The Devil Comes to Collect His Due

Crime is soaring in Venezuela, and it's not too hard to identify the reason: Hugo Chávez and his pursuit of unbridled political power.

If, despite the best efforts of President Hugo Chávez's electoral sorcerers, the Venezuelan opposition captures a significant share of the seats in this Sunday, Sept. 26's legislative elections, there will be no dearth of explanations for the government's debacle. In more ways than one can count, Venezuela is in a dire predicament. Amid daily blackouts and the highest inflation in Latin America, the International Monetary Fund expects the Venezuelan economy to contract yet again in 2010, alone among the region's booming economies. Few narratives, however, will be as compelling as the country's descent into crime hell.

Only a few days ago, Chávez stated unequivocally that "it is not true that Venezuela is one of the most dangerous countries in the world, nor is it true that today there is more violence here than there was 11 years ago." Facts, however, are stubborn things. Since 1999, when Chávez took office, no Latin American country has seen a more acute deterioration in personal safety than Venezuela. The country's homicide rate has gone from 20 per 100,000 people in 1998 to 49 per 100,000 in 2009 -- nine times as high as in the United States. This places Venezuela solidly among the world's most violent countries, alongside chronically bad cases such as Jamaica and Guatemala. In the capital city, Caracas, the rate is 122 per 100,000, a figure comparable only to that of Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican border town where drug traffickers are literally waging a war against the state and one other. Car theft rates, a good barometer of property crime (unlike other crimes, stolen cars are usually reported to the authorities), have also exploded from 69 per 100,000 people in 1998 to 155 in 2009.

No wonder, then, that crime -- according to nearly every opinion poll carried out in the run-up to the election -- tops voters' concerns by a large margin. In August, the Venezuelan Institute for Data Analysis (IVAD) reported that 84 percent of voters mentioned insecurity as a major concern, while less than half that percentage mentioned unemployment, the second most important issue to voters. With the vote just around the corner, the opposition is running neck and neck with Chávez's party and has a fighting chance of capturing a majority of the popular vote, though not of the heavily gerrymandered seats.

The government's anxiety is palpable. Since 2004, it has refused to release official crime figures, leaving the task of compiling them to NGOs. In August, the government-controlled judiciary cautioned El Nacional, an opposition newspaper, against publishing images related to "blood, weapons and terror messages." The warning followed the newspaper's controversial decision to publish a large cover photo of wounded corpses in Caracas's main morgue. True to form, Chávez has oscillated between blaming the remnants of capitalism for the mess and claiming that "the United States has infiltrated Venezuela … to kill, to kidnap people and then to say that Chávez can't [govern effectively]" -- that is, when he's not denying that crime is a problem altogether.

The true causes of Venezuela's crime explosion are more prosaic. Most glaring is the collapse of law-enforcement institutions, which have grown riddled with corruption and politicization under Chávez's rule. The judiciary, turned by the president into an appendage of his administration, has become a dysfunctional instrument, able to persecute political opponents but not criminals. The result is impunity on a scale that is bad even by Latin American standards -- only 2 percent of murders are solved by the Venezuelan authorities. It is hardly mystifying that, according to the Iberoamerican Governance Barometer (a regional public opinion survey), a mere 15 percent of Venezuelans trust the police, while 18 percent trust the Supreme Court. In the region, only Paraguay produces worse results on questions of trust.

The president's conscious effort to undermine local governments and recentralize public policies has only compounded the breakdown of law and order. Practically all of Latin America's recent successes against crime, in places like Bogotá, Colombia, and Sao Paulo, Brazil, have been led by dynamic local authorities. Yet Venezuela's local governments, systematically deprived of resources and prerogatives by Chávez, have become a shadow of their former selves. Their weakening is no accident: Approximately 45 percent of the country's population lives in states or cities governed by the opposition.

The hollowing out has reached its most farcical extreme in Caracas. Last year, the city's mayoralty, controlled by the opposition since the 2008 local elections, was summarily emasculated by a law that transferred most of its functions, funding, and personnel to a new Venezuelan "capital district" led by a Chávez-appointed official.

Finally, there is Venezuela's increasingly visible role in the drug trade, a phenomenon that has decisively impacted crime rates elsewhere. According to the 2010 U.N. World Drug Report, "Venezuela has emerged as a prominent trans-shipment location for cocaine destined for Europe and the United States." In fact, more than half of intercepted shipments of cocaine bound for Europe from 2006 to 2008 started their journey in Venezuela. Even without accusing the country's armed forces of complicity in the narcotics trade -- as some of Chávez's most vociferous critics have done -- this much can be said: Venezuela's increased role in drug trafficking owes much to Chávez's longstanding decision to abet Colombia's narco-insurgency, the FARC, in its war against the Colombian government. (Two months ago, the Colombian ambassador to the Organization of American States laid out a robust and detailed indictment of the Venezuelan government for allowing the existence of 87 FARC camps well inside its territory. Years of evidence have suggested that some of the FARC's top officers have lived unperturbed in Venezuela and had access to the highest echelons of the Venezuelan state.)

Chávez's indulgence of the FARC and his tolerance of pervasive corruption among Venezuelan authorities, may now be coming to haunt him. Where drug trafficking becomes entrenched, crime rates soar. Just look at Mexico and Central America.

In any society, the causes of crime are exceedingly complex. Yet in Venezuela's case, a few of them can unequivocally be traced back to government policies. Long ago, Hugo Chávez made a decision to politicize law-enforcement bodies, undermine local governments, and befriend narcoterrorists. For the sake of political expediency, he made a pact with the devil. Now, disguised as burgeoning crime rates, the devil has come around to collect his due. Sunday may well be the day when Chávez starts paying him back.



