Pork Barrel Politics

With the presidential recall referendum in Venezuela coming up this Sunday, there is this sense that the current president Hugo Chávez will probably survive on the strength of his social programs.  Here is a description of one of these programs, Barrio Adentro (Venezuelanalysis.com):

 Barrio Adentro is a national health care program based on local neighborhood clinics for primary medical care.  Treatment includes vaccinations to control epidemics as well as the provision of free medicine for the most common illnesses, illnesses such as intestinal parasites and diarrhea that once killed the most vulnerable such as children and the elderly.

Barrio Adentro is present in primarily poor neighborhoods where approximately 80 per cent of the Venezuelan population live.  Many of these neighborhoods, where homes are typically made of red bricks, were built by children of squatters who invaded lands around Venezuelan cities decades ago. 

Because of the poverty of these areas, most Venezuelan doctors refused to participate in the Barrio Adentro program, so President Chavez brought in Cuban doctors through an agreement with the Cuban government.  That was more than a year ago.  Today there are over 10,000 Cuban doctors practicing in the poorest Venezuelan neighborhoods and they don’t seem to mind.

“This has been an extraordinary experience,” said a Cuban doctor waiting in line, dressed in a white smock and who works in the Baruta area of Caracas, “the reception of the people has been marvelous,” he said explaining that the first steps were cautious on both sides, “at first the people were a little scared because of political reasons, but now they’ve opened up,” said the tall, dark-haired young doctor who is in Venezuela on his first international mission.  He preferred not to be named.

According to government statistics, this past year in the country more than 18 million people have been treated and more than 6,000 lives have been saved.  This means that approximately 70 per cent of the population has been reached by Barrio Adentro.

Where does the money come?  The financing of Barrio Adentrio and other social programs were provided by revenues from the sales of nationally owned petroleum, of which Venezuela is one of the world's largest exporters.  The opposition of Hugo Chávez has decried the allocation of petroleum revenues to the social programs as transparent attempts to buy votes among the poor.

If the sales of nationally owned petroleum generate revenue, where should it be go?  There are as many good reasons to spend it on the poor as there are in other areas (e.g. build more airports, construct more highways, cut income taxes, buy more weapons for the military, etc).  Ultimately, any alloction of the government revenue will benefit some people more than others.  In the extreme, this becomes "pork barrel politics" which benefit only a few people.  In the United States, "pork barrel" came into use as a political term in the post-Civil War era. It comes from the plantation practice of distributing rations of salt pork to slaves from wooden barrels. When used to describe a Congressional Bill, it implies the legislation is loaded with special projects for Members of Congress to distribute to their constituents back home as an act of largesse, courtesy of the federal taxpayer.

Ronald D. Utt in How Congressional Earmarks and Pork-Barrel Spending Undermine State and Local Decisionmaking (Heritage Foundation):

Governments have long used the power to tax and spend to favor certain constituencies with special benefits over and above what a system based on a formula or need would provide. In a democracy, elected officials generally have well-defined, geographic-specific electoral bases, so such benefits tend to be location-specific and highly visible, usually taking the form of infrastructure spending on such projects as courthouses, highways, airports, and government office buildings. Traditionally referred to as "pork," this spending often manifests itself as a specific line item, or "earmark." Earmarks appear most commonly, but not exclusively, in appropriations bills passed by Congress and signed into law by the President.

Webster's dictionary traces the American origins of the expression "pork barrel spending" back to around 1905 or 1910 and defines it as "a government appropriation...that provides funds for local improvements designed to ingratiate legislators with their constituents." In a 1936 Baltimore Evening Sun editorial, H. L. Mencken had this practice in mind when he charged that American government is "a broker in pillage, and every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods."

In a democracy in which the majority rules, why is it not okay to spend money on the poor, who in fact constitute the majority?   Yes, this may be vote-buying, but the preceding question needs to be repeated again.  At the very least, spending on Adentro Barrio is better than spending US$500,000 to restore Lawrence Welk's boyhood home in North Dakota, or US$3.1 million for a railroad museum named SteamTown USA in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

(New York Times)  Free-Spending Chávez Could Swing Vote His Way.  By Juan Forrero.  August 13, 2004.

In an extraordinary referendum after years of political turmoil, Venezuelans will vote Sunday on whether to dismiss President Hugo Chávez, who has alienated the Bush administration with his anti-American bombast and polarized the nation with promises to use oil wealth for a social revolution.

Eight months ago, as opponents of Mr. Chávez fanned out across the country to gather the signatures needed for the vote, he looked likely to have his tenure cut short. But on Friday, amid a huge spending campaign in poor neighborhoods, the contest had narrowed to the point where several pollsters said the president might win an endorsement of his rule.

