(Since Cadivi is gasping its final breaths surrounded by controversy and not a minute too soon, this guest post by Iesa professor Pedro Luis Rodríguez could not be better timed. Rodríguez takes on Javier Corrales’ assertion that we’re mostly middle class, and concludes that it was all a mirage. Take a read and let us know how you view this debate)
Venezuela’s Middle Ground: now you see it, now you don’t
In a recent article in Foreign Policy, Javier Corrales argues that Venezuela today is a country of “mostly middle-class people”. Following the World Bank’s income thresholds for determining class membership, Corrales classifies each income decile in Venezuela into their respective class.
I’ve replicated his table following the guidelines in the appendix to his article (see Table 1). It is evident, as Corrales highlights, that by this measure in 2012 the majority of Venezuelans belonged to the middle class. Moreover, the distribution differs markedly from 1990 as a result of a large portion of the poor crossing the middle class threshold during the recent windfall (especially post 2005).
Corrales correctly points out that once we agree that Venezuela is a middle class country, then deriding the recent wave of protests as “too middle class” is absurd and, in the case of the government, a political blunder. What else would one expect in a middle class country but middle class demands, including demands for better governance outcomes and representation?
The other half of the story
Yet Corrales’ table shows only half the story. In a country highly dependent on oil revenues, defining social progress solely in terms of income is problematic as we run the risk of confusing a temporary increase in consumption, financed with oil revenues, with a permanent increase in welfare. The only way the latter can be achieved is through sustained increases in productivity.
There is little doubt that the oil bonanza of the past decade and the government’s (re)distributive policies increased the income of the poor in Venezuela, swelling the middle class, at least as defined by the World Bank’s income thresholds. But to the extent that these outcomes are not the reflection of increased productivity but rather of increased consumption financed by high oil revenues, they are highly dependent on the incremental (not just continued) flow of this revenue. Once this flow becomes strained, as has been occurring since 2013, the model not only becomes unviable, but its apparent achievements can quickly be wiped out.
To get a sense of what this would entail, I reconstructed Corrales’ table using the World Bank data on GNI in local currency, converting it at the black-market exchange rate and applying the same PPP and inflation adjustment as in table 1 (see Table 2). While at the official exchange rate, Venezuelans’ incomes are indeed those of a middle-income country, at the black-market exchange rate this no longer holds. In this picture the majority of Venezuelans are poor.
Which picture is right? This depends on the capacity of the government to maintain its distributive policies including an overvalued exchange rate, which in turn depends on sustaining a steady supply of dollars. While Table 1 is likely a more accurate representation of income distribution in Venezuela between 2004 and 2012, I would argue reality is rapidly converging towards the second picture (Table 2), as the supply of dollars shrinks and becomes erratic.
Some will correctly point out that the black-market exchange rate is not a proper measure of the market exchange rate one would see if it were allowed to float. In reality, it would be somewhere in between the official rate and the black market one (estimating this is not straightforward).
This deserves two comments: first, at this moment, as the government prevaricates in its economic policy, it is forcing the picture to look much more like Table 2 than need be, as goods are priced at the black-market rate for lack of access to dollars, or are simply non-existent. Second, Table 1 is but an illusion that is unraveling, with the trend nowadays clearly in the direction of the second picture. Whether we ever reach it or not is inconsequential for the argument that follows.
Yes, many Venezuelans, and most particularly the poor, managed to climb up the income ladder as a result of the government’s distribution of the oil bonanza. In particular, as has also been common in previous governments, through the use of an overvalued exchange rate. Yet, as dollars have become scarce for reasons that are beyond the scope of this article, the precariousness of these outcomes becomes manifest.
The income ladder has not only been withdrawn, but those that had climbed up are being pulled back down. I would posit that this, rather than middle class demands, explains the growing discontent, part of which (although far from its entirety) has expressed itself on the streets in recent weeks. Whether the “new” middle class identifies itself with traditional middle class demands of better governance and representation remains to be seen. The speed and means through which this change in incomes occurred – distribution of rents rather than productivity – arguably suggest the contrary.
That is not to say however, that the focus of the opposition’s discourse should lie on unsatisfied basic needs rather than demands for accountability, representation and political and economic freedoms. The challenge lies in explaining how the scarcity of the latter explains the abundance of the former.
Is this really so different from 1989?
Unfortunately the data on income distribution is not readily available, yet we can still look at mean income (in constant 2005 international $) measured at the official and black market exchange rates (see Figure 1). The widening gap between these two measures is evident since 2004. Yet we see exactly the same pattern in the period preceding 1989. As in 1989, what we are observing today is the confrontation of inflated expectations, formed over a period of bonanza and grand promises, with an increasingly grim reality.
In 1989 the consequences of this confrontation were traumatic. This time around, the gap between expectations and reality is I arguably much larger, and hence the potential for an explosive outcome much greater. A lot depends on how the government confronts its economic demons, although it might already be too late. If this narrative is correct, we have only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to discontent taking over the streets. Are the paramilitary groups known as colectivos enough to contain this?
Mirages in the desert
To be clear, the proposed narrative is not inconsistent with Corrales’. It could very well be that the swelling of the middle class observed over the past oil boom led to the emergence of middle class demands for governance and representation. It should be possible to see this in surveys such as Latinobarómetro. The narrative above however does claim that the main source of discontent brewing today is the result of the confrontation of inflated expectations with a dismal reality. This discontent is not so different from that which led to social unrest in 1989. Venezuelans are once again at that point when the mirages created by the bonanza disappear, leaving them in the same desolation they found themselves in over twenty years ago.
The question that remains is whether the opposition is able to offer a way out of this vicious cycle. To do so, it must explain why we are where we are, and provide a credible vision of how we are going pull ourselves up by our bootstraps rather than hold on to vain hopes of a new bonanza. We all want the first picture to be true (Table 1). Indeed we want all blocks to be colored red or grey. Yet the only way for this to be sustainable is via a continued increase in productivity. Our oil income can be an instrument in this endeavor but it can never substitute for our effort. Whether we’ve understood this remains to be seen, otherwise we will keep grasping at mirages in the desert.
Pedro Luis Rodríguez
Assistant Professor – IESA/UCAB