Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

Science, technology, and the Venezuelan political system

The final part of this paper will analyse the way in which the Venezuelan political system has dealt with the questions and challenges brought forth by the development model and the technological style described above. The problems of democracy in relation to scientific and technological development and its negative or positive impact in terms of human rights may be treated from two interrelated perspectives. In the first place is the possibility of a democratic decision-making process in relation to the main technological options that are taken in a specific society. Technological options are thus conceived as means of achieving ends that have been democratically defined. As was suggested in the first part of this paper, this democratic process is a condition without which the protection of human rights in relation to scientific and technological development - as defined in the documents that gave rise to this United Nations University research project96 - is not possible.

In this first perspective, there is little that can be said regarding the Venezuelan experience. Apart from academic debates about "another development" and proposals by ecological and alternative technology groups, the requirement of democratic control over technological decisions is not present in Venezuelan politics. The idea that democratic control of the technological process is a central dimension of the very existence of democracy in contemporary societies is, thus far, an idea foreign to this political system. The principal technological decisions of the country have been taken in the past decades by the managers of large private companies and those responsible for public investment programmes, especially the technocratic teams that head the two fundamental entrepreneurial organizations of the Venezuelan state, Petróleos de Venezuela and the Corporación Venezolana de Guayana.97 Not even in parliament is there informed discussion on the development programmes of these companies when resources are approved for new investments.98

There is a second, much more limited perspective, from which it is possible to approach the relationship between democracy and scientific and technological development. This is the demand for mechanisms by which society may regulate and control these activities in order to impede or limit their potentially harmful effects. During the first decades of the democratic system, this demand for control and regulation does not appear as a political problem. The constant growth of the economy, the basic consensus on the development model, the capacity for control by the political parties and the state over most spheres of societal life, and the weakness of civil society limit this possibility. This seems to have begun to change in recent years.

The economic crisis, the process of modernization which means that Venezuelan society can no longer be contained within the tight limits of political party and state control, and the increasing loss of prestige of both parties and state as a consequence of corruption and political patronage have begun to weaken the traditional issues of political debate. Moreover, an increasingly evident ecological depredation has contributed to an expanding public concern for the possible harmful effects of technological development on the environment and health. The media play an important role, not only by highlighting the most serious environmental problems in the country but also by providing information on debates, experiences, and struggles regarding the preservation of the environment and health taking place in the rest of the world.

Two very notable events in the past years (1987-1988) help us to understand the degree to which the significance of these issues is changing in the collective consciousness, and the new political conditions that have been forming as a consequence.99 The first of these events was the importation of 11,000 barrels of Italian toxic wastes by a company that wanted to dispose of them in Venezuelan territory. The barrels were left outdoors in Puerto Cabello100 and the neighbouring population began to feel their toxic effects. Through popular mobilization, a hunger strike, the participation of regional and local officials, technical reports by research centres, parliamentary commissions, and a wide and systematic coverage by the regional and national press, the government was pressurized until it finally reached an agreement with the Italian government to re-export the barrels. The incident concluded with a speech delivered by the President of Venezuela in the United Nations General Assembly, denouncing the use of the countries of the periphery as a depository of toxic wastes by the industrialized world.

The second event was the importation from the European Economic Community of 6,000 tons of meat contaminated by radioactivity from the nuclear accident in Chernobyl. In spite of guarantees from officials of the Ministry of Health and Social Assistance that the meat had tolerable levels of radioactivity, and in spite of the pressures of importers who tried repeatedly to place the meat on the market, the press campaign and the pressure of public opinion did not give in. The argument that hunger was worse than the possible long-term harmful effects of the consumption of the radioactive meat was not convincing, even to the lowest economic groups. Finally, many months after its importation, the meat - just as in the case of the toxic wastes -was re-exported. These two experiences would have been unthinkable in the country only a few years ago, when such subjects were the concern of only a few small environmental groups. Transformations had begun to take place in the Venezuelan political system, with an expansion of the range of topics stimulating concern, organization, and collective action.101