The referendum is being closely monitored abroad. Mr. Chávez, 50, a former paratrooper and failed coup leader, rose from poverty to power five and a half years ago and then won re-election in a landslide that underscored Venezuelans' anger at the old political order. He has since so rankled Washington with his leftist agenda and authoritarian impulse that American officials blamed Mr. Chávez himself when he was briefly ousted after deadly street protests in 2002.

To Mr. Chávez's supporters - and there are many among the 70 percent of Venezuelan's 25 million people who are poor - he is a leader who is finally paying attention to their needs after generations of political neglect.

To his critics, numerous among diplomats, Bush administration officials and the country's moneyed classes, Mr. Chávez is a blustering populist or, worse, a dangerous ideologue who styles himself a 21st-century Fidel Castro. He has unnerved opponents by stacking courts and other arms of government with his backers and concentrating his own powers, much of it achieved through popular referendums.

While other Latin American leftists - from Salvador Allende in Chile in the 1970's to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in the 1980's - have made similar revolutionary pledges, none have had the financial means of this nation, which has the largest oil reserves outside the Middle East and ranks as the world's fifth-largest oil exporter. For this fact alone, which gives Mr. Chávez unparalleled opportunity to carry through on his plans, Venezuela's vote could prove a watershed for the region.

With Venezuelan oil now hovering at $37 a barrel and the country enjoying a $7 billion windfall this year, Mr. Chávez's government has embarked on a spending spree that has astounded analysts and greatly improved his chances of winning on Sunday.

He now has the backing of about half of the Venezuelan electorate, according to some polls, making it harder for the opposition to muster the nearly 3.8 million yes votes it needs - at least one more than Mr. Chávez got when he was re-elected in 2000 - to end his term and bring a new presidential election. Even if the opposition gets the votes, if Mr. Chávez gets more votes, he will remain in office.

The vote will be monitored by observers from the Organization of American States and the Carter Center, based in Atlanta, but the opposition has expressed concern that Mr. Chávez may be tempted to cheat if the tally is close. Mr. Chávez says even if he loses, he will run again for the presidency and win. Oil market analysts appear most concerned by the uncertainty - and possible violent unrest - that a disputed vote or Mr. Chávez's ouster could produce.

A decisive moment in Mr. Chávez's presidency came 18 months ago, when in the middle of deepening political unrest and a crippling national strike, the president tightened the state's grasp on the national oil company, Pdvsa, (pronounced peh-deh-VEH-sah) by dismissing 18,000 antigovernment managers in a move that many analysts believed would ruin the company.

Instead, Pdvsa is today producing 2.6 million barrels a day, and has quickly turned itself around to bankroll what Mr. Chávez grandly calls his Bolivarian revolution, named for the 19th-century Latin American political visionary Simón Bolívar.

"If you have a lot of oil wells, you can generate a lot of ideology as long as those oil wells are producing," said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington-based policy group.

The government's philosophy is neatly summed up in Mr. Chávez's new, unofficial, name for Pdvsa, the People's Oil Company, a designation symbolizing Pdvsa's central role in ratcheting up spending in the name of the poor.

"Oil is not only for a minority, so that minority can get rich," Mr. Chávez told supporters in a recent speech. "It needs to be redistributed."

Mr. Chávez's plans for Venezuela's oil money would seem to answer a complaint about unequal distribution of wealth voiced throughout Latin America, as well as address calls from American officials and international lenders who have encouraged reforms in developing nations where state resources enrich a corrupt and powerful few.

But Mr. Chávez has also enraged and alienated millions of Venezuelans with his bullying, calling his opponents "squalid ones" and church leaders "devils in vestments." His rambling monologues on state-run television, some lasting seven hours, are filled with references to baseball, Walt Whitman and Jesus, embarrassing upper-class Venezuelans who believe Mr. Chávez sounds more like a crackpot than a statesman.

Mr. Chávez has also provoked controversy through his coziness with dictators like Mr. Castro, Saddam Hussein and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, and by failing to condemn rebel terrorism in neighboring Colombia.

"He pours salt into wounds and that's why some people hate him so much," said Mr. Birns, who is supportive of many of Mr. Chávez's policies.

If Mr. Chávez's style does not endear him to those unpersuaded by his promises, his promises also have yet to amount to coherent social policy, some analysts say.

Some government money goes to quirky programs aimed at bringing quick political payoffs and positive headlines - like the thousands of Argentine cows the governments says it plans to buy and hand out to the poor.

Critics charge that Mr. Chávez's antipoverty plans are piecemeal and politically motivated, that he has placed incompetent officials in positions of power, and that he is bypassing fiscal controls, with hundreds of millions of dollars in public assistance now circumventing the Congress and the Central Bank and going straight into the barrios.

