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Model of development, basic needs, and human rights in an oil economy: the case of Venezuela

To analyse the way in which scientific and technological matters have been becoming political issues in Venezuela, in the first place it will be necessary to describe the development model and the technological style that have been dominant in the past decades, as well as their effect on human rights. The last part of this paper will analyse the ways in which the Venezuelan political system has dealt with the relationship between scientific technological development and human rights.

The development model of the past decades, as well as the principal decisions that led to the evolution of the dominant technological style, cannot be analysed without referring to the role of oil in the Venezuelan economy and to the current democratic system. As a consequence of oil exploitation, Venezuela changed in a few years from a poor, agricultural, rural, and traditional country to a "modern," relatively prosperous, urban one that lives from an income (rent) that, without much effort, enters the state's coffers. Between 1941 and 1971, the urban population grew from 31.3 to 73 per cent,56 mortality fell from 16.4 to 6.6 per cent,57 and life expectancy increased by 30 years. Literacy in the population older than 15 years of age increased from 42.8 to 75.9 per cent.58 In that same period, the fiscal income multiplied by a factor of 34, without significant inflation taking place.59 Per capita fiscal income rose from US$107 to US$2,755 during that same period. In 1971, oil revenues accounted for 65.7 per cent of fiscal income.60

The present democratic period began in 1958 with the end of the country's last military dictatorship. The relative abundance of resources permitted a basic consensus between the main political parties (the social democratic party Acción Democrática, and the Christian democratic party, Copei), the Venezuelan Labor Confederation (CTV), the national business organization (FEDECAMARAS), the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and the senior military command.61 This basic constitutive pact of the Venezuelan democratic system is expressed in the National Constitution of 1961. Politically, it means a social democratic system whose goal is to establish a social welfare state made possible by high oil revenues concentrated in the hands of the state. This basic pact implied a restricted democracy that practically excluded all political and citizen participation other than that expressed through the organizations mentioned above. In practice the state and the two main political parties monopolize the political system. Civil society is weak and disorganized.

In economic terms, this constitutive pact has meant the existence of a highly interventionist state that assumes functions in the area of welfare of the population (health, education, services, housing), and is also the owner of the principal wealth of the country (oil and mines). It is responsible for a large part of the basic economic activities that, as a consequence of the large investments required and of the long periods needed for the investments to mature, could not be assumed by private business. The state promotes and finances an industrialization process - based on import substitution - with a clear preference on production for high income demand. Imported technology with limited capacity to incorporate labour is the norm.

With the highest per capita income in Latin America and a gross domestic product that increased at an average of 5.3 per cent between 1958 and 1972,62 a rich-country mentality developed. With abundant foreign exchange, importing is easier than producing. Expensive and large-scale solutions that imply great investments are preferred over modest proposals. Solutions that can be bought are chosen over those which mean organization, work, or collective effort. The country's political and economic system is organized around the distribution of oil revenues. The most profitable economic activities are those that depend on the state. Aspirations are converted into requirements or demands that are made of the state, whereby a system of paternalism and political clientage is produced which castrates the autonomous initiative of civil society and generates increasing levels of corruption.

The years 1973 and 1974 are critical in the recent history of Venezuela. With the jump in oil prices, from US$4.42 per barrel in 1973 to US$14.35 in 1974,63 the fiscal income tripled between 1972 and 1974. This appeared to be the final confirmation of the optimistic forecasts on oil as an eternal source of wealth whose prices could only rise in the world market, guaranteeing a highly prosperous future for the country. All the most perverse features of the oil culture in Venezuela were thus accentuated during the first government of Carlos Andrés Pérez (1973-1978): the pursuit of wealth, waste, political clientage, and corruption. It is the period of the Great Venezuela, of the nationalization of the iron and oil industries, and of the so-called second independence: economic independence. There was a national consensus in relation to the glorious destiny that was announced for the country.64 With a megalomaniac vision, hundreds of millions of dollars were invested in great development projects (steel, petrochemicals, aluminum, electricity) and in services (great highways, enormous hospitals) without evaluation of possible alternatives. Cost was not an obstacle. The international banks wished to recycle the petro dollars of the OPEC countries. It was assumed that there would always be new oil revenues with which to pay debts. With the investment programme of the Fifth National Development Plan, Venezuela went in two or three years from a surplus situation (in which it was necessary to create a public agency to invest abroad the financial resources that the economy was not able to absorb)65 to a massive foreign debt. A developmentalist ideological environment, the concentration of investment resources in the hands of the state, the absence of all requirements for profitability of public investments, a strongly overvalued currency, and a generalized system of corruption - which favours large projects as a guarantee of accelerated enrichment -became determinants of a pattern of investments in which the largest and most expensive alternative was systematically preferred.