Constitutional and Legal Bases Human Rights in Venezuela

The Venezuelan Constitution explicitly guarantees not only civil and political rights (first-generation rights), but also second-generation rights: right to land of farmers (Article 105); protection of the family and right to housing (Article 73); protection of maternity (Article 74); protection of infancy (Article 75); right to the protection of health (Article 76); right to education (Article 78); right to work (Article 84); right to a fair wage (Article 87); right to labour stability, benefits, seniority, and severance pay (Article 88); right to social security (Article 94). In addition, Venezuela has signed and ratified102 the principal human rights agreements of the United Nations,103 the Organization of American States,104 the International Labour Organisation (ILO)105 and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The problems in relation to human rights in Venezuela do not fundamentally lie in the absence of constitutional and/or legal guarantees, but in the existence of a wide gap between those guarantees of rights and their effective protection. The standing of economic and social rights in the country has already been analysed. The violation of civil and political rights, starting with the right to life, while not comparable with the extremes reached in the Southern Cone in the 1970s and the 1980s, presents alarming dimensions. The Venezuelan Program for Education-Action in Human Rights (PROVEA) has documented for the period between October 1988 and September 1989 a total of 69 deaths "attributable to abuses of power by the forces of security," 14 of them unarmed farmers and fishermen who were massacred in an ambush prepared by the army close to the town of El Amparo on the frontier with Colombia, arousing both national public opinion and the concern of international human rights organizations.106 Hundreds of people died in the popular uprising that occurred in many cities in the country in February 1989 in response to economic adjustments imposed by the International Monetary Fund. Many died as a consequence of indiscriminate repression by the armed forces in some popular zones of Caracas. Burials in common graves and without identification have impeded a determination of the exact number of deaths. 107 The right to justice is violated systematically for a large proportion of those detained. In addition to the subhuman conditions that exist in most of the country's jails, "the average time of imprisonment of a detained person, from the time that he gives declarations to the time that he receives a first sentence, was in the last third of 1988 three years, 11 months, and 15 days.108

These violations of human rights, together with the existence of generalized corruption in the use of public resources, has led the Attorney-General to state, in his annual report to Congress, that in Venezuela "a true state of law has not developed," that "the balance of human rights is very far from being satisfactory," and that the "Venezuelan citizen does not have efficient institutions that protect him," situations that he considers cannot be tolerated in a democracy.109

If this is so in relation to first- and second-generation human rights, an even more precarious situation is to be expected in relation to third-generation rights. The only constitutional allusion in this respect refers to the role of the state in the "defence and protection of natural resources," and in relation to "indigenous people." 110 In regard to the majority of the issues that are today central ill terms of scientific and technological development, there are no up-to-date legal instruments in Venezuela capable of dealing with their magnitude and complexity. The protection of privacy - which is permanently threatened by technological processes based on computerized data - is fostered only in Article 63 of the Constitution and Article 186 of the Civil Code. These refer exclusively to the inviolability of letters, telegrams, and personal papers. Nothing is stated in relation to the unauthorized uses of the information that exists on each individual in massive, modern computer databases.111 The intervention in telephone conversations has been so recurrent that the Attorney-Getleral's Office has prepared a law destined to protect the constitutional right to privacy.112

The Law on Fertilizers and Other Agents Which are Subject to Exerting a Beneficial Action in Plants, Animals, Soils, and Waters of 3 July 1964, which establishes the control of the National Executive on "everything in relation to the preparation, importing, exporting, inspection, regulation, storage, purchase, sale, distribution and use, in general" of fertilizers, fungicides, insecticides, bactericides, herbicides, defoliants, hormones, antibiotics, etc., and the General Regulations on Pesticides (1968) have not halted the massive and uncontrolled use of these chemical agents in the country.113 There is no regular control on the levels of toxic residues in fresh foods or in agribusiness inputs. Tracing the levels of pesticides in foods is the function of the Section for Control of Pesticides of the Ministry of Health and Social Assistance. This section, in addition to having limited personnel and resources, lacks effective political support in the ministry and the results of its investigations rarely lead to penalties or to the withdrawal of contaminated food from the market.

