Venezuela combats crisis by fighting corruption, bureaucracy


Confronted by the global economic crisis and a sharp drop in oil prices, the Venezuelan government has launched an offensive against corruption as part of its austerity drive.

This has included measures to cut down on superfluous expenses and bloated salaries of high-ranking public officials.

The public prosecutor has also initiated a number of court cases against former and current elected officials for alleged corruption.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has repeatedly called for a "war against corruption". A culture of corruption and clientalism has long pervaded the state bureaucracy.

Despite Chavez's words, it was widely felt little action was taken to tackle the problem.

War on corruption

However, in recent weeks a former Chavez government defence minister has been detained, and a former pro-Chavez governor and an opposition have had arrest warrants issued against them for failing to attend court hearings over corruption charges.

In total, 11 former elected officials, opposition and Chavez supporters alike, have been summonsed to face trial.

Prensa YKVE reported on April 7 that Chavez said: "We have to put an end to impunity. The courts have to convict those that are corrupt, no matter their political colors, no matter their political position.

"We cannot allow ourselves to be blackmailed by anyone."

Most of the international media's attention has focused on the cases of opposition leader and Maracaibo mayor Manuel Rosales, and former defence minister Raul Baduel. Baduel publicly broke with Chavez in 2007.

These cases have been used as evidence of acts of "political persecution against Chavez opponents".

An arrest warrant was issued for Rosales on April 21 when he failed to appear in court to face charges for allegedly stealing nearly US$70,000 of public funds while governor of Zulia state.

Rosales, on leave of absence from his Maracaibo mayor post, fled to Peru. Once there, he held a press conference, broadcast by Venezuelan private media, denouncing Chavez as a "coward" and a "dictator".

He has been granted asylum by the Peruvian government for "humanitarian reasons".

Neither Rosales nor the right-wing private media have provided evidence to disprove the corruption allegations. The International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) found the evidence convincing enough to issue a "wanted person" red alert for Rosales.

Interpol said the Venezuelan government's request "meets the requirements of the Organization's constitution which prohibits any actions of a political, racial, religious or military character". This undermines the argument that the case against Rosales is simply political persecution.

The case against Baduel relates to the disappearance of $14.4 million from the defence ministry's budget during his 2006-07 term as minister. After repeatedly failing to turn up for questioning, Baduel was detained on April 2.

An April 28 ANSA article noted that so far this year, nine ex-mayors have been charged over corruption allegations. Five were from pro-Chavez parties, including the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) — of which Chavez is president. Four are from opposition parties.

One of those being investigated is the former mayor of Greater Caracas and long-time Chavez supporter, Juan Barreto.

The list did not include Baduel or Eduardo Manuitt, the former pro-Chavez governor of Guarico accused in December of corruption during his term. Manuitt is also said to have gone into hiding and a warrant has been issued for his arrest.

Manuitt was expelled from the PSUV late last year after publicly supporting his daughter, Lenny Manuitt, in her failed campaign to replace him as governor. Lenny Manuitt failed to win pre-selection elections to be the PSUV candidate and ran against the PSUV.

Slashing bureaucracy

Parallel to attacks on corruption, Chavez has announced a series of austerity measures as part of the government's plan to confront the economic crisis.

Due to the drop in prices for Venezuelan oil from a high of $129.54 a barrel last July to just over $40 in recent times, the government was forced to readjust its 2009 budget earlier.

Reducing the budget by 6.7%, the government was emphatic that social spending would not be touched.

As part of ensuring the poor would not pay for the crisis, Chavez said on March 22 that the minimum wage, already the highest in Latin America, would be increased by 20% this year.

However, wages and benefits for high -ranking officials in ministries and government institutions are being cut back.

Stating that "we have to get rid of these mega-salaries, mega-bonuses", Chavez signed a president decree on March 25 eliminating superfluous spending. said on March 27 that the decree "applies to all entities of the national public administration".

"Various expenses, including the purchase or use of phones and cars, international travel, hiring of specialized services like engineers and architects, the renovation of headquarters and official residences, purchasing of promotional material that doesn't correspond to the organization and 'lavish celebrations' will need approval from the executive vice-president.

"It also orders the setting or adjusting of wage limits for workers at high levels in the public administration and prohibits bonuses."

Rafael Ramirez, president of the state oil company, PDVSA, announced on April 26 that, as part of cutting back PDVSA's 2009 budget by 64.7%, executive salaries would be cut by 20% and executive bonuses would be frozen.