Officials in the Chávez administration counter that they are shifting vast amounts of money toward a social experiment aimed at nothing less than transforming a country that in the 1970's appeared headed toward affluence but was sidetracked by corruption and government ineptitude.

The strategy for this makeover is hashed out every Monday when nine ministers, led by the minister of education, Aristóbulo Istúriz, meet around an oval table at the Ministry of Education, paintings of revolutionary era generals and statesmen lining the walls. Here, ideology is put into practice.

"Up to now, we had democracy with political rights, in the midst of profound inequality," said Mr. Istúriz, a close confidant of the president. "What we needed was to create a social democracy."

Mr. Istúriz said some programs did not start until recently because the government was busy tightening its control over Pdvsa and putting in place a new legal framework. Mr. Chávez pushed through constitutional reforms in 1999, then other laws were passed in 2001 that gave the state more say over and access to revenues, particularly from oil.

"All this allowed us to take control of the company and direct part of the earnings to social programs," Mr. Istúriz said. "Today our government is much stronger."

Much of the emphasis, he said, is on education, with high school and university classes expanded for the poor, and ambitious literacy and vocational programs for those who had never considered stepping into a classroom. Now, 12 million Venezuelans from small children to adults are enrolled in some kind of educational program, up from 9 million at the start of Mr. Chávez's government.

In all, he said, the government this year is spending more than $4.5 billion, nearly 20 percent of its budget, on education. That is equal to 6.1 percent of gross domestic product, Mr. Istúriz said, about twice the percentage of last year.

Much of the money comes from Pdvsa. Rafael Ramírez, minister of energy and mines, recently said $1.7 billion from Pdvsa's $5 billion capitalization budget now financed social programs. About $600 million is being spent on education and health care programs, another $600 million is going toward agriculture and $500 is being spent to build homes and a highway and to finance other infrastructure projects.

Another $2 billion in revenues is forming a development fund to pay for megaprojects like a hydroelectric plant, a state airline, power stations and sugar industry plants.

With Venezuelan oil selling for nearly twice what the government forecast last year in drawing up this year's budget, analysts say the programs are sustainable in the short term. But they also wonder if Venezuela is failing to prepare for the downturn that usually follows Latin American resource booms.

"They can go on for a while because it's likely oil markets will remain strong for a while," said Michael Gavin, chief Latin America economist at UBS Warburg in Connecticut. "They can spent $1.5 billion. They can spend $3 billion and still attend to the needs of Pdvsa. It's just mind-boggling the amount Pdvsa is earning." But he asked: "Are they putting anything in place for when the party's over? I have my doubts."

Whether or not Mr. Chávez has organized an effective antipoverty plan, he has realized an effective political strategy, a reality that is not lost on opposition leaders. In the approach to the referendum they have stopped direct attacks on government antipoverty programs and now say they will maintain and improve many of them if they come to power.

"I think that the opposition, or at least some members of the leadership alliance, made errors in attacking the social programs," Enrique Mendoza, the leading opposition figure, said in an interview. "We will not touch the social programs."

For the people of the teeming barrios of the city, who rarely, if ever, received much attention from generations of Mr. Chávez's predecessors, the government's approach is a welcomed change.

In the Gramoven neighborhood, the construction of a clinic, a multi-use sports complex, a meeting hall, a shoe factory, housing and the country's largest subsidized market on a 56-acre plot is seen as nothing short of miraculous.

"Now there is concern for the barrios, for the people who are in need," said Víctor Rojas, a Pdvsa employee for 23 years who is helping oversee this project. "I'm sad we didn't do this before. We could have changed people's lives. They would be living in dignity, not in misery."

Not far away, in a small classroom, neighborhood people are learning to read in one program, and earning their high school equivalency diploma in another. They thank Mr. Chávez and Pdvsa, saying the company is at last benefiting them.

"We have an opportunity we never had," said Margarita Ascanio, 55, a seamstress who, with the help of a Pdvsa-financed literacy program, is learning to read. "Pdvsa now belongs to Venezuela.''

(Venezuelanalysis.com)  An Oil-for-Aid Deal that Really Works.  By Marina Jiménez.  February 7, 2005.

Berta Rabelo remembers the day her life changed forever. It was March 14, 2004, when a neighbour dropped by her tin-roofed shack to tell her that a doctor had opened a clinic a few doors from her home in Barrio La Esperanza, a shantytown in the southern hills high above the glass skyscrapers of downtown Caracas. In her 72 years in the barrio, Ms. Rabelo had never seen a doctor venture into this zone of open sewers, dirt pathways and armed drug lords, even in an emergency. "I could not believe it," she says.

