Development is a state of mind

“In this country, GDP per capita could hit $20,000 per year, and people would still think like backwards Latin American assholes.”

The words from my Chilean friend shocked me.

We were in the middle of a sophisticated, expensive meal in one of Santiago’s many hip new eateries, a Peruvian-fusion joint in the city’s poshest district. The conversations in the tables around me would have been unthinkable thirty years ago. They all touched, in one way or another, on Chile’s remarkable transformation – people were discussing their latest car, the latest merger or acquisition, their recent summer skiing tryst at Whistler, or the beach house they had just bought.

The entire milieu gave me hope that perhaps, thirty years from now, I could be having a similar conversation in a prosperous, normal, post-Chávez Caracas. And here came my friend, bringing us all back to Earth with his bummer.

But did he have a point? What is development, exactly?

When I tell my Venezuelan panas about my move from the US back to Chile, I unanimously receive heaps of admiration. The general tone of the comments is along the lines of “Chile is doing really well, right?…”, “it’s amazing that Chile is going to be the first country in Latin America to develop…”, and “those Chileans know what they’re doing.”

That’s true to some extent. But it’s also wildly off base. If this move has taught me anything, it’s that development is much more than GDP per capita, growth rates, shiny infrastructure, and export statistics.

Development is a state of mind, one that the IMF has trouble quantifying.

I first visited Chile in 1998. Back then, the country was coming off a period of China-like growth rates, and yet the memories of poverty and dictatorship were still fresh. Everyone was still in awe of what had been accomplished, and the future held much promise. They were all drunk on heightened expectations, and the vertiginous change helped one overlook the obvious flaws in the system. Everything was so recent – you couldn’t expect things to change overnight, could you?

Chile has continued in its path to development in recent years, but the same nagging problems persist. The general sense of possibility has been replaced by one of doubt. While the country’s GDP is likely to continue growing, the question remains: will it be enough?

I thought about this recently when learning of the latest scandal involving Chile’s uber-empowered, unaccountable elite class.

Cencosud is one of the nation’s largest retailers. Its owner is one of Chile’s richest men, and as many powerful men before him, he likes to build big things. He is currently putting the finishing touches on Latin America’s tallest skyscraper.

As it happens, Cencosud also forces its workers to labor under some unusual – some will say cruel – conditions.

A Chilean TV show recently uncovered a shocking truth. Night workers at Cencosud’s Santa Isabel supermarkets are routinely locked up inside the supermarket in order to prevent theft. They were even locked inside and unable to get out during last year’s massive earthquake, and they were in danger of drowning when the tsunami hit their store. They were only let out when looters came to visit the supermarket. One of the managers drowned trying to get another group out.

The company’s response? It vows it follows the laws fully. Even Chile’s right-wing Labor Minister – if there can be such a thing – is shocked.

Of course, all developed nations go through scandals like this one. No country is perfect, and one of the things that distinguishes good societies from bad ones is not the absence of scandals, but the ability to self-correct. So it’s still possible that this will not fall by the wayside, that the people responsible will be held accountable.

But when you realize the government’s front-runner for the 2014 Presidential Election, Mining Minister Laurence Golborne, is a former manager of Cencosud, the cynic in you gets worked up.

Regardless, the fact that these things still happen – that companies think they can still get away with this fundo mentality – is a sign of how far society has to go.

When we first moved to Chile in 2003, one of the things you would read in the paper coming from the mouths of the mojoneada elite class was that Chile really shouldn’t compare itself to Latin America anymore, but to small, developed, natural-resource intensive countries such as Denmark and New Zealand.

And while their hubris was admirable, I kept thinking how out-of-place the beggars or the jugglers in the street corners would look in the streets of Auckland or Copenhagen.

So yes, you can walk into a Starbucks and pay with your credit card, but good luck finding exactly what you want. The schools for your children are good and expensive, but your daughters’ school planners come shockingly packed with advertising for sweets and TV shows. People think nothing of jetting off to Cancún for the long weekend, but customer service everywhere is the pits.

This massive reality check makes me think that even if we get everything right in Venezuela, even if we were to magically fix our politics and our economics, we will still be dealing with the same human capital. The many cultural traits that hold us back, the generations of Venezuelans raised in a malnourished, under-developed, disenfranchised environment – well, they (us?) and their (our?) way of thinking will still be there.

This will not go away no matter how much we grow, no matter how high the price of oil.

The change in mindset required for economic and social development to really grab hold – well, that takes generations to accomplish. The most we can aspire to in our lifetimes is to lay the groundwork.

74 thoughts on “Development is a state of mind

  1. Wealthy Predator Goons vs Megalomaniac Populist Politicians? They happen if and only if the majority of citizens abdicate their democratic responsibilities by not being well-informed and by not voting responsibly.


  2. ¡Ay Juan!

    Welcome to realism. I am glad that you are the first one to write such thing in a blog. It has been years I have been alluding to it never having the courage to diss my co-nationals the way you just did. But you are right, I fully agree with you, and I am sure that you must wonder sometimes why the f..k you keep blogging day in and day out for people that are not worth your time.

    You just forgot to cite the Venezuelan saying”el rancho en la cabeza”.

    PS: by the way, just moved and already visiting posh joints?


    • Well, they can’t help it! It’s part of life, dealing with el subdesarrollo mental. It’s just hard to get used to sometimes.


