An illusion of harmony, but without the harmony

Logo_Acción_DemocráticaFew books have marked Venezuela’s public debate as much as “El caso Venezuela: una illusion de armonía.” It was published in the mid-1980s by a group of young academics from the IESA Business School in Caracas, the then-unknown Ramón Piñango and Moisés Naím.

It bums me that I don’t have a copy of the book with me, but I still remember a few of its main lessons. The most important one was the alarm bells they kept ringing: in the waning days of the petro-state – the “Saudi Venezuela” – these folks set out to warn Venezuela that the good times could not last, that we couldn’t simply expect to go through life without prioritizing things, and that the lack of deep social conflict in the country at the time (yes, kids, that was Venezuela back then) was alarming.

The term “illusion of harmony” is a term that stuck in Venezuela’s public consciousness, probably because it described so fittingly a specific moment in time.

Well, we’ve stopped being that country long ago, but many of the traits the authors identified – the apparent disdain for hard work, the lack of clarity when it comes to public policy, the falsehood of the idea that Venezuela “is a rich country” – are still very much with us.

In honor of the 30th anniversary of the book, Prodavinci has published an insightful interview with Piñango, one of its authors. The part that jumps out at me:

“In spite of the dictatorships, the coups, and the personalistic regimes, in 1984 there had been something absent in our social relationshps. There was a lack of conflict. That was very strange because there were three basic guidelines that had steered, explicitly or implicitly, how the country and private industries were governed: there’s enough for everything, everything is possible, and since there is enough for everything and everything is possible, let’s avoid conflict,” recalls Piñango as if yesterday was today and Venezuela was still a fascinating case study.

This abundance of wealth, of course, was a veneer of civility, the glue that kept our unruly social fabric in its place.

Here’s another highlight:

“Venezuelan management was marked by the terrible principle that “if there’s enough for everything and everything is possible, why should I say no to you? This meant, for example, not having to establish priorities.”

Piñango goes on to say that our institutions were born out of this idea of incredible wealth, and are therefore ill-equipped to handle conflict. Our unions, our city halls, our state governments were born under the idea of “sharing the wealth.” Working together to achieve a common goal, to create something that doesn’t exist, is simply not their thing.

Even the main political party of the time, Acción Democrática, had in its banner the lemma “Bread, Land, and Work” … “Pan, Tierra y Trabajo.” All of these things refer to sharing the wealth, not to creating it. Implicit in the motto is the idea that the party is going to be in charge of giving people … bread, land, and work. The party was the provider of stuff.

I wonder how much of the cultural traits we find in Venezuelans, the apparent friendliness and openness in business or in social life, come from this idea that “there’s enough for everyone.” Could it be that our most valued personality traits … are based on a mirage? The harmony is long gone, but is the illusion still living within us?

I wonder…

26 thoughts on “An illusion of harmony, but without the harmony

  1. To know whether or not “there is enough for everyone” in a given country, we need to know “how much is there?” It is an entirely empirical question. Based on the empirical facts about proven resources, and population, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Norway, etc. do seem to have enough for everyone.

    The way these resources are handled and distributed is an important question, though. The fact that a country has “enough” should be an argument for well-funded infrastructure and education, not for complacency and aimlessness.


    • It’s the wrong question. Ask the inhabitants of Luxembourg or Singapore about the vast mineral wealth that underpins their extraordinary prosperity!! If you read Alí Rodríguez’ interview in El Universal last Sunday, you’ll see that he suffers from a particularly acute version of this misapprehension. Alí is convinced that the ‘power’ of the South American bloc of nations comes from its natural resources, and that Unasur’s main task is therefore to unite in defence of these and organise their exploitation to the benefit of the masses. Paja. In the XXI century we really need politicians that understand that the wealth of a nation comes from the skill, education and creativity of its people.


  2. Great post, but I am disappointed that you changed “the money quote” for “The part that jumps out at me” probably because you do not want to be seen as an “overly eager immigrant”!


    • Well, since jau brought it up … The “money quote” thing reminds me of those e-mails you get from a ‘financial adviser” who wants you to invest in a “fantastic” opportunity. Also tends to made issues seem rather uni-dimensional …well, maybe they are? !? :-( Anyway I like “The part that jumps out at me” for a change. No hype.


  3. I shall quote Alexander von Humboldt based on his observations of 1799-1800:

    “We met in the city many people who through a certain lightness of behaviour, through a wider scope of ideas and – may I say – through a strong preference for the form of government of the United States, showed they had a lot of links with the outside world. Here we heard for the first time under these skies people pronouncing the names of Franklin and Washington with excitement. Next to the expression of this excitement we got to hear complains about the current situation of New Andalusia, images, often exaggerated, of the natural wealth of the country, and passionate, impatient desires for a better future”

    Sounds like our mayameros de hoy.
    In another part he mentions the indolence of those who arrived and thought for a long time that hard work was beyond them.

    This thing precedes oil.

