Venezuela’s unending crime epidemic


SANTIAGO, Chile — In normal countries, a deep social crisis begets opportunities. Crises force governments to undergo a thorough review and change course where needed. Heightened national debates give politicians incentives to sharpen focus, correct mistakes and address the issues.

Judging by recent developments, we can safely conclude Venezuela is not a normal country.

After a famous beauty queen was murdered along with her ex-husband, the debate over Venezuela’s alarming crime levels intensified dramatically. People began taking to the streets, political enemies changed their tone, and the media talked about little else.

With the focus squarely on him, President Nicolás Maduro took to the airwaves hours after the murders to announce a cabinet change. Expectations for a shift in policy were swiftly quashed, however, as Maduro ended up confirming the interior minister, the person in charge of public safety. (To his credit, however, he did address “important” issues: he changed the sports minister, and he created a total of 111 under-secretaries, including one in charge of monitoring social media.)

When announcing that Interior Minister Miguel Rodríguez Torres will remain at his post, Maduro emphasized that his government’s strategy of placing the military in charge of public safety was working. Apparently oblivious to last year’s spike in the murder rate, he promised to expand his flagship “Safe Homeland” program.

Venezuela’s crime problem starts and ends with the government’s policies. It has to do with the government’s friendly relations with Colombian guerrillas and notorious drug smugglers. It involves the government’s budgetary priorities: Venezuela has fewer prosecutors and judges than most of its neighbors, so a majority of crimes go unpunished, and its notoriously overcrowded jails are a breeding ground for sociopaths.

The country continues to talk of little else, and the opposition has offered an olive branch. The leader of the opposition, Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles, quickly said he was willing to put differences aside and work with the government. But after being called to a meeting at the Presidential Palace — one in which he shook Maduro’s hand, much to the chagrin of opposition radicals — he criticized the president for coming to the meeting and giving a speech without listening to anyone else, and for quickly leaving to attend an event celebrating the Cuban Revolution. Other opposition legislators, such as Julio Borges and María Corina Machado, have been less generous, placing the blame for the beauty queen murders squarely at the government’s feet.

The government’s subsequent moves have been equally erratic. Official websites have alternately stated that crime is a worldwide phenomenon, while at the same time putting the blame on the opposition. The interior minister himself has attended all sorts of meetings without making any significant announcements about law enforcement or the justice system. The prosecutor general and the head judges in the country have been completely absent from the discussion. Finally, the police issued a surreal statement telling Venezuelans they should avoid the country’s roads at night.

As for the president, he has treated the issue more like a public relations matter than a deep social problem calling for sophisticated solutions. On Saturday, he held a baseball match with professional players and actors in which he called for “an end to violence” and asked thugs to hand over their weapons.

Seven people have been arrested for the beauty queen murders, and the government has made sure the public learns about them. Several of them had been in and out of the justice system for years. The beauty queen’s parents were flown in from Houston, Texas, in a government airplane. They’ve so far refrained from blaming government policies for the deaths.

The government is basically in full-throttle containment mode. But when you look behind the official announcements, the rhetoric, the public relations efforts, and the baseball games, what you’re left with is a fundamentally unserious administration. Whether the authorities are unwilling or unable to fix the problem, the end result is the same: thousands of Venezuelans will die this year thanks to their incompetence.

The Venezuelan government is not interested in actually lowering crime; it’s just trying to give the appearance that it is. It can’t wait until the country changes the subject.

Juan Nagel is professor of economics at the Universidad de los Andes in Santiago, Chile, and co-author of “Blogging the Revolution.”

© 2013, Foreign Policy

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