  3. I fully agree with this phrase “Development is a state of mind”… after having lived in Venezuela then in the States and now in Europe I’ve been able to experience how that state of mind is so different in each location. I think thats one thing that many aid agencies completely miss if not, purposely overlook. That state of mind needs to be a collective state of mind for us to surpass the “statistic” development (example: that of chile) and move on to the real sustainable development of our economies, infrastructure, education, policy, etc. (great emphasis on the sustainable part, of course).
    For example, I feel like the world wars here in Europe truly marked the people and their appreciation for their land …why is it that in the highways or small mountain roads in europe aren’t filled with plastic bags and bottles off the side of the road? but the road from the San Pedro Sula Airport to San Pedro is full of it? Small things like that, its a collective psychology and maybe this comparison is fairly stretched out but I feel its worth giving it a shot.
    I’m going to stop ranting, but you are certainly making a valid point that I think needs to be explored through social psychology, education and collective thinking. The only way we’ll achieve this collective awareness and state of mind is through time and education.
    Great article.
    Ps. I also dream of having those conversations and seeing a post-Chavez Venezuela that is prosperous and non oil reliant… a venezuela that develops other industries and moves past this comfortable “oil $$ will fix it all” mentality.


  4. Upon seeing the title of the thread, I wondered if JC was aware of the existence of Lawrence Harrison’s book: Underdevelopment Is a State of Mind: The Latin American Case .

    It is definitely difficult to easily eradicate long-held cultural attributes. This has both its good and bad points. The Chileans have long been known as the English of South America. When the Allendistas came to power, trying to create the New Marxist Man, they ran into difficulties. The Allendistas found out that the Chilean character could not be changed by presidential decree, which was Allende’s favored method for nationalizing firms. That Chile rebounded so well back into democracy shows that similarly, Pinochet’s generation of do it my way decrees could not eradicate the Chilean tendencies to work together, to figure out compromises.

    Another example of cultural continuity can be found in Nicaragua. In his three decades on the political scene, Daniel Ortega has shown that he shares the kleptocratic and one man rule tendencies of the Somozas. While overthrowing the Somozas, and setting himself up as the anti-Somoza, Daniel Ortega resembled Somoza more ways than he realized.


    • I’ve carried Harrison’s book around for years here in Latin America. The book’s main thesis, that culture affects development, still applies in many parts of today’s Latin America, unfortunately.

      This is not to say that there are exceptions such as Chile. Still, following the earthquake and mining miracle in Chile, I’m reminded again that the entire region is still afflicted with very skewed distributions of incomes and social and economic benefits, and of course, jobs, and this includes Chile. Chile’s propensity to work together and figure out compromises (as related by BT) are positive factors, and the Chileans have clearly made good use of them, but I don’t doubt that even they have a long way to go before they address the kinds of problems that JC discusses, particularly in the countryside…

      Finally, I agree with BT on his take on Ortega; he’s just Nicaragua’s latest version of Somoza, and he’ll have the same effects on the country – just more evidence of the region’s continuing struggle against the culture of corruption that constrains it.


  5. I know Chile well and they do have their own set of unresolved internal issues. But if you really want to make a case, for giving up hope, digging into the bad parts of humans, that is really not hard to do… anywhere. Our responsibility though is to find ways to do the best with what faulty elements we have… and in my case that is why I keep hitting out at our centralized oil revenues which I feel does not allow to bring out the best of Venezuelans… much the contrary.

    Just in case, let me assure you that the previous reads much holier than thou than what is meant.


  6. Good article Juan, wouldn’t say illuminating, for those issues you mention are to be found everywhere, one way or another, or have we forgotten already the much celebrated Apple and its labor issues in China?

    I think you’re being a tad over critical, and while I will agree with your overall point, of development being a state of mind, there’s plenty of people in the first world con el rancho en la cabeza. IMO development happens when people in power -without zinc as roof- know what development is, where they want to go, and carry on the necessary measures to bring it. There’ll always be ‘experts, pundits, deniers, leftists, etc.’ saying that this or that measure is likely ‘put people out of work, or have an impact in this or that disenfranchised group’, but in point of fact, and risking the ire and scorn of most of your readers, where would Chile be had Pinochet done what he did? Where would Venezuela be, in terms of infrastructure for instance, had Perez Jimenez not done what he did? Where would China be, had the leadership not abandoned the sheer stupidity of communist ideas and embrace capitalism in its rawest form?

    People with zinc over their heads, both literally and figuratively, do not have the capacity to imagine development and progress. It has to be “imposed” on them, it has to be forced down their throats. After a number of generations, development brings bienestar, it brings prosperity, and everyone -especially los que tienen el rancho en la cabeza (Gauche caviar anyone?)- love prosperity, wellbeing, and other features associated with advanced societies.


    • You know what I think? When people finally realize that China is not going to continue developing at this pace because of, precisely, el rancho en la cabeza – what will happen then? How will the world economy adjust to that?


      • Hola Juan, again, I’d like to take issue with your comment re China. China won’t stop growing at the rate is growing now due to ranchificacion-of-state-mind. Ditto India, and Brazil. It will stop growing at the current rate simply because no country on earth can grow forever. In the transit from conuco to developed state every country shows extraordinary levels of growth. But once developed status arrives, once millions of people are lifted from poverty, educated, and comfortably parked in middle class status, once ports, airports, dams, high rises, roads, etc., are built, then growth slows, no? Or can the chinese go forever building, and spending, at the current rate? That has got nothing to do with zinc in the roof.

        It’s like building your dream house in an empty plot of land: once you build, and equip it with all the appliances, furniture, gadgets you want, then what? Then, hacer mercado, pay utilities bills, kids to school, bla, bla, though your expenditure won’t be anywhere near what it was when you were building the house.

        The world economy will adjust, and “economic miracles” which are nothing more that countries building their dream houses in empty plots of land, will continue happen after China.


        • So you hold that the biggest rancho in la cabeza is the belief in ever after continued economic growth?

          Many of us believe that if given a chance the humans will move forward and find new things to do once they built their dream-house… you see, the important thing with a dream-house is not the house.

          Of course we have to adjust for the environment and current growing lack of energy sources… but that, God willing, we will do by growing and not by laying down.