The existence of norms and regulations, moreover, is not necessarily a guarantee that the health of the population is being protected. A few months after the accident at the nuclear plant at Chernobyl, the Ministry of Health and Social Assistance approved a resolution by which levels of radioactivity were set that would be considered acceptable for food consumed in Venezuela. Whether as a consequence of corruption114 or ignorance, levels of tolerance were permitted that were thousands of times above those considered safe intemationally. A year later, after the intense public debate that arose as a result of the importing of radioactive meat, to which we have already referred, these norms were brought up to international standards (see table 1).115 The Law of Consumer Protection (1974) establishes protection for the consumer in terms of prices, and "deceptive or unfair" advertising, as well as norms requiring that packing include weight and price of the product and that instructions and guarantees be in Spanish. 116 There are no legal instruments or institutional mechanisms to protect the consumer in relation to the possible harmful effects of the products that he consumes or uses. The consumer does not know the risks of those products.117

Table 1

  Resolution July 1986 Resolution July 1987
Iodine 131 15,000 becquerel/kg 300 becquerel/kg
Cesium 134 650,000 becquerel/kg 300 becquerel/kg
Cesium 137 1,200,000 becquerel/kg 300 becquerel/kg
Strontium 90 30,000 becquerel/kg 52 becquerel/kg

Source: Official Gazette of the Republic of Venezuela, Caracas, 9 July 1986 and 30 July 1987.

In the area of drugs there is more rigorous control by the Ministry of Health and Social Assistance, through the National Institute of Hygiene. All drugs have to be authorized by the Review Board of Pharmaceutical Specialties on the basis of documents and studies presented by the applicant, and chemical, biological, sterility and innocuousness analyses (in laboratory animals) that are performed in this Institute. Nevertheless, there are neither legal norms nor resources on the basis of which a pharmacological follow-up can be done in relation to the efficacy and/or side-effects of drugs on human beings, either before or after their authorization.118

Among the areas in which there is a more serious absence of protection from the potential harmful effects of technological activities are industrial security and the working environment. In spite of the existence since 1973 of a Regulation on Hygiene and Industrial Security, the mechanisms of effective control that would permit this instrument to provide effective protection for workers have not been established.119 To this must be added the fact that for labour organizations in the country, industrial security has never been a high-priority subject. While the approval in 1986 of the Organic Law of Prevention, Labor Conditions, and Working Environment represents a significant advance from the legal point of view, it has not had a noticeable impact on the supervision of working environments. This is a consequence both of deficiencies in the legal text and of political and economic pressures to impede its application. Some of the regulations are excessively broad in scope and there is no relationship between the controls provided for and the mechanisms established to enforce them. Since it is not possible to carry out all the requirements contemplated in the law, the distinction between compliance and non-compliance with the law is blurred and the law loses its efficacy.120 There has been strong resistance to the effective enforcement of the norms contemplated in this law, both by the private sector and the principal business organizations of the state, as well as a lack of political will on the part of the executive to apply it. As a consequence, four years after its enactment, the public agency responsible for this law, the National Institute of Labor Pro section and Security, has not been created. Meanwhile, the law is yet another document without any effect on working conditions.121

Environmental Legislation

Apart from some fields of medicine,122 the only other area related to scientific and technological development in which there are important legal norms is environmental protection. Analysing the norms and the institutions in this area in which there is a relatively more developed normative body - we can detect the advances and the limitations that currently exist in the country in the regulation of scientific and technological development.

The constitutional foundations of environmental law in Venezuela kc in Article 106 of the Constitution, which relates to the conservation and defence of natural resources.123 Other provisions of the Constitution provide for the faculty to plan and promote production and regulate the circulation, distribution, and consumption of wealth (Article 98) and set limits on the exercise of private property, whether because some economic activities "of public interest" may be reserved to the state for "reasons of national convenience" (Article 97) or because of the restrictions and obligations that may be established by law "with the purpose of public utility or social interest" (Article 99).124

The principal Venezuelan legal instrument referring to environmental affairs is the Organic Law of the Environment of 1976. In view of the limited political power of the environmental movement of the period, and opposition by private and public entrepreneurs to strict environmental norms, this law was drawn up more as an overall declaration of intention in relation to environmental policy than as a precise legal vehicle capable of protecting the environment. It represents an attempt to cover in global terms, with a single legal instrument, the growing environmental problems of the country.125 As a legal norm for environmental protection important deficiencies can be detected in this text.126 In the first place is the definition of the activities that are to be limited or controlled. It is broad and imprecise. Article 20 defines the following activities as ones that degrade the environment:

