Sunday, 16 December 2007

The clock is ticking: where do Venezuelans want to take their country?

Or how to avoid the lemming cycles

This is one of those posts I want to keep changing all the time. You might not want to reread things all the time, but you can jump to the new pieces of information appearing here from time to time.

The late Venezuelan writer Arturo Uslar Pietri wrote over 70 years ago those words about "sembrar el petróleo", to sow oil, about the need to use oil for securing our future and not just financing our present. He was complaining already back then about the disastrous economic policies, when oil started to be used on a massive scale to satisfy the country's immediate needs and above all, the rapacious habits of the politicians in power. Venezuela transformed itself from a poor agricultural country into a country that produced mostly oil and could not feed itself or export any meaningful product to feed itself but for oil.

Nothing has changed and much has worsened in all this time. Clientelism and a very inefficient petrodollar state is what we have. Venezuela is a country of vendors and tenders: we sell each other US shoes, Colombian dresses, Chilean paper, German heavy machines, Scottish whiskey (the average, not just the wealthy, Venezuelan drinks more whiskey than a Scotsman), just about anything. We pay most of it with oil exports and to a lesser extent export of such things as iron, cement, gold and a couple of other products (apart from cement, mostly commodities).

Venezuelans have had the Dona Barbara mentality. Dona Barbara was a book written by Romulo Gallegos in the twenties: the country is a vast, wild, untamed place one just has to conquer. Mix the hidalgo mentality ("physic labour is demeaning", "earns from someone's else are what a gentleman should have") and very corrupt regimes supported by colonial powers ready to plunder as far as possible and you have the perfect mix for underdevelopment.

Reality is different. As Jared Diamond wrote in Collapse, a society can choose to go for total collapse or survival depending on its uses of its environment and its relationships with the outside world. By "environment" he did not just mean "trees, rivers and birds". Environment is the whole set of resources we have.

So far neither Chávez nor most of the opposition have produced tangible proposals, much less the slightest beginning of a project for sustainable development.

As we know, oil will not last forever, population continues to grow, pollution in Venezuela is very bad, even for such an underdeveloped country, and Venezuelans use their resources as if there were no tomorrow. One does not need to be a tree hugger to know where this all is leading.

We human beings are not lemmings. These little rodents have periodic population booms that are regulated by massive migration (in which sometimes the huge movements lead to many of them pushing and falling down cliffs) and death by starvation. Even though homo sapiens sapiens are subject to the limits of the environment and even though human populations have repeatedly undergone through similar processes of population growth and massive starvation, humans have a particularity: our neocortex allows us to learn exponentially.

This leads us to two new situations: we can be incredibly more rapacious and destructive than the hungriest lemming and we can also learn exponentially from our errors. It is up to us what path we take.

Let's start putting some figures on the board...

This is Venezuela's population growth:

And we keep producing more or less the same thing we have done throughout the years. The increase in the export of other products than oil has not been nearly as high as the increase of imports or the increase of revenues by effect of oil production. We are more dependent than ever on oil. The government does not want to believe we are approaching a cliff and some within the traditional opposition is just hoping we arrive to the cliff and fall so that we can get rid of Chavez, but they do not think about what comes next.

Let's look now at the birth rate in South America.
Venezuela has the third highest birth rate in a region that has already one of the highest birth rates in the world.

Only Bolivians and Paraguayans have a higher birth rate among the independent nations of South America (French Guyana does have a higher birth rate than Venezuela).


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