        • Juan says that China is not going to carry on growing forever due to their rancho in la cabeza. I disagree with that, for simple common sensical reasons. Then you say that believing in ever after continued growth is me holding ever after continued growth as having un rancho. Velocidad, tocino…

          But just to be clear on one thing, believing in China-style, ever after continued economic growth, is like believing in god IMO.


  7. “The most we can aspire to in our lifetimes is to lay the groundwork”

    Great aspiration!….which demands from us an appropiate “state of mind”. Development is not about to enjoy status quo but to build for next generations, beyond our lifetimes. When a country starts to enjoy what past generations built, starts behaving as an underdeveloped, “rancho en la cabeza” country, regardless status quo.


  8. Hmm… I wonder if there’s anything we could learn from Japan: they were practically a feudal agricultural society in the 1860’s before their own revolution propelled them to Imperial status in 30 short years. That isn’t to say that they could compete at the same level as England or the US (even during WWII japanese industry was behind that of Italy… ITALY!), but hey sure sprinted far and fast in the first 100m


    • Don’t look down on Italy, it’s industrial sector would surprise you ;). I’ll try to expand tomorrow. One little example: almost every snack envelope, toothpaste case, Coca Cola label, etc etc, is printed in an Italian machine.


      • I think the folks at Windmuller & Holscher would disagree with that statement.

        Lung Meng might also disagree.


        • Well, las mejores impresoras para polipropileno metalizado y otros polímeros son las italianas. In flexografía, from my understanding italian printers are the best regarded by those who specialize in that kind of printing. Sorry, I wrote this in Spanish because I don’t know how to say polímero in English


          • It’s all a question of what your time in operation is going to be. If you want to operate the same machine for 25 years, then Lung Meng and the other Taiwanese are probably not good choices.

            I have a UTECO 8 color flexo and a Nordmeccanica 1300mm laminator, both of which run well enough, albeit with some hiccups.

            Whenever you get a chance, visit Morrocel in San Juan de Los Morros and watch their W&M run at 250m/min running 4 color process jobs.

            BTW, in English the correct term would be polyolefins (polimeros)


        • I’d love to visit, but I’m currently living in BsAs. BTW, I’m an economist. My father is the printing expert. He worked at Montana Grafica for 17 years. He was the Production&Operations Manager. That’s why I know a little about that stuff :)


          • Excellence in printing at Montana Grafica, they were the standard to judge all work in the
            local market.


  9. Nice post. Revealing.

    Two details mark Juan as a well-meaning but typically blind young leftist. He wonders if it’s possible that there exists a right-wing labor minister, and is alarmed that a former manager of Cenosud, this firm guilty of bad policy, is running for president.

    Question: what if that OTHER Cenosud manager – who drowned trying to save his employees – speaks more in death than our alive Juan about rigth-wing (i.e. any manager) leadership?

    As an American liberal myself, I scolding my friends a lot for such one-sided and divisive political blindness.
    Take off the blinders and you’ll notice that Chavez is our own political bedfellow.
    He, too, can’t imagine a right-winger with any redeeming value.
    He is a caricature of our own left-wing biases.

    Now and then I write that Venezuela’s army is potentially the oppos’ best friend.
    It’s Chávez’s best friend – does that make the army right-wing or left-wing?
    Maybe no-wing?

    We in the old-time liberal “diaspora” still claim the right to think for ourselves.

    Say hello to Katy for me.




    • Deedle, will do.

      As per your characterization, I guess I’m being a little bit harsh. I don’t consider myself a left-winger by any means, and Quico actually thinks I’m the blog’s resident right-winger. And while I sympathize with many positions on the right, I’m also not blind to see the flaws on that side either, particularly in the Chilean case – the excessive coziness with big business being the prime example.


  10. Good post, although Chile is not the “first” Latin American country to get considered “developed”, remember 19020’s Argentina? and I do not think you could get a sense of how “developed” a country is by gauging conversations in its poshest areas. In any case there is a bit of our constant, and impatient, self-questioning in your comments. According to them, Spain and Portugal would be two other countries off the development ideals. Clearly, a modern society that can afford the best of equal opportunities and justice for its members should be considered “developed”. But reaching that state is a long process, marred by the fact that your neighbors seem to have a greener grass.
    In Venezuela’s case the democratic modernization project that took hold after the Andino generals got ousted (or died) was going in the right direction until it found its stumbling block in the 1980’s, and could not deliver. We are all familiar with the causes for its failures; but sometimes we fail to notice that Chávez et cie. are the products of development policies set forth in the 40’s. Were those policies not successful in creating a law-abiding citizen capable of improving the society he or she lives in? perhaps the answer is “no”; but remember what we started with, a country the likes of nowdays Haïti.
    I am willing to consider that these years of barbarie are but a reaction to a systemic crisis in the modernization project. A project that promises results and has the strength of media to promise a better future while creating the images of its coming society as an spectacle. In all, perhaps, the differences between those developed societies and ours may be nothing but the degree with which they are able to read those promises. Their people can see them as nice fictions, read them as good stories to add to their everyday life; we, in the “developing world”, have yet to learn how to read those promises as fictive, perhaps like a game, a lottery game the likes of which Quico once mentioned in these blogs.


  11. Trendy? Sophisticated? What does that have to do with development?

    Latin Americans are still thinking in feudal terms.

    Now more than ever there is absolutely no development possible unless the average, or better said, the statistically mean citizen is well-educated and can have the chance to develop according to her capacities and real competitiveness and not based on who his daddy or mommy happen to be.

    I don’t know much of Chile, but it seems to me they are trying to do their best. A lot of what has come lately has been helped by the very high commodity prices but their low corruption levels make them capitalize on it, unlike Tanzania, Congo or Venezuela.
    They are also really investing in improving education quality for the average, in spite of their huge problems.