1. Those that directly or indirectly contaminate or degrade the air, water, marine bottoms, the soil, or the subsoil or unfavourably affect the fauna and flora.
2. Harmful alterations of the topography.
3. Harmful alterations of the natural flow of water.
4. The sedimentation of the courses and deposits of water.
5. Harmful changes in the bed of a body of water.
6. The introduction and use of non-biodegradable products and substances.
7. Those that produce bothersome and harmful noises.
8. Those that degrade the landscape.
9. Those that modify the climate. 10. Those that produce ionizing radiations.
11. Those that promote the accumulation of residuals, garbage, and wastes.
12. Those that promote the eutrophication of lakes and lagoons.
13. Any other activities able to alter the natural ecosystems and negatively affect the health and welfare of man.

That is, practically any human activity. According to Article 19 of this law, all these activities are "subject to the control of the National Executive through its competent authorities. . ." There is no definition of permissible damage that would allow the establishment of limits between the on the environment that may be authorized and those that must not be authorized. A law that appears in its text to be very strict is not necessarily the most rigorous. As was indicated previously in relation to the Organic Law of Prevention, Working Conditions, and Labour Environment, when activities are prohibited or regulated in a much more extended form than it is practically possible to control,127 the notion of what constitutes compliance or violation of the law is lost, since it is necessarily violated in a general way. Since a definition of permissible damage does not exist, activities able to degrade the environment "that do not cause irreparable damages" may be authorized "when they provide evident economic or social benefits" (Article 21). Such discretionary regulations make it difficult for the functionaries in charge of their implementation to resist pressures from powerful political or economic groups to have their projects approved. It is, moreover, a potential source of corruption.

In the second place, and related to the previous point, in this law there is no correspondence between the responsibility for control and regulation established for the state and the means by which the state may comply with these requirements. This may be partially explained by the tradition of legalism or legalistic ritualism that has been so generalized in Latin America. It would appear that the source of problems lies in the absence of adequate legislation. As a consequence, the solution is in a law that prohibits those things that are considered negative. There is a greater emphasis on the text of the law than on mechanisms and administrative procedures to enforce it.

In the third place is the lack of penalties for violations. According to Article 36, penal norms must be decreed, including fines and imprisonment, However, these norms have still not been established.128 While a global penal norm has not been approved, the penalities to be applied are those of previous laws relating to environmental protection. These are in some cases several decades old, and their capacity to regulate those activities currently considered to represent the greatest environmental threats is limited.129 As for penalties, the fines contemplated in these laws are very light, and, because of inflation in recent years, have become frankly ridiculous. The Law on Protection of Wild Fauna (1970) includes fines from a minimum of US$2 to a maximum of US$1,000 in cases of commercial exploitation in violation of the provisions of this law. In the Law on Fishing, fines vary from $1 to a maximum of US$200. The Forest Law on Soils and Water (1966) contemplates fines that vary from US$2 to US$100. The Law of National Health (1942) sets fines that vary from $0.20 to a maximum of US$800.130

The other principal instrument of environmental protection is the Law of Territorial Regulation, with territorial regulation being understood as:

The regulation and promotion of the location of human settlements, of economic and social activities of the population, as well as physical and spatial development, in order to achieve a harmony between the greatest welfare of the population, the optimization of the exploitation and use of natural resources, and the protection and improvement of the environment, as fundamental objectives of integral development. (Article 2)

The special uses defined in the National Plan of Territorial Regulation, as well as the Regional Plans of Territorial Regulation, those of urban planning, and those for areas under the System of Special Administration131 are the base on which a specific public or private activity that has special influence" can be authorized.

The Institutional System in relation to Environmental Affairs

A few months after the law of the environment was approved in 1976, the first Ministry of the Environment in Latin America was created as the agency in charge of enforcing this law.132 The new ministry began with a great deal of activity. From 1980 to 1982, together with the United Nations Programme for Development, the most important environmental study ever performed in the country was carried out, the project on Venezuelan Environmental Systems, which would serve as a base for the subsequent preparation of the plans for territorial development. Among the personnel of this ministry have been high-level professionals, strongly motivated in relation to environmental problems.