    We are the feudal land where everyone thinks he has to be part of the military caste or a big landowner or…a politician. Now, of course, we have people like Chacín or Rodríguez Torres who are all three in one.


  4. That’s a big license you take, interpreting “Pan, tierra y trabajo” like that. How does that imply that the party was the ‘provider of the stuff’? And if so – and not to defend AD – why would it be bad that a party aims at providing employment to the people?


    • I think a party that sees itself as a provider is … populist. Political parties should not be there to give stuff people, they should promote an agenda so that people find jobs.


      • Reminds me of a political party in Peru, I can’t recall the name, who’s symbol is a shovel. Their flags are up all over the Sacred Valley area. Clearly, their main program is to provide jobs.


      • Yes, yes, pour me a glass of port, Juan.

        You mean, in a feudal land — yes, still — one should have been content with the then alternative «Porrr la Justicia Social en una Venezuela mejorrr».


  5. Good post … except your “Pan, Tierra, y Trabajo” interpretation is off the mark. Or, at the very least, it is a very subjective interpretation because I don’t see a redistributionist ideology in that phrase.


  6. The illusion is still alive and the misconception that we are entitled to that fake wealth is another archetypal behaviour. Some Venezuelans even practice it as a religion, preaching the whole world that we are a rich country and that this wealth is not well distributed. Unfortunately, even some people around the world, like my foreign colleagues, believe this blatant lie. I’m one of those in charge of debunking the myth whenever I hear these comments, often confronted by fellow Venezuelans.
    Moreover I believe this has its roots deep into our history. Caudillismo, the conception that an almighty figure will suddenly come and solve everyone’s problems is the real origin of those Venezuelan traits. In their race for power, Caudillos constantly feed this mirage. See recent campaigns from the top presidential candidates in Venezuela and you will see the “rich country” phrase in all their speeches.
    Great Blog Juan Cristobal, keep it up


  7. Maybe AD’s ‘Pan Tierra y Trabajo’ slogan was an attempt to top General Gomez very catchy slogan of ‘Union, Paz y Trabajo’ which people spoofed by changing it to ‘Union …en las carceles , Paz …..en los cementerios, Trabajo …en las carreteras’ ( road building being done by gangs of jailed labourers) . I myself am convinced that political slogans are no better than commercial jingles , meant to please but not to be taken seriously .


  8. I think Juan is referring that the particular Venezuelan cultural attitude of “Facilismo” if you look at the entire history of Venezuela, you will see that the country was blessed with huge natural wealth: Oil, iron, hydroelectric, arable fertile land, superb weather. The country went through a relatively mild war of independence compared to what we saw in other countries. The racial harmony was real. Venezuela was the first country were interracial marriage was legal many, many years before it was in the USA, or any place else. The citizens had it easy in the sense that we never suffered territorial invasions or famine or lack of anything. There seemed to be enough for everybody. We grew into an egalitarian country with an European style social democratic government with free education and healthcare mandated by the constitution. Things were good and really “facil” for all.

    I never understood what Chavez’ appeal was. We had socialism in Venezuela before he came to power. What we did not have was a government that cared about its citizens as mandated by the constitution and Chavez provided them that illusory salvation they sought.

    I do remember that politicians way back to President Romulo Bentancourt were warning the country to “sow the petrodollars” The only one who tried was Carlos Andres Peres and he got in trouble for it.

    I suspect that a culture of “facilismo” mixed in with communistic economics ideas is a very toxic mixture that would naturally lead to the situation you have now.

    I suspect my late father was right when he compared Venezuela to fat sow with hungry and squealing piglets pushing and shoving to get their turn and the tit flowing with rich fat milk.


  9. This book is very special to me, because when its first edition was published, I was at high school, and I had to wash cars to bought it, to read it my free time. It took me one week to read it all. For me, it was a very appasionate reading. The chapters, from the first about the vzlan society (from the gomez silence to the miami noise), to the last one (an illusion of harmony), where all an entire universe. Unknown to me (I was 17 back then). Indeed, this book make me decide to get my degree in economics at the university. And some of their ideas are still with me, even when I leave Vzla several years ago.

    Vzla is an illusion. I don’t see nothing real there. Government is not a government, they’re just office boys of real bosses (chinese and cubans). Opposition is not a real opposition. It’s a joint government. Society is not a society. Vzlans are inhabitants. No one there is part of a society. Openness and friendliness are the positive face of vanity and shalowness. Since a long time ago, Vzla is a reluctant country for complex ideas. I had to live with it all my professional life there. And the worst was that some people used to listen to me and of course, I heard what they said, but in the end, they always came with this line: “What do you think of doing it more easily and not so hard as your proposal?” And this is not only from a pdvsa professional or a government bureaucrat. It came from the private enterprise too.

    This book was a very interesting warning sign for the times that Vzla is living now. And for the times that lie ahead. And, despite of the book, nobody, and I mean nobody did anything to avoid this. Instead, Vzlan elites took the path that bring these present. About this book, I remember an interview with Mr Piñango and Mr Naím, in RCTV’s “Primer Plano”. And as I remember, they Piñango and Naím, both had hope about Vzla’s future. That, as time has show us, was an illusion.