    Countries such as Britain and Germany could still have millions of poor, uneducated people many centuries ago. They had their colonies and the consequent competitive advantages derived from that.

    Still, they realised they had to really improve the quality of the education for the AVERAGE citizen not in the capital or the main 2 cities but everywhere in order to keep progressing. Read your Adam Smith, that was common knowledge already then.

    I was thinking about development lately when talking to some friends in Germany and Belgium. One of the guys has quite some impressive list of patents and is a well-recognized chemist. Another was a reknown neurologist. Several others are computer scientists and entrepreneurs. I realised many of them came from poor families, almost all came from places other than the top 3 cities of their countries.
    I often eat out with them. We seldom eat out in posh places. The development I see is expressed in what they do. They are actually working for what they studied, more or less. They are creating things. They are developing their own countries.

    And although they may have had particularly disciplined families that taught them to use their potential – and this is absolutely key to their personal development- those families were not part of some elite in their country. Actually: most of their parents were rather poor.

    We Venezuelans have been pretending all the time.
    Some of the wealth was definitely real work. Still, a lot of it was due to the fact one could be king as one-eyed person in the land of the blind. Things have got worse in Venezuela, of course. We need to speak out about what we really need to do to become developed and we need to do it even now, in the middle of a particularly corrupt and incompetent autocracy.


    • Sorry…of course Germany had no colonies “centuries” ago. And the average population of Britain and France and others had comparatively speaking higher standards of education than most other places. The colonies were to a big extent consequences of the technology progress, which was to a large extent promoted by the governments of those countries. Colonies still helped them keep some advantage for a time (see India’s growing dependence on UK’s exports). In any case, they all bet on focusing more on enabling the average citizen, even if it was necessarily for altruistic reasons. It has worked.
      We? We pretend too much.


  12. Quico.. this post deserves to be in the spanish website. It is GREAT

    I am actually traveling to Peru & Chile in may to look for business opportunities… will keep my eyes open for this


  13. Very good article and extremely well written. But why is the model which JC aspires to so apt for Latin America? if I want, for example, customer service attitudes I would go and live in the US, where it is better but not at all perfect.


  14. Although it is an interesting assertion that development is almost a state of mind, I think you can find lousy customer service everywhere. Chile really is miles above the rest of Latin America in terms of economic development and to someone from Honduras like myself, criticizing Chileans for being “backwards Latin American assholes” almost seems like some sort of cruel joke. We look to Chile as a country that has its stuff together, so to speak. Granted, they still have a long way to go before they can compare themselves to Denmark or Iceland, but to create the region’s most dynamic economy after Allende’s economic mayhem and Pinochet’s dictatorship is nothing short of miraculous.

    I also think that cultural attributes get blamed for way too much. Economic performance is determined by geographic location, resource endowment and a host of other things, but just because we got colonized by lazy, corrupt Spanish Catholics doesn’t condemn us to poverty for the rest of our history. However, being colonized by Spanish Catholics who installed repressive institutions of government, forbade trade outside of the Spanish Empire and lorded over a mass of uneducated, disenfranchised natives did lead to the modern mess that is most of Latin America. If the economies of nations perform well enough, ‘el rancho en la cabeza’ will forcefully have to change. I just don’t think it’s our cultural hangups that are holding us back, it’s our history (which produces our cultural hangups).


  15. Education, education, education… And several decades of consistency and patience…

    Hopefully we´ll get there…


    • And this is one very important thing: people have to discuss what education really is.

      There is a big delusion in Venezuela and in general in Latin America about our actual position regarding education and about how to attain real, functional, productive knowledge and skills.

      Venezuelans don’t know how much they do not know and they do not know what they HAVE to actually do to know it.


      • Agreed 100%, including educating citizens on HOW to be citizens, what pisses me off is how easy it is.

        I always remember that campaign “Señala al abusador”, it´s absurd how effective something so stupid/simple was.


        • I just moved back to Venezuela – in September – after living in the US for 27 years. I thought that I would have a really hard time adapting to my home country, but it has been relatively easy (maybe because my expectations were so, SO low). The one thing I have been having a hard time accepting, adapting to, understanding, is how people do not really know how to be good citizens.


          • What happened to the idea that schools are where citizens are created? Ref. Venezuela’s public school system (primary and secondary) vs the plethora of private schools… Maybe our schools just aren’t doing the job of creating good citizens?


      • But el venezolano is not alone in this regard. Many Latin Americans, even those who have moved abroad, go puffing themselves up with the delusion that they are better educated, better whatever, than, say, their northern counterparts.

        I’ve tried to explain that, in the end, it all evens out. But to no avail. Delusions are delusions. Insecurities are insecurities.


  16. You all, be careful throwing stones at ranchos en la cabeza when you might have them abundantly too… Frankly what country does not have ranchos in la cabeza? I am sure I’ve myself got a couple of them stacked away in my brain… some active… some dormant.

    We are immersed in a financial crisis that resulted from the global bank regulators in the Basel Committee thinking they could put an end to all bank defaults forever by setting up some capital requirements based on officially perceived risk. This, as they then could leverage over 60 to 1, dramatically increased the returns on capital of banks when they got involved in operations with sovereigns like Greece and with all triple-A rated private junk. Result? The banks went and drowned themselves in triple-A rated waters where the suppliers of Potemkin ratings awaited. If that is not a rancho in la cabeza in the heart of the financial systems of the supposedly least rancho in la cabeza financial systems then what is?


  17. I have mixed feelings about this post. It touches a bit on chicken/egg or catch22.

    People in Venezuela’s barrios, and the poor in non urban areas are survivors. They are resourceful, they help each other out, they share the woes, and, yes, they sometimes have to leech off each other or protect the undesireable. It’s a matter of “we’re in this boat together”. (chavez isn’t necessarily there because they are fooled, but because he’s from their boat.)