No Easy Fix for U.S. Foreign Aid

Obama's got the right idea, but it will be harder than he thinks.

During a Wednesday speech at the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals Summit, U.S. President Barack Obama rolled out the results of his administration's long-delayed review of America's global development policy. The take-away was simple: The United States has to start being picky about how it distributes aid. Gone are the days when Washington can help everyone everywhere. As Obama declared, "We must be more selective and focus our efforts where we have the best partners and where we can have the greatest impact."

Reform of U.S. foreign assistance programs is long overdue. Development efforts have been governed by a messy and often conflicting set of approaches -- the administration itself notes that government agencies are today pursuing over 1,000 different development goals, objectives, and priorities. Every Congress and administration for the last five decades has tacked on additional language to the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act and other regulations about what aid should look like. The increasing number of agencies now operating overseas has only added to the confusion.

The good news is that Obama gets it. The bad news is that all of this is much easier said than done.

Obama's plan is simple: Pick your countries, pick your priorities. Once America selects a country to focus on, its re-vamped aid system will focus on sustained economic growth, innovation and technology development, and country "ownership" -- that is, getting local input into figuring out what's most important and tailoring the aid specifically to the stated need. The policy requires the administration to update its global development strategy every four years. And the United States will work with other donors to hammer out a sensible division of labor on the plethora of global needs.

There is little to argue with in all of this, except for the fact that it will need some luck -- and a lot of vigilance -- to actually work. The central concept that aid dollars should only go to countries that will use them wisely, for one, is certain to add complications. The George W. Bush administration had in fact begun a limited-scale program based on this principle, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which applies strict standards and a clear application process to potential recipients. But to this day, some of the top recipients of Washington's funds include countries in which reform remains an afterthought.

Beyond this basic roadblock, there are five main points of tension that could make the bright ideas in the new strategy highly difficult to realize:

Rhetoric versus Reality

Since taking office, both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have repeatedly said they want to make the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) the "world's premier development agency." But their actions and the actions of the administration generally have people wondering if this is actually the case. The pace of political appointments at the agency has been nothing short of glacial; less than half of the senior political staff positions at USAID have been filled. The State Department, of which USAID is a part, has also resisted provisions that would give the aid agency a stronger voice at the policymaking table. And despite several efforts negotiated between State and the National Security Council to staff USAID more robustly, the agency remains firmly under State's purview. This is problematic because the diplomatic corps is notorious for wanting to use aid dollars to curry short-term favor and influence with host countries, rather than focusing on long-haul development efforts.

The true test of the limits of rhetoric will come when the administration faces the decision whether to help a country that's friendly but not reform-minded. The evidence so far doesn't bode well: Ethiopia and Rwanda, two important U.S. allies, are featured prominently in the administration's new Global Health Initiative -- despite a crescendo of complaints about human-rights violations in both countries.

The Division of Labor

Obama's new policy emphasizes a clear division of labor with other donors and multilateral institutions. But making this happen will be extraordinarily difficult. Developing countries have long complained that every different donor brings with it a variety of different requirements -- and reams of corresponding paperwork. Very little is said in the review about how this division of labor will take place and how donors will collectively reduce or unify the paperwork burden they place on aid-receiving countries. This isn't just about getting everyone to agree; some of the key multilateral agencies, such as the World Bank, are both quite slow in instituting programs and reluctant to impose standards related to good governance or human rights.

PEPFAR versus Everything Else

PEPFAR, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, was a signature Bush initiative that substantially increased U.S. assistance around the globe, particularly to Africa. It has grown into a huge financial commitment for the United States, and politicians of all stripes have been loath to criticize a lifesaving program launched by a Republican president. But no single area of aid spending is probably more sharply at odds with Obama's commitment to promote sustainable, country-driven economic growth and reform.

Huge chunks of PEPFAR money are now flowing into countries like Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, and Uganda -- not exactly high on the list of democratic or free market reformers. But PEPFAR has a strong and vocal constituency and remains vital in saving lives. The resolution of the PEPFAR dilemma will be a key barometer of how seriously the administration takes its new approach. The compromise will likely entail using greater percentages of PEPFAR funds to focus on reforming local health ministries rather than simply relying on external aid to serve as a substitute.

The Economic Growth Problem

The troubled state of a beneficiary country's politics isn't the only measure that could derail its aid relationship with the United States -- economics also matters, something that could create some serious challenges in the long-term, especially given that USAID has steadily been drained of expert personnel on economic issues. The agency now relies heavily on outside contractors to fill the gap.

In light of the recent global economic meltdown, as well as the very, very mixed results of World Bank recommendations in the 1980s, developing countries may not be entirely receptive to listening to American economic advice. Given that Washington has been unwilling to take on hard issues like the U.S. domestic agricultural subsidies that prove an anti-competitive drag on many African countries, cooperation could become even more difficult. It will be hard to convince a developing country of the joys of the free market if the U.S. still doesn't have the political courage to reduce handouts to our own farmers.

Solving the Crisis du Jour

The policy review has surprisingly little to say about work in post-conflict settings such as Iraq and Afghanistan or high-profile settings like Haiti or Pakistan that are seen as strategic priorities -- despite their abysmal record of helping themselves. In terms of dollars and importance, these programs have been the most visible and the most visibly problematic over the last decade. Administrations rarely get to choose their crises, and they have to deal with the fact that  development is extraordinarily difficult without stability and a government committed to reform. Still, simply shoveling money out the door, as has often taken place in Iraq and Afghanistan, won't do much good.

Obama is to be congratulated for taking on the tricky business of global development in a credible and thoughtful manner. But after the policy review begins the hard part.