Nevertheless, it is not possible to affirm - 15 years after the Organic Law of the Environment was sanctioned, and the Ministry of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources created - that in Venezuela there is something that even approaches adequate environmental protection. In these years the environmental deterioration of the country has not only not been halted, but has increased. Why has this happened in spite of an increasing concern in public opinion and laws and institutions destined expressly for the preservation of the environment? The explanation will have to be found principally in two basic limitations on the possibility of regulation of technological and scientific activity in the country: the hegemonic style of development, and the relative weakness of the political system.

The legal norms and institutions established to regulate environmental impact are not conceived in terms designed to secure a sustainable development model that is compatible in the long run with the preservation of the environment. The environmental dimension has not been incorporated as a central consideration in decision-making in reference to the future of the country. On the contrary, an attempt is made to regulate and control activities in a piecemeal fashion in order to minimize their possible negative effects. An effort is made to limit excesses against a background in which the massive exploitation of natural resources is an available option. The technological style and its deprecatory impact in terms of the use of water, energy, and other natural resources is not under discussion.

The impossibility of effectively controlling environmental deterioration without a reformulation of the development model is clearly presented in many of the documents of the Ministry of the Environment. Representative of this posture is the view that this ministry has of the Plan for Territorial Regulation.

The central nucleus of the National Plan for Territorial Regulation consists of a proposal for an alternative scenario based on substantial changes in the current development style, understanding this as the manner in which resources are assigned to answer the questions of what, for whom, how to produce the goods and services that satisfy the majority of the population and that guarantee the preservation and quality of the environment and of the natural resources.

In that proposed alternative scenario, the style of development meets the following characteristics: it would be decentralizing, it would rationally and primarily use our own natural resources as consumer goods and as raw materials, it would use conservationist technologies, which generate employment and are able integrally to take advantage of those resources; it would foster the full participation of the population and would promote collective habits, in accordance with our productive capacities and with the conservation of the environment and the improvement of the quality of life.133

This vision is radically contrary to the one that orients the principal public agencies in charge of economic decisions, whether they are the ministries of planning and finance or the main public enterprises. The Ministry of the Environment is a weak ministry, with little political weight. It does not have a role in the making of major economic decisions.

This leads to the second aspect, the weakness of the political system, the depth of the imbalance between the complexity, challenges, and demands of scientific and technological development and the capacity of the Venezuelan political system to monitor and regulate these activities. If in industrialized countries the law is constantly lagging behind scientific and technological developments,134 in the countries of the periphery the distance between the challenges that the political system faces in the area of technological impact and its capacity to respond is even greater. With far fewer resources and more precarious political institutions, they must face in a short span of time many of the same problems towards which the industrialized countries have been developing responses for decades. The Venezuelan state- which is typically described as a strong, hypertrophied, and very interventionist state - is in reality a weak state, with a limited capacity to resist the external pressures of private interests.135

This weakness of the political system can be seen in relation to each one of the steps in the regulation of environmental impact. Congress cannot seriously consider the multiplicity of issues that it faces in the preparation of laws. Congressmen, committees and subcommittees lack the resources, information, technical support, and research teams necessary to study profoundly the multiple problems in relation to which they are to legislate. The members of Congress dedicate more time to party political activities than to analysing the matters about which they have to vote. Thus they vote on subjects with which they are not familiar and, as a consequence, declarations of intention are substituted for precise regulations. This is an expression of the profound imbalance existing between the power of the executive and the other branches of government. As Congress lacks its own studies, in the majority of the issues that it discusses, it follows party lines and/or proposals presented by the executive. The inability to take informed decisions is particularly dramatic when members of parliament must debate the public budget or investment plans presented by the technocrats who manage state enterprises. These rarely undergo any modification.