    Now, the idea that the rancho is in their head is not a matter of sending them to school, but in bringing school to their reality. I illustrate:

    A kid in a barrio decides to set up a hielitos de fruta stand in the barrio. People keep talking about his needing education, but he already knows enough for something like this. To be productive, what he needs is to have seed money to start it up, but most importantly he needs people around him to have money to buy his product. If he’s ever going to get it to grow and expand, then he needs a lot of people to have a lot of money around him. Education comes from the success; the success does not come from education, not in the barrios. And the success can only come if there is local consumption with money from local consumers.

    The developed culture in other countries comes from a history that started with such little businesses that grew. The undeveloped nature of other countries seems dependent on letting them grow through the same learning. They were “invaded” by developed businesses, so they never incorporated the business learning into their cultures. We must help the culture develop on its own, not try to “teach” or “force” it into development. For example, cash distribution lets people become consumers, which lets the new entrepeneurs flourish, which is what will provide jobs for those new at jobs.

    Jobs get created by expanding businesses, not governments. And cultures develop on their own, not by anyone’s master plan, or master lesson.


    • Interesting thoughts, Torres. Still, it all revolves to the fact we won’t be productive as long as we can survive from oil revenues alone…even with your cash distribution plan.

      And cultures do develop a lot if one given master plan is finally implemented: real, down-to-earth education. I don’t ask for anything else from the government but that (be it national or regional or whatever).

      Just get me one single counter example from last centuries where this has not been the case.
      The majority of English Americans were literate in 1770 while most Spaniards were NOT, ni hablar de los venezolanos cien años después.


      • “we won’t be productive as long as we can survive from oil revenues alone…even with your cash distribution plan.”

        It is not the purpose of any cash distribution of oil revenues to have people survive, its purpose is to remove that big stone called centralized oil revenues that lies squarely in our path, hindering development.


        • Per,
          What I am saying is that whether the state gives the crumbles or Venezuelans themselves get a bit more crumbles directly to their bank account, most of them will use those crumbles just to survive, to nothing more.
          This has always been the case, even before oil became an economic factor. Simply adding “freedom to do business” is not enough as most people don’t know how to do business, as business opportunities will be filled in by foreigners, as in no time big tensions will follow up and then we will have again another protectionist government. Please, give me one, ONE single example of a country that developed without having the government -whether national or regional- heavily investing in education. I have been waiting for years now for this.
          Notice that the vast majority of those Venezuelans discussing those ideas here went to private schools or semi-private ones, where only 20% of Venezuelans go. I think some do not get the urgency of the issue because they haven’t seen what most of the 80% have to go through.

          Give me one example.


          • There is no one debating against education as long of course it is not the wrong education. And of course that education does not imply helping other countries… like a Mariscal de Ayacucho which managed to place some of our famous PhDs in foreign universities… from where they now preach to us the need of more education in Venezuela.

            Removing the oil rock from our path will mean that a larger number of Venezuelans, of course not all, will see that what they receive from oil is insufficient and since they then don’t have the expectations of receiving more oil income from the government… they get ahead with their lives and start counting more on their own initiative.

            Look at the opposition… what is their major promise? “We’ll be better at distributing the oil revenues, so that these will prove to be sufficient for more of you”

            Frankly, our unwillingness to fight for the removal of the oil-boulder, and our willingness to manage that oil-boulder if we can lay our hands on it, does not speak too highly of our private education either.


          • OK, I agree the cash distribution method could open eyes. If you and Torres need my signature, count on it.

            And yet: that is just a hurdle. Perhaps I am underestimating Venezuelans, but I think most will use the money for more whisky. Am I being paternalistic? Be it, but only in one thing: education.

            Without a dramatic change in the way we see what children get in our primary and secondary schools, I don’t see we will be getting anywhere.

            And although university is great and all, I insist on the importance of top quality primary and secondary education for all, in Caripe and Calabozo, in Maturín and Sabaneta.

            We sometimes take pre-university education for granted, particularly because of our background: ‘it’s just soo basic’. For most, it’s the only thing and they won’t be getting what almost all of us readers of these blogs got from our parents.


          • @Kepler “I insist on the importance of top quality primary and secondary education for all”

            On that I cannot but wholeheartedly agree… if they really knew about citizenship our university students who are currently striking for more oil-revenues to their university would be striking for more and better primary schools. I have a feeling many, or perhaps even most of those students, do not really belong in a university because of lacking education.


          • Per, I have tried to talk to some of those “student leaders”. I think I would be as lucky trying to get myself understood if I spoke in Sumerian.

            They don’t get it. I don’t think so much that they are a bit slow…it is they (at least those I have talked to) do not want to hear. They focus on their wee world. They don’t see that is not possible.

            A former professor with an excellent record in Venezuela and abroad told me this some time ago when I was talking to her about my PISA programme story and all the conversations I had with lots of people at university level to try to push for a couple of ideas: “I am afraid most students and teachers don’t really want to change things. They just want to preserve their status, increase the budgets for them”.

            And this is scary. It seems as if they really want to remain the only one-eyed in the kingdom of the blind than have the opportunity to use their two eyes AND at the same time allowing others to do the same.
            I know most parents want their children to be “the cleverest in the class”. But what happens in Venezuela – and this goes completely beyond political stance – is really mean: mejor medio bruto pero dueño de la casa importadora de televisores y agujas que tener que competir.

            And that is, of course, silly. You can only prosper so much if your country is sinking.


          • Kepler, I love that you would sign up for cash distribution. You make my week!

