10.31.13 9:45 AM ET
Venezuela Unveils Orwellian Ministry of Supreme Social Happiness
Consider the latest from the gatekeeper of the late Hugo Chávez's experiment in "21st-Century Socialism": the Deputy Ministry of Supreme Social Happiness. Last week, to much fanfare, Nicolas Maduro unveiled this new government subdivision, which he said will oversee and troubleshoot some 30 separate social programs, known collectively in Venezuela as "missions."
"We must elevate the missions to heaven, in gratitude to Chávez," Maduro announced in a national broadcast, in a nod to the founder of the so-called Bolivarian revolution, now in its 14th year.
The brand new ministry will "look after our elderly men and women [and] care for our boys and girls," Maduro announced, in the spirit of "the most sublime and loved of revolutionary peoples” and in the name of "moving beyond the capitalist order."
The announcement came on the heels of another recent Orwellian flourish, “Loyalty and Love to Hugo Chavez Day," a new entry to the Bolivarian calendar, meant to rally loyal Chavistas ahead of the December 8 municipal elections.
In a land battered by street crime, the hemisphere's worst inflation (50 percent a year), and blackouts that left 70 percent of the country in the dark at one point in September, word of yet another grand government reform initiative was met with skepticism and considerable public derision.
In no time, the Latin American blogosphere was thrumming with jokes and parodies. More than a few critics recalled Orwell's apocryphal kingdom of Oceania, where a Ministry of Plenty is tasked with administering scarce goods, and the Ministry of Peace is in charge of waging war.
"Ministry of Supreme Happiness? Are they going to sell drugs or something?" tweeted one Venezuelan netcrawler.
"It's only been 24 hours since the creation of the new deputy ministry of Supreme Social Happiness and already I'm feeling happy," quipped the Venezuelan comedian Luis Chátaing, on Twitter.
"Who should be in charge of the Ministry? Lady Gaga, Charlie Sheen, Jim Carey, or Anton Kollisch," wrote Bolivian economist Roberto Laserna.
Others were more scathing. Former television presenter, Leopoldo Castillo, called the new government bureaucracy a "shameful" gesture that subjects Venezuela to "international ridicule."
For Maduro, this was no laughing matter. With key city government posts at stake, and Caracas struggling to manage the worst social crisis in a decade, the Venezuelan leader has few illusions. Spiking inflation has demolished official price controls, emptying supermarket shelves and sending anxious consumers on goose chases for everything from corn flour to toilet paper. The government tries to keep the lights on in Caracas, the politically sensitive capital, but the rest of the country is prey to rolling blackouts that darken homes, shops and factories for anywhere from a few minutes to several hours at a time.
That is fine by the country's criminals, who have turned the Venezuelan capital into a killing ground, with 119 murders to 100,000 inhabitants. Though none of Venezuela's current woes are new, they are getting worse just as patience is wearing thin in this nation of 29 million.
Paradoxically, Venezuelans are not a desperate people. The South American country balanced between the Caribbean and the Atlantic ranks a respectable 20th in the United Nations' most recent World Happiness Report. That's better than Germany, France and even Brazil, where mirth is nearly a religion.
And yet making a living can be a trial. The World Bank rates Venezuela as one of the worst countries to do business in, ranking the Bolivarian republic 181st of 189 countries, right down there with Myanmar and The Democratic Republic of Congo, and dead last in Latin America.
Under Chavez, a showman who could bluster through the worst of times, many of the country's worst sins were forgiven or written off as the work of enemies, especially gringos. When a crisis loomed in 2003, Chavez took a cue from his ally and mentor Fidel Castro and launched a flurry of aggressive social programs. The result was the misiones, lavishly funded social programs to combat illiteracy, childhood mortality, and poverty that were often grossly mismanaged but pumped cash into the neediest neighborhoods. They also helped buoy Chavez's political fortunes, winning him momentum before a crucial recall vote.
Just as Chavez turned to Havana, now Maduro hopes to channel his beloved predecessor by beefing up the flagging missions ahead of the Dec. 8 elections, where the opposition stands to make important gains. "We must improve the missions," Maduro said recently, announcing a three "Rs" strategy to "review, rectify and restart" wayward social programs.
Problem is, Maduro has all of the troubles and none of the charm or the political muscle of the legendary caudillo he succeeded. With government on the ropes, Venezuelans would be forgiven for reaching for their copies of 1984.