’s downward spiraling monetary policy, and big business’s cozy relationship with the state. In addition, Caldera pardoned Hugo Chávez in 1994, rehabilitating him politically.
Thanks to the failed land reforms and housing subsidization polices pursued by the two major social democrat parties (AD and COPEI) during previous decades, major metropolitan areas like Caracas, Maracaibo, Maracay, and Valencia began to be populated by a growing subsect of impoverished Venezuelans. Chávez would tap into this low stratum of Venezuelan society and effectively turn them into shock troops for his campaign to radically transform Venezuela into a full-blown socialist state.

The Failure of the Social Democratic Era
It is undeniable that Venezuela’s social democratic consensus delivered sub-optimal results. From 1958 to 1998, Venezuela’s per capita GDP growth was a paltry -0.13 % indicating that the Venezuelan populace grew faster than the wealth produced in that time frame. In his book, Introduction to Economic Growth, Charles I. Jones classified the Venezuelan case as an example of a “growth disaster.” Venezuela was one of two countries in Latin America that suffered negative growth during this 40-year period, the other being Nicaragua, a country that suffered a costly civil war and was under the rule of a socialist government.
Chávez capitalized on this stagnation by launching a campaign against the bipartisan political consensus that ruled Venezuela at the time. Branding himself as a “Third Way” candidate, Chávez sought to provide an alternative to the perceived corruption of the Punto Fijo political order.
Despite the rosy rhetoric, Chávez was surrounding himself with hardened Marxists and other collectivist figures that were hell-bent on subverting Venezuela’s already fragile political order. Little did the disillusioned voters that cast a ballot for Chávez know what they were about to get themselves into.
Chavismo: Interventionism on Steroids
While Chávez may have been correct in pointing out the corruption of the old Punto Fijo order, he would ironically continue many of its failed policies throughout his regime, amplifying their disastrous effects and implementing them in a tyrannical fashion.
Currency controls, expropriations, price controls, and the use of the state-owned oil company, PDVSA, to finance lavish social spending programs were fixtures of Hugo Chávez’s socialist economic policy.
In addition, Venezuelan political institutions were completely eviscerated, media outlets were suppressed, and political activists were subject to numerous human rights violations under Chávez’s heavy-handed rule.
Chávez had the luxury of high oil prices from 2003 to 2010 to finance his socialist schemes and channel the petroleum rents to consolidate political support in the short term. But once oil prices plummeted, the laws of economics reared their ugly head and the system began to unravel in no time.
Even with Chávez’s death in 2013, his brand of tyrannical socialism has continued unabated under the rule of his successor, Nicolás Maduro.
The Venezuela that stands before us is a failed state. In an atavistic sense, Venezuela has returned to its 19th century state as an increasingly fragmented, political backwater.
Time will tell if the Venezuelan nation will continue to exist as a cohesive whole, or if certain sectors of Venezuelan society decide to blaze their own trail and start to break up the country.

Lessons Learned
If Venezuelans want to restore Venezuela to its once prosperous state, they must look back and understand the genesis of Venezuela’s current crisis.
It is myopic to pit the blame solely on demagogues and believe that things will be perfectly fine once the “right people” are put in charge. Political events like the rise of Hugo Chávez do not occur in a vacuum. Astute observers of political economy must analyze the overarching institutions and policies that create the type of political environment that enables authoritarians like Hugo Chávez to come into power.
The Venezuelan case serves as a strong warning to many a European country with crumbling welfare states and growing social discontent. Sooner or later, unsustainable transfer systems are bound to collapse and social disorder ensues.
Left unchecked, socialism only creates a vicious cycle of interventionism that leads to more chaos and misery. To reach the light at the end of the tunnel, Venezuela must completely abandon socialism and embrace the capitalist path to prosperity.
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