            You may be under the impression that people would only spend such money for surviving because you’ve only seen them in that context, as I pointed out in my comment. They *are* in survival mode. The culture that is nursed in these environments is that la viveza does pay off. It *is* the optimal learning. In an evironment that kills you if you don’t cheat, cheating is good.

            By removing survival from the equation, viveza stops being optimal. By everyone having money, the enviroment becomes one in which making money from offering goods and services becomes optimal. Responsibility, guarantees and pleasant service become necessities. Then the environment evolves into one where expanding and managing becomes optimal. To compete against others, training, education and smarts start becoming the optimal. Then research and development. Finally they are so big they have to start buying others out to grow, as the top Dow Jones companies show.

            I may have skimped on details above, but the point about it evolving together with cultural changes included should be clear. Education is useless at this survival stage, even detrimental in some cases. What the studies have shown in the links I’ve provided in the past is that, with cash, poor people are much more money-wise than anyone had expected, including in using it to getting their kids to do better in school, starting with increased attendance.

            Aside from that, let’s assume the worst case scenario that most people do take the money for whiskey. Firstly, let’s not sacrifice those that wouldn’t drink up for those that would. Secondly, but most importantly, there are people who sell the whiskey on the other end of that purchase. These would spend on goods and services provided by others, who would, in turn spend, on others, etc.. The point is even money coming from drunks helps the economy more efficiently than if the decision on what to spend it on had come from government. But going back to the earlier argument, the whiskey thing would go away as the environment changes from one of survival and hoplessness, to one of market activity filled those getting ahead being the ones working hard, instead of our current vivos.

            The crucial learnings, though, would be the ones of the government having to adjust to living off of taxation and the citizens having to adjust to demanding that the government spend the taxation money more wisely. It would kill the petro-state, which is what mostly keeps us in our current rut.

            Education, yes, privatized, yes, standardized testing, yes, raised bars, yes, stricter attendance, yes, books, yes, teachers yes, yes, yes…

            …but not until we get everyone out of survival mode.


          • No, Torres, then I won’t sign. Education comes first all the time. Please, give me one single counter example in world history, one.

            As I said: this problem precedes the oil times. Oil has made it just worse, but it was there before. Basically what you give them is what they had before Gómez. If they were left alone, people would grow their conuco and THAT WAS IT, that is it in Venezuela as Venezuela was just too fertile like that and there are no winters. That is also one of the reasons our native Americans did not develop what people in the Fertile Crescent (which was JUST as much fertile to foster people).

            Education was a key factor for development in absolutely every country that made it.

            What I do not want is education as in Tunesia or even in many places of Latin America, where people do get education but the quality is rather poor and people are not aware how much they are really missing.

            Did you go to public schools in Venezuela? You didn’t? I did and I can compare.
            Bad education, the education for a degree’s sake, is NOT what I mean.

            By the way: I am not for lowering standards through common tests as many in the Americas believe. I am for getting higher standards for all.


          • @Torres “Firstly, let’s not sacrifice those that wouldn’t drink up for those that would.”

            Even those who would drink it up in whisky would be better off since that would no longer also involve having to humiliate themselves with the Chief of turn in order to get some leveraged oil money (Recadi-Cadivi) for their whisky.


          • @Torres “Did you go to public schools in Venezuela?”

            Let me remind you that in Venezuela before the mid 50s the public schools were well renowned as being the good schools.


          • Per,

            I know they were. I know. I have written about it: public schools went to pot in the late seventies and later…not all at the same time.
            And the budget for education was taken over more and more by universities and universities became terribly politicized.
            I have compared the books my parents used with those children now use…it’s like two different countries.


          • We were a family of six living in a one bedroom apartment. My dad always said “all you’re getting from me is education, if I were to leave you only money, which I don’t have, someone better educated would steal it from you” And so he did, and we all graduated from college (a couple of master degrees), and we all now live good lives. Even though were were very poor, my mom always insisted on teaching us how to eat, how to talk to the adults, having good manners overall. The latter is something I see often missing even from the best “educated”. So I guess I do strongly agree with Kepler, education needs be #1 priority.


          • @Fred: “education needs be #1 priority”

            There is no discussion about that but how do you in Venezuela create the conditions for getting hold of good educators, when everyone are busy lobbying the Chief in control of the oil revenues so as to get a larger share of these than their neighbor? Are you waiting for the New Teacher?


          • Kepler,

            I think you misunderstand me. I believe in education. I wouldn’t be here without it. You don’t have to sell me on it.

            “Please, give me one single counter example in world history, one.” I know this isn’t going to go well for me, but I’m like a moth and a nearby light…

            Did cavemen survive without education or because of it? I know, it’s extreme, but you did say “world history”. Please don’t take this as proving you wrong; they survived in great part because of their learning and sharing of their learning with each other and their children, a form of homeschooling. But that’s my point exactly with cash distribution. Only by allowing barrios to come out of their survival mode by learning and sharing their learning through experience and example will they ever get to benefit from formal education.

            Without going so far back, cultures were trained in trade skills before they were “educated”, because, for survival, getting a trade was more important than being knowledged. It’s only after needs and trades were filled that we started getting the development of academics and formal education because it is only after those are filled that research and development become the key to survival. Just think, more than 85% of all engineers and scientists who ever lived are still alive today. They did not exist before.

            Again, the Emergency Room analogy is that we have do deal with choking and bleeding before we deal with balanced nutrition and safe sex education. You can even refer to Maslow’s pyramid, and see that education is not at the base.

            But I’m uncomfortable with history for the purpose of discussing what to do with poverty in Venezuela. I try to keep it simple, and history is not. Looking at it really simply, a co-worker of my dad told him that my dad had made a mistake with my education, that I wouldn’t survive a week on the streets because kids like his would eat me up.

