In data dark Venezuela, facts are in short supply

In this Feb. 18, 2014 file photo, demonstrators rest from taking part in an opposition protest next to the outline of a body, representing a police chalk outline, with Venezuela written in red, to symbolize blood, in Caracas, Venezuela.
In this Feb. 18, 2014 file photo, demonstrators rest from taking part in an opposition protest next to the outline of a body, representing a police chalk outline, with Venezuela written in red, to symbolize blood, in Caracas, Venezuela. AP

As a police reporter in Venezuela, Deivis Ramirez swings by the morgue almost daily to engage in a grim piece of detective work: determine how many people have been murdered in the capital.

In a country where even basic information — from inflation, to highway fatalities, to tourism spending and miscarriage rates — seems shrouded in mystery, body counters like Ramirez are trying to fill in the knowledge gap.

“It’s like giving birth every day,” Ramirez said, of trying to extract figures from cagey officials or count the corpses. “Crime statistics are some of the hardest to find.”

Venezuela’s constitution guarantees public access to “timely and accurate” government information. And President Nicolás Maduro challenges the press to “tell the truth” about his socialist administration. But the reality is that the truth — and the statistics that underpin it — is often in short supply.

Last week, opposition Gov. Henrique Capriles made news when he said inflation during the first four months of the year was near 50 percent — putting the country on track to dwarf last year’s inflation rate of 68.5 percent, the highest in the hemisphere.

Capriles said the information came from “non-official” sources and challenged the government to come clean. (Days earlier, La Patilla website, citing anonymous sources, said inflation during the first two months hit 22 percent). The revelations carried weight because the Central Bank hasn’t provided any information for this year.

“The Central Bank used to publish inflation numbers religiously the first days of the month,” said Carlos Correa, the director of Espacio Abierto, a Caracas-based free-speech organization. “Now, it’s not that they’re publishing wrong information, it’s that they’re not publishing anything at all...I don’t think that’s an accident.”

The administration has a track-record of burying bad news. In 2003, when Venezuela’s murder and crime rate started spiking, the government shutdown the police press office that provided regular data.

When food and product shortages started to make headlines last year, the Central Bank quit publishing the “scarcity index,” which had been part of its regular data output for years.

Earlier this month, Bank of America resorted to “forensic economics” to try to paint a picture of Venezuela’s economy. Using official reports, private sector estimates, trading-partner data and “statistical estimation” techniques, they tried to recreate information that, in many countries, would be just a few mouse-clicks away.

“The Venezuelan economy poses a formidable challenge for researchers,” the bank said in the forward to the report. “Data on key indicators needed to evaluate fiscal and external sustainability is either unavailable or reported with severe delays.”

Even seemingly innocuous information can be hard to unearth. In 2014, Espacio Publico asked government offices for 10 pieces of information. Among the questions were: How much money is in the FONDEN National Development Fund? How much money did the Ministry of Health spend on reproductive health? And how much money did state-run TeleSur television pay Argentine soccer-star Diego Maradona for his commentary during the 2014 World Cup games?

Espacio Publico says it didn’t get any answers. In one case, they went to court to find out what steps the Ministry of Health had taken after it was revealed that medicine imported from Cuba was lost or allowed to expire. The Political Administrative Chamber of the Supreme Court shot down the request calling it a threat to “the efficiency and efficacy of public administration.”

During a similar exercise in 2013, Espacio Publico sent out 70 questions to government agencies. A full 91 percent of them were turned down, and only 4 percent were answered.

It’s not just secrecy at work. There are departments that simply don’t have the manpower to produce reports. In 2012, the civil society group Paz Activa started the Observatory for Roadway Security to track traffic accidents and fatalities.

It came about because there was a large discrepancy between how many vehicular deaths the police and local hospitals were reporting, said Luis Cedeño, the organization’s director.

In that case, authorities weren’t trying to hide the truth, he said. “We knew the issue was institutional weakness, or lack of capacity to process information.”

In other cases it’s not so clear. In December, Venezuela’s Ministry of Communication and Information quit sending press releases to many foreign reporters. When asked about the issue, the department said “computer problems” were keeping them from emailing information. Four months later the problem is yet to be fixed.

Computer glitch or not, over the last decade, the government has clamped down on the independent media as it has created powerful state-run television, radio and newspaper outlets. Local media are sometimes barred from government press conferences.

“Opacity is the law and it’s every-day policy,” said Mercedes De Freitas, the director of Transparency International in Venezuela. “What’s unusual is to have complete and public information.”

That’s particularly true of government’s finances.

While the administration touts huge social spending on, say, subsidized housing, “we don’t have a way to verify how much has been spent, who was paid or how many new houses were built,” she said. “It’s impossible to know how public funds are being spent”

Not surprisingly, corruption has flourished in the data darkness. Not a week seems to go by without a public official being accused of squirreling away funds or revelations that a bridge or road was never finished.

The combination of lack of information and impunity has Venezuela ranked 161 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index — just 11 spots from the bottom and tied with Haiti and Yemen.

Occasionally, the government does announce figures — often to try to disprove an embarrassing unofficial figure. But those announcements rarely come with context or a way to make year-on-year comparisons, De Freitas said. “When they do provide information it’s often propaganda,” she added.

Venezuela isn’t alone in trying to hide its dirty laundry. Argentina has been accused of fiddling with its inflation figures, China is suspected of tweaking its economic growth data and the United States has been blamed for fudging unemployment figures. But analysts said they were unaware of countries that had simply turned off the information tap.

During his decade on the crime beat, Ramirez said his job has been getting trickier. On the rare occasions that he does get “official” murder figures it’s hard to tell what he’s looking at. Recently, authorities began classifying those gunned down by police not as homicides but as “resisting authority,” he said. And many obvious murders are put into an “under investigation” file permanently.

“This job is Titanic,” he said. “Along with trying to find information you have to deal with the authorities…Because there are no official figures you’re always at risk of being told you’re wrong.”

Related stories from Miami Herald