The result of these limitations of the legislature is a complex legal system, full of empty areas, superpositions, and inconsistencies.136

The Venezuelan legal system, in spite of the number of norms that makes it up, presents empty areas and antagonisms. In effect, a large part of the laws allows transcendental elements for decision-making to escape their purview or, in many cases, permits a discretionary interpretation that favours the possibility of evading it or that legitimates and perpetuates situations contrary to those that have been announced for the environmental policy. The fact that there is no precision in the competence of each law, and the interference or superposition of attributions, further aggravate the problem. In many cases, neither the citizen nor the functionary can define, exactly, which law they must turn to, to determine the most convenient legal action or procedure.

There are 80 laws and regulations and more than 400 resolutions, provisions, and specific decrees that, in one way or another, are related to environmental problems. In the face of each specific problem there practically arises a new norm which, in the majority of cases, adds to the tangle of those that already exist and function with the same old structure.137

The judiciary, in addition to facing the application of this complex set of norms, presents high levels of corruption that make it extremely difficult for the laws to be applied with the same rigour to those with high-level political connections or the resources with which to bribe a judge.

Similar weaknesses exist in the agencies of the executive in charge of environmental affairs. The slight political weight of the Ministry of the Environment in decision-making on important economic issues has already been pointed out. Moreover, there is a wide lack of proportion between the numerous functions assigned to this ministry and its personnel and financial resources. The ministry not only has a limited capacity to affect the definition of global economic policies, but also lacks the political support to take the preventive and corrective measures for environmental protection that the law assigns to it.138 The legitimacy of its intervention in these areas is moreover being questioned in a neo-liberal ideological environment that in principle sees all state intervention as suspicious and tends to assume that penalties are an abuse of power.139

The armed forces present severe limitations in their vigilance and control of activities capable of harming the environment, especially in relatively unpopulated zones and frontier areas and in the territorial sea. In addition to corruption - which in this case is also a significant problem - the National Guard lacks the necessary equipment to carry out surveillance. We are again in the presence of the perverse effects of inappropriate technological options. While millions of dollars are spent on high-technology weapons such as missiles and Mirage and F-16 airplanes, there are no resources to purchase the more modest, less spectacular equipment that would be necessary for environmental vigilance .140

Given this situation in state institutions, a permanent alertness by civil society would be required to guarantee environmental protection. However, in spite of the increasing concern of public opinion for matters relating to the environment and health, and the proliferation of non-governmental environmental and ecological organizations in recent years, it is not possible to speak of an organized civil society able to respond to the challenges of environmental destruction or, more generally, to the monitoring and regulation of scientific and technological development.

The environmental organizations that have had the most success in Europe and the United States - such as Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, or the Environmental Defence Fund - are characterized by the availability of considerable financial resources and a high level of expertise. They have high-level personnel in relation to each of the matters that these organizations deal with. This permits them to debate with the "legitimate" language of science and technology,141 to anticipate the consequences of technological decisions before these become noticeable, and even to formulate alternatives. In Venezuela, the relevant organizations lack the political strength, resources, and technical knowledge to be able to negotiate alternatives to those investment projects that are considered to be environmentally harmful. Struggles against actions that produce damage to populations or the environment usually arise after the damage has already occurred. The most important environmental conflicts tend to deal with visible damage, often when it has become irreversible.

One of the explicit goals of the Organic Law of the Environment, and a declared priority since the creation of the Ministry of the Environment, has been the promotion of the participation of organized communities in environmental affairs. The first attempt was the creation of the Councils for Conservation, Defence, and Improvement of the Environment. This experiment failed, fundamentally owing to the attempts at control and manipulation by the ministry, and the organization of these councils in a local, fragmented fashion that impeded attention to the main environmental problems that necessarily transcended local contexts. Starting from the recognition of this failure, in recent years a new structure that hopes to overcome the limitations of the previous experience, the Organization of Relations with the Organized Community, is being forged.142

Nevertheless, both the policy of the ministry of promoting the participation of organized communities and the attempts of non-governmental organizations to influence technological decisions that might have a significant environmental impact come up against a severe barrier: limitations in access to information. Without access to timely and reliable information on the investments that are being programmed, little can be done to advance democratic participation. Mega-development projects (highways, dams, steel mills, refineries, etc.), both public and private, are formulated over years of study and involve large investments. In Venezuela there is no legal norm that permits affected or interested persons or institutions to have access to information on these projects, until they are so advanced that in practical terms they prove to be irreversible.143 When information is requested from the Ministry of the Environment on the studies on environmental impact - which according to the Law of the Environment must be carried out for a specific investment to be authorized- the functionaries reply that these studies have not been carried out, or that they are confidential.144 This expresses the authoritarian nature of technocratic thought which considers that public debate on matters of technical complexity beyond the capacity of comprehension, not only of the majority of the population but also of its elected representatives, is totally senseless.