            Let’s go back to the kid trying to set up a stand with hielitos con sabor a fruta. If we use all the natural resource money to educate all the children and families in poverty, the money is handed over to those in the education industry. So the people receiving the money are people who are already educated. And it’s people in the education industry who will get to spend the money. They will spend it on goods and services also provided by people who arealready successful, employed and/or educated, probably not on hielitos con sabor a fruta. Those in turn spend it on other providers and the money keeps circling the market (some of it a foreign market) until it gets taken up by taxation. The money does not go to the poor.

            So, how do the poor benefit? Education. They have that. So when the market expands, they need to hire people. People with education are the most desireable, if they were schooled in the right thing. Let’s assume they were. Does the market have room for them all? Nope. Not immediately, anyway. So what happens to those that don’t get hired. Can they set up a business? Nope. Not without seed money. Suppose they can and do. Do they succeed? Nope. Not without others in their neighborhood having money to buy their goods or service. Hmmm. So the only way for these educated people to survive is to use their education to become streetsmart. Vivos. No hielitos con sabor a fruta. For that to happen, cash has to get to the bottom, first.

            They’re choking, Kepler. Ask them. They know their needs. They know education is valuable (studies show they use the cash in education). But let them choose their own priorities. Who are you to impose education as a priority on adults who disagree with you? If my situation took a downturn forcing me to live in a barrio, who are you to decide that education is what I need most? You’d be wrong. That won’t happen, you say. That’s right, because those with education know others who are educated and successful, and by keeping the money in the market of the successful, the poor are excluded from the market until they become “one of us”.

            Now you start to see why it is so important to them that chavez is “one of them”? Still no? Your education may be blinding you. They are choking. Education is huge, but not first. Getting out of survival mode is first.


          • Fred, remember that to use natural resource money, even on education, is regressive. If the oil belongs to all Venezuelans, then a poor person is putting up one barrel of oil for every barrel of oil that a rich person puts up, to pay for his own education.

            Why are we forcing the poor person to pitch in his own capital, in the same proportion of the rich, on something he may not even agree is his priority, even when he is an adult?

            Do you think your dad would have spent it on anything other than education? Nope. Do you think the government would have spent it more wisely on education than your dad? Nope. Do you think your dad would have agreed on the government spending his money on something other than education? Nope. Yet, you wish to impose education on a dad that may not have agreed with your dad regarding education. Does your education let you see how that is wrong?


          • Torres,

            Homo sapiens conquered the world because of education (and her genes, but it is not like now that will work, as demographics among social classes work differently now…and now there are proper classes).

            All the education took place in those times in the family because there was absolutely no specialization and we saw how slow it went. She used the mechanism of education through a more complex system of communication – language. In any case: those times are long gone and for centuries now the better-off do not have more children than the poorer – from there the word proletariat -.

            As I said: you will find not a single case where a country developed without the government – be it council, state or country-having a serious take in promoting education for everybody.

            This is a waste of time. I am asking for some peanuts and you, who have never seen the position of those like Fred, think you know the way and won’t accept anything but implementing your idea.

            I have no problem with a cash distribution method now, but I won’t give up insisting in the fact the general public, the national or state or municipal government MUST provide for basic, top education and very concrete steps can be taken from day one. I have written extensively about some possible steps.

            I have lots of memories of visiting crappy schools, of my mom’s conversations with dysfunctional parents, of comparing levels between those who took education for granted and thought they did it because they were so brilliant and those who really hoped the teacher would arrive at all.
            I have not found a single counter-example in world history about what I am saying.

            We can take concrete steps for improving public education for children in Calabozo and Maturín, Puerto Cabello and Sabaneta now. The first step is making people aware of the mess the government is putting them in and how they can demand for better quality and transparency, not just money.

            Your theories could be more credible if you came from the same background as Fred. You really don’t know what it was or is like now, how it was several decades ago when my parents went to school in poor sectors.

            You are the one who thinks to impose one model while you hadn’t seen it from others perspective. Look at what Fred is saying. And it will be the same from virtually anyone coming from such position…and there is where the vast majority of Venezuelans come from.

            I can accept the distribution method you propose be implemented now, but at the very same time, not one day after, important actions need to be taken with regards to primary and secondary education.
            We can make it better. Other Latin American countries are showing, in spite of all their problems. It is not in our Venezuelan genes to remain like that OR use a method like yours, which is not much better than the voucher system in the States now.

            When you bring me here 10 Venezuelans with Fred’s background or mine, and they say “oh, no, don’t bother now with public schools, just give them the money first” I would start considering you more seriously.
            Otherwise, I think you should stick to explaining your absolute position to those who attended good private schools only, which is a tiny portion of Venezuela’s population.

            I don’t think it’s worth spending a single minute more on this discussion. You want it all your way, when you don’t really know what others had to depart from…and it is not like we are talking of “either implement cash distribution or do something about public education now”. With all respect: you just care about your idea. That won’t work, it is not magic and you haven’t seen real life for most Venezuelans.


          • @Kepler @Torres @Fred

            Education and Oil-revenue-distribution are not either or propositions.

            They go hand in hand … especially because limiting the central accumulation of oil revenues to something digestible within the parameters of a contestable democracy, and handing over the responsibility for the “siembra del petroleo” directly to the citizens, would entail one of the most important classes ever in citizenship education… which of course also means teacher education.


          • Kepler,

            Wow. You have no idea what my background is. My dad had to hang a flat piece of tin from the string of a single bare bulb hanging from the middle of the single room to see himself to shave. That was after being successful enough to pay for that room. Before that he had to put pupitres together to use as a bed at a religious elementary school where they let him stay out of charity so long as he was out before the kids arrived. Let’s just say that my dad would have gotten along great with Fred’s dad.