And the man wasn't even Venezuelan. Dr. Eliecer Hernandez, 32, had come to one of the country's poorest neighbourhoods from Cuba. He made daily house calls - for example, visiting Ms. Rabelo every two weeks to take her blood pressure and check on her hypertension. The treatment and medication were absolutely free.

His presence is part of a controversial "oil-for-doctors" program that has seen 15,000 Cuban medics set up clinics in Venezuela's slums in the past 18 months, and at least 53,000 barrels of Venezuelan oil a day delivered to their cash-strapped, embargo-beset homeland. Properly called Barrio Adentro (Inside the Barrio), the program is the brainchild of Latin America's two maverick presidents, Cuba's Fidel Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. It was launched in March, 2003 - to many complaints.

"They are not doctors, they specialize in politics," Duglas de Leon, president of the Venezuelan Medical Federation, declared to a local newspaper. He obtained a court order prohibiting Cuban doctors from working in Venezuela, but the government appealed and the court ruled the program could continue while the case was argued.

Today, the Cubans staff 300 clinics in the most indigent and inaccessible parts of a country that is the world's fifth-largest oil exporter but starkly split between rich and poor. The Pan-American Health Organization has come out in favour of the program, and plans to make it a model for other countries.

The largest deployment of Cuban professionals since Angola in the 1970s, it is a feather in the caps of Cuba's 78-year-old Communist leader and Venezuela's 50-year-old populist president.

As well, it has helped to revive the political career of Mr. Chavez and his mix of militarism and socialist ideals. In April, 2002, after only three years in power, he was briefly ousted in a coup led by disaffected military and business leaders. He was reinstated in two days, but a year later the government's approval rating stood at just 35 per cent.

Since then, Mr. Chavez's support has increased significantly among the poor, who make up 70 per cent of his 23 million people. In August, he won 59-per-cent approval in a referendum on his presidency. By that time, according to Tomas Ra mos, the director of health in Caracas, 17 million Venezuelans had been treated by the Cuban doctors. Cuba, in turn, benefited from the heavily subsidized Venezuelan oil, which accounts for about one-third of its energy consumption, accord ing to a recent paper by the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban Studies. Cuba receives the daily 53,000 barrels of petroleum products with up to 25-per-cent financing, payable over 15 years at 2-per-cent interest after a two-year grace period. In reality, there is little ex pectation that the billion-dollar oil debt will ever be repaid.

In the bowels of Barrio La Esperanza, patients such as Berta Rabe lo hear little of the political debate. Before this, no government services had ever reached this slum, which is without plumbing, garbage collection or electricity. Dr. Hernandez volunteered for the mission, leaving his home in Holguin on Cuba's west coast. He says most of the health problems here are wholly preventable ones that vaccines, a better diet and proper sanitation could cure. Con cerned that Ms. Rabelo's diet was high in fat, for instance, he signed her up for a government soup-kitchen program. Volunteers now deliver daily meals of rice, beans, broccoli, carrots and meat.

Other patients have gastrointes tinal and respiratory illnesses, skin lesions, head lice and high blood pressure caused by a diet rich in fat.

"I never imagined that people's misery could be so acute. It's different in Cuba. I've seen illnesses here that no longer exist in Cuba, that is how abandoned the people are here," he says. For example, he re cently treated a young child for congenital syphilis, transmitted by mother to baby.

Dr. Hernandez's assignment may last as long as five years, and he hopes that he will be permitted soon to bring his wife and baby to join him in the clinic. The Chavez government pays him $200 (U.S.) a month, plus room and board - in Cuba, he earns only $40 a month. On a typical day, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., Dr. Hernandez runs the clinic with another physician and a Cuban dentist. They spend late afternoon and early evening clamouring up and down the steep stairs built into the winding hills, visiting pregnant women and patients too frail to come to the clinic. "The idea is to have doctors to look at our patients as people and not as a product, or a way to make money," he says.

That may be the case on the ground, but for the country's leaders, the arrangement is very much about money as well as power. In 2003, Mr. Chavez reorganized the country's state-owned petroleum company, replacing 19,000 striking workers with government loyalists and cementing his control over the oil-for-doctors program, which many former employees opposed. Last year, Mr. Chavez even appointed his brother and political mentor, Adan Chavez, to head Venezuela's Cuban embassy, to deepen the "brotherly" relationship between the two countries. "The economic stability of the Castro regime depends to a great extent on the fate of Chavez's rule in Venezuela," conclude the authors of the University of Miami paper.

"The loss of its Venezuelan bonanza would be economically, if not politically, unbearable. And that is something Castro is not going to let happen."