A Prospective View

Arising from the above analysis it is difficult to reach optimistic conclusions in relation to the capability of the Venezuelan political system effectively to regulate scientific and technological activities that may have potential harmful effects on human rights. As was indicated previously, the economic and political crisis has provoked important processes of change in the country, among which of primary importance are the demands for democratization. These are expressed in the strengthening of civil society, in the demands for democratization of political parties, and in reforms tending to the decentralization of the state, which have led - for the first time under the current democratic system to the direct election of mayors and governors.

Nevertheless, these democratic tendencies are being counteracted by the authoritarian implications involved in the adjustment process that has been imposed on the country by the International Monetary Fund as a condition for the renegotiation of the foreign debt. The weakness of the Venezuelan government in its negotiations with international financial organizations is such that the very notion of national sovereignty becomes blurred. The principal lines of the economic adjustment programme that the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez has carried out since the beginning of 1989 were not decided by the Venezuelan people in the elections of December 1988. They had already been defined by a mission of the IMF that visited the country one year earlier.145

The effects of the economic crisis and the policy of adjustment on the regulation of scientific and technological activities, and in particular on the control of environmental impacts, are manifold. In the first place, it has to be pointed out that the priority given to the generation of exports has implied a lax position on the part of the government in relation to activities capable of generating foreign exchange, even at the cost of severe human or environmental damage. Among these activities the following stand out:

1. Lumber exploitation. This is carried out in systematic violation of the norms for the protection of forests existing in the Venezuelan laws and - in the specific case of the Sierra de Perijá in the western part of the country - it is endangering the survival of the Yucpa and Bari Indians through the destruction of their natural environment.

2. Trawling. Excess fishing and fishing in unauthorized zones threaten the fish resources of the country and directly affect small-scale fishing along the north coast of the country.

3. The exploitation of gold. This represents the most systematic process of environmental destruction that the country now faces, with grave human and environmental consequences. In the exploitation of alluvion gold, thousands of miners use motorized water pumps to remove sand and mud, using mercury as a means of achieving the precipitation of gold. Thus the course of rivers is altered, vegetation is destroyed, great volumes of sediments that reduce the useful life of dams are generated, water is contaminated with mercury - through which it enters the food cycle - and indigenous populations are displaced. The survival of the Yanomami, who live between Venezuela and Brazil, is especially threatened. They are being subjected to a process of extermination by the activity of the gold miners, especially the Brazilian garimperos.146

4. Tourism. The importance given to this activity in the generation of foreign exchange is probably the reason why an industry that has produced so much ecological destruction along the Venezuelan coast has developed with such limited environmental controls.147

In the second place, the process of economic readjustment and redefinition of the role of the state means not only that companies are privatized and that the scope of the entrepreneurial state is reduced, but also that public resources for research and regulation are cut down. As was previously indicated, there is a tendency to delegitimize the regulatory action of the state. The agencies in charge of enforcing environmental protection laws are thereby weakened even more. A third consequence of the crisis and of the adjustment policy is the new emphasis on the need to attract foreign investment. Since this is conceived as competition between countries to offer the best possible conditions to attract investment, regulations and environmental controls (or those relating to any other aspect of scientific and technological development) are seen as a threat to the country's future prosperity. Rigorous environmental protection can scare off foreign capital.

Finally, the nature of the process of negotiation of adjustment policies with international financial agencies necessarily implies a strengthening of the centralization of power in the top negotiating circles of the government, thus bringing to a halt the process of decentralization that the country seeks to achieve. This reinforces the bases of a profoundly centralized decision-making process governed more by the short-run search for macroeconomic balances than the satisfaction of the basic needs of the population, or the achievement of a development style which is sustainable in the long run and compatible with environmental protection.

Contents - Previous - Next