            I don’t know what kind of education would teach you to disqualify a person’s ideas for who they are instead of for the idea itself. Worse, you are requesting that a biased sample support the idea before you even consider it!

            Besides, as Per Kurowski points out, I’m not saying no education. What I say, and have always said, is: if education is to come from government, it has to come from *taxation*. The cash distribution is about natural resource monies, not taxation. I won’t repeat the arguments, since it seems you don’t seem to be reading them anyway, given what you think you know about me.

            Let’s just agree on one thing, the uneducated that support chavez would vote on my proposal over yours. It’s not wishing to listen to the non Freds, or even to the Freds that think differently, that has chavez still sitting pretty.


          • Loroferoz,

            Your dad went through that, not you.
            I had it also “easy”. Most of the time I was in those poor schools it was because my mom was teaching there.

            I ask you to come here with a Venezuelan who had fully gone to poor schools and/or had grown up in hard conditions (not his parents, as in your or my case) and still have your attitude to “first we let them create businesses out of the blue with their little oil cards”.

            And it is not like we are in “undersurvival mode”.
            Venezuela is poor, but many countries were poorer than Venezuela and they have gone over it already. They did that through education.

            As Per says: you don’t have to choose either for the cash distribution system or the education support from governments. You don’t have to.


          • Kepler,

            Like I said: “You have no idea what my background is.” I mentioned my dad’s background just to weight how much he agreed with Fred’s dad. Regarding my own background, I pointed out that it should not matter in measuring my ideas. If you insist on measuring my ideas by my background, well, it says more about you than my silence says about me.

            As to bringing people who agree with me, I’ve said before, the people in poverty are the first to jump on board; those with economics knowledge are the ones to give the most pushback.

            I know we don’t have to choose. You’re the one who’s been flipping from yes and no to the cash distribution system. I’ve been in favor of both education and cash distribution all along. My only argument with education is that spending on it *must come from taxation*.


          • Kepler, by the way, there’s a certain irony in your being so much in favor of formal education, as in learning coming from the teachings of others, yet you would give no weight to the opinions of people who didn’t have the direct experience of a rough life, even if their teachers (i.e., parents) did.


  18. @kepler
    I’d like to read what you’ve written about the Venezuelan public school system where can I find that?


    • I have written a bit in my Spanish and English blogs. Check posts with labels educación and education respectively.
      On the side, but related, a couple of guys in Venezuela and me sent the following proposal to the government
      It is just a detail and we knew the government would ignore the proposal, but we also knew we had to send it first, and as a proof, to send open copies to the international media and a lot of organisations. We previously discussed that with many university boards (rectors and others) and teachers’ federations and sadly they did not want to sign along because “they won’t pay attention”, “it’s not worth it” or “they would see it as an attack”. They did not understand it does not matter what the government thinks. It is a matter of starting to demand it and above all starting to inform Venezuelans about how this government is not really interested in a real improvement of Venezuelans’ education.
      Shame on them. Very tragically, it is not just the government.


      • gracias kepler! I know that in the begining of Chavez’s first presidency there were several efforts to reform the education system and I know someone who worked on those projects in terms of the universities and such… but all that planning never got far I heard. Thanks for the info i’ll check it out.. Any recommendations as far as venezuelan academics, sociologists ect. publishing on the subject?


  19. This post and a vast majority of the subsequent comments reminded me of how great this blog is, honestly. We come back to the key issue – to achieve development, we have not identified, concentrated on and tackle the right foes, simply because we fail to get what ‘development’ is about. As a result, we also fail to discuss its normative, theoretical and even empirical aspects properly. The greatest symbols of development for a vast majority of Venezuelans are a flashy building, dazzling cars in the streets or blackberries/the-last-gadget for all. That’s been our hollow faith in progress for several decades already, and the hombre nuevo bolivariano hasn’t killed that mindset.


  20. As for education being the top priority I would disagree.

    It is short sighted not to see that if crime is not fixed and barrios are not accessible and livable,mass education is only a pipe dream.

    If we visualize our lives in terms of a pyramid, the base would be physical( security, food, health etc), the middle would be achievement, love and belonging, family,and respect where educational needs lie, and then at the top of the pyramid would be spiritual development, and self actualization( the last to be developed.The order of priorities are of utmost importance.We should not skip steps.

    The first attention should always be directed toward the base.A good foundation has to be achieved before we build .


  21. Great post, Señor Nagel,
    the usual bonus school vacations for kids in public schools starting at beginning of dicember because of the strike habits. Still a regular chilean teacher does not make more than 450$, at least in province. For 40 class hours a week. And I know someone at a very posh Santiago private school who earns 1000$ for 24 hours in class. In Germany you would make 3 times that at a public school. And you will receive an excelent pension.
    Vendedora jefe en una optica had to sign a contract that stipulates that she has to pay lentes robados.
    A generally liberal manager in some small wood cutting endeavour tells me that his company would break, if trade unions enter.
    A guy from a banco santander branch in province says that they offer very different and much more expensive credit contracts for poor guys than for the well off, because they don’t understand the contract.
    The collapse of the salmon industry, because of underregulation. A guy who manages a company in that business tells me drunken that maybe the japanese introduced the virus.
    There are some good approaches, in housing for example, but still the Gini Coeficient remains where it was when Pinochet resigned.
    In the 90ties Chile grew well with low copper prices. Now they are through the roof.
    Maybe a different set of ideas is needed. More like Dani Rodrik style.


  22. You could carry on forever about Venezuelans, specially the educated and rich ones… But your Chilean friend said it all: “In this country, GDP per capita could hit $20,000 per year, and people would still think like backwards Latin American assholes.”.

    The only thing I would add is that such thinking results in our having a GDP per capita descending precipitously and a huge group of backwards Latin American assholes with a sky-high sense of entitlement baffled and angry.


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