Praying to St. Chavez Won't Save Venezuela

Venezuela's new cabinet will be as effective as its new version of the  "Our Father" prayer to save its economy.
Ruling from the great beyond.                                      

At a recent "socialist training workshop" in Caracas, the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela rolled out a homemade version of the Lord's Prayer. "Our Chavez, who Art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name," it went. The nod, of course, was to the deceased Venezuelan leader, Hugo Chavez, who died last year of cancer and left his devoted following bereft and the country in a shambles.

Perhaps it's no accident that the oration comes on the heels of a massive cabinet overhauling announced this week by Chavez's chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro, a former bus driver who has the wheel but hardly a clue of where he's going.

Not to worry. Since Chavez's day, when the going gets rough in the Bolivarian Republic, the solution is to sack the help. Maduro, with a Chavista flair for drama, called it the Sacudon, the Big Shakeup. On Aug. 18, Maduro had asked all 32 cabinet ministers to tender their resignations and then hinted at an economic reset. This ignited hopes that the Boligarchs might finally give up trying to revoke the basic rules of economics and adopt some pragmatic measures to halt the nation's disarray.

Vice president for the economy Rafael Ramirez, who doubled as energy czar and chief executive of the state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA, had nodded in the right direction. In the run-up to the Sacudon, he had called for raising Venezuela's pennies-per-gallon fuel prices, ending the dual exchange rate for the battered bolivar, and curbing the money supply to stanch inflation.

That would have made sense. Venezuela stopped publishing the annual consumer price index in May, when inflation was already topping 60 percent, the worst in Latin American. Ham-fisted price freezes, which the Maduro government recently broadened, have only made things worse, emptying stores of artificially cheap goods and sending consumers to social media on goose chases for diapers and thyroid medicine. Venezuela, which sits on the world's largest proven oil reserves, recently announced imports of crude from Algeria.

Instead, Venezuelans got more of the same. The shakeup was billed as an effort to rescue socialism by making it more efficient. A one-way ticket to Havana to the companero who can explain what that means. Where Venezuelans had gone to bed in the Bolivarian revolution, they woke up to "five revolutions" -- economics, knowledge, social welfare, state policies and something called "territorial socialism." To implement all this, Maduro also created a half-dozen new vice-presidents.

Ramirez was reassigned (banished?) to foreign affairs, and his former superministry was fractured into three. The economy post was handed over to an army general. Energy went to Asdrubal Chavez, the late leader's first cousin, and PDVSA to an oil technocrat.

The new oil executive, Eulogio Del Pino, a career oilman with a masters degree in exploration from Stanford University, drew some muted praise. So did the decision to separate the job of running PDVSA from that of the ministry charged with overseeing the oil company, "an evident conflict of interest," energy consultant and former PDVSA director Gustavo Coronel told me.

The rest of the Sacudon offered mostly optical illusion. Ten top cabinet members have held more than 70 different jobs between them since the beginning of Chavez's experiment in "21st Century Socialism." Honors to Elias Jaua, who has accumulated 10 different titles in the last 14 years, and now moves from foreign minister to something called minister of the Commons.

Instead of renewal, this is government by Lazy Susan. "We sense that any serious and comprehensive discussion, let alone implementation, of key policy adjustment measures is unlikely to take place any time soon," said Oxford Economics, an economic consulting firm, in a note to clients on Wednesday. Many Venezuelans see no point in sticking around, and some 10 percent are said to be weighing emigration. The rest will have to pray to Saint Hugo.

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