    About the AD’s slogan, We should remember that the first Vzlan party with a leninist structure, is AD. Not the PCV. Therefore, the slogan “Bread, Land and Work” points to the objectives of the entire party: give bread to the hungry, share the land to the farmers and give work to the people.


    • Bill Bass and TheMan pointed in the right direction over the AD slogan thing. The slogan can only be broken down by bringing back WHEN it was first set forth and its symmetry with Gomez’s slogan. ‘Union, Peace and Work’ were goals to be achieved for the nation, whereas ‘Bread, Land and Work’ were goals for the people.

      The Bolsheviks uttered the same phrase during their revolution but AD ended up sugarcoating it with jaggery and voila! —Venezuelan populism was born.


  10. The most important illusion is the illusion of racial harmony.

    Venezuelan race relations have a underlying logic based on a history of genocides. Three genocides: once against the native Americans (colonial period) and twice against Europeans (Boves, Zamora).

    Chavismo realized early on that there is not going to be enough for everyone, and the solution was/is again ethnic cleansing –by mass exile provoked by hunger– of, once more, Europeans and their descendants/allies.

    It worked in Zimbabwe where the entire middle class was pushed out, it worked in Cuba where the same thing happened.

    But Venezuelans will only realize it a couple of decades from now…cause they are sold on the idea that Venezuelans are not a deeply racist people.


  11. I’ve heard this Venezuela-is-not-rich position many times and it strikes me odd every time. If someone had an inheritance of millions, I’d consider them rich even if they squandered away the money and were living in poverty. I would not be blind to their poverty status, so I would not include them in the same bucket of rich people living well, but I would not include them in the same bucket of other poor people with no millions in a bank. That Venezuela has riches is plain for all to see, and this, I believe, is to what most people make reference when they state “Venezuela is rich.”

    The countries that I consider poor tend to be focused on *producing* riches. That Venezuela’s main concern is in how to *distribute* the value of its riches points to a rich nation’s concern, not a poor nation’s concern.


    • Venezuela is not rich. Having the potential to be rich, and squandering it to the point you then owe your shirt to creditors, is not being rich.

      A rich country is a country in which people have good incomes based on their production. Venezuela is a crumbling oil industry subsidizing a poor country and finding every year new ways to produce less and need more.


      • That does not imply that by elimination it is therefore a poor country. Venezuela is not a poor country. A poor country does not have vast resources, and does not have Venezuela’s easy potential to be rich, and a poor country is not poor because they are constantly squandering millions.

        So, you missed my point: Venezuela is more of a wasteful rich country living in squalor than what is implied by merely calling Venezuela “a poor country”. Ask any poor country if they wished they had Venezuela’s riches.


  12. This post touched a cord with me. It reminded me of growing up in Venezuela in the 70s where the illusion of wealth for all was current even if real wealth was enjoyed by others instead of my own family. The days of a US greenback at 4.50 and stories of Venezuelan frequenting Miami to buy brandname products, etc, and of buying at home imported US goods. I even remember the AD political tv adds promising to share the wealth… Venezuela to me is still a puzzle, especially so after my recent visit there this summer.


  13. The wealth of nations exits in the disposition and capacity of its people to produce wealth that once produced all can share directly or indirectly , Mineral or Oil resources are not bythemselces wealth unless it is transformed, by organized competent human endevour into something which people will use and profit from using to improve their quality of life . If there were no oil companies of competence then that proto wealth would lie fallow and useless . Ultimately it is that capacity for organized competent productive human endevour which is the true source of all sustainable wealth.!! Thats why we are a poor country depndent on others to provide that organized human endevour to transform those oil deposits into something that can help improve our lives. . .


    • I find it surprising that one who normally bases comments on perspectives and details that usually are missed by most is espousing a position based on the similarities of the ends between poor countries, rather than the differences in means.

      The funny thing is that I agree with your argumentation for defining Venezuela a poor country. In fact, I believe Venezuela is the nation in the world that is furthest from an easy potential. Where I think we differ is in the answesr to the questions that those who espouse your position seem to always sidestep:

      If Venezuela’s natural resources tomorrow disappeared, then would you be saying Venezuela is just as poor, a little poorer, a lot poorer, a huge lot poorer? From the point of view of poor nations with no natural resources, don’t you think they would find it almost offensive to put a nation with so many natural resources in their bucket? From the point of view of rich nations, don’t you think they would almost unanimously think that they could make Venezuela very rich, very quickly if only they got to run it?

      You see, the key in defining Venezuela is not in the end result, but in how quickly it could turn those result if it got its act together. Venezuela’s potential is what makes it a rich nation. Its natural resources, like an inheritance, kicks it out of the poor bucket. Maybe we just need another term, but in the meantime, “not poor” seems more accurate than “not rich”.


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