With the deterioration of oil prices (from an average export price of US$33.38 per barrel in 1984 to US$15.38 in 1986),66 and with the start of the foreign debt crisis -precipitated by the declaration of insolvency by Mexico in 1983 - the spell is broken and Venezuela's current period of economic crisis begins. In 1987 the country's total foreign debt was US$36.519 million.67 The service of the foreign public debt in 1987 took 53.7 per cent of the country's total oil revenues. In 1988, more than a fourth of the national budget was assigned to the service of this debt.68 The weight of the crisis for the population was expressed in terms of unemployment, decay of basic public services, reduced wages, undernourishment, and deterioration of health. Today, in terms of meeting the basic needs of the population, this oil-rich country, the exceptional case in Latin America, is experiencing conditions similar to those of countries that during the past decades have had much more limited resources.

What then is the balance that can be drawn up of that period of abundance in relation to the situation of human rights in the country? To what extent have the multi-million-dollar investments made during the past decades in the importation of advanced technology for industrial production and the exploitation of natural resources contributed to meeting the basic needs and the fundamental human rights of the majority of the population?

The main problems that the country now faces are not really a consequence of the current economic crisis. These problems have been accumulating for decades. The crisis has shown that a development model and technological style that could only be sustained artificially by massive foreign indebtedness that meant a generalized subsidy to all economic activity is not feasible. The Venezuelan experience of these past decades can be taken as a case-study of how inappropriate technological options, suggesting delusions of grandeur on the part of rulers, the search for accelerated profit and illicit enrichment through corruption, and the irrational preference of technocrats for great projects can cause more problems than they solve, in spite of the multi-million-dollar investments and the massive debt involved. These technological options have not been evaluated in terms of their potential economic, social, cultural, and environmental impact. Possible alternatives have not been considered. Colossal volumes of resources are concentrated on spectacular projects, ignoring the possibility of implementing more economic and more immediately viable responses to the needs of the population.

The technological dimensions can hardly be separated from the complex set of economic, political, and cultural factors to which reference has been made. Technology cannot be conceived as an independent variable. Nevertheless, a very limited weight has been assigned to technological issues in the analysis of the Venezuelan experience of the past decades. While they may not constitute the basic determinants of the country's current situation, they have played a central role. For this reason, the technological dimensions of this process will be explored and emphasized in the discussion below on the capacity of this development model to meet the basic needs and human rights of the population.


In relation to basic needs, the most severe deficiencies in Venezuela exist in respect of nourishment and the right to medical attention. Although for decades the country has had a rate of growth of the agricultural sector greater than population growth, and greater than the rate of growth of agricultural output worldwide (an accumulated average of 4.3 per cent during the period 1940-1980),69 the food situation of the Venezuelan population today can only be described as critical. The minimum wage does not cover the "basic food basket," not even by adding the direct subsidies known as "food scholarships" that are given to the poorest sectors of the copulation.70 The participation of the food category in final household spending rose from 38 per cent in 1968 to 69 per cent in 1988.71 The caloric intake of the "poor" strata of the population (61 per cent of the total) is on average only 1,850 calories daily per capita, when the daily required intake is calculated at 2,300. Even by ignoring the large differences existing in the nourishment of the different strata of the population, the average caloric intake of the entire population presents a deficit of more than 100 calories daily per capita.72 'After several decades a protein deficit reappears. . .'73 Apart from this, the environmental impact of an agricultural model that has indiscriminately used pesticides and fertilizers, and has destroyed forests and impoverished enormous expanses of soil in a few years, has been devastating.

The apparent contradiction between sustained agricultural growth during years of economic expansion and the impossibility of guaranteeing basic nourishment for the general population is explained largely by the country's prevailing model of agricultural development. This model has been conditioned more by the requirements of agribusiness than by the need to guarantee the nourishment of the population. As is true of other economic activities, agricultural development seems to have started from the basic assumption that Venezuela was a rich country. As in the most prosperous countries, the animal sector was considered to be more important than the vegetable sector. An agricultural model has been established that is highly dependent on imported inputs, making it highly vulnerable to monetary fluctuations. The adoption of the technological packages of poultry and pork production of industrialized countries means that these industries require agricultural inputs from moderate climates for concentrated animal feed used as nourishment. Imported wheat has partially displaced the rice and corn that form part of the traditional diet of the Venezuelan and can be produced in the country.

In conditions of generalized malnutrition (more than 25 per cent of the population is in a situation of extreme poverty), the fresh food categories have been displaced by processed products. More than 80 per cent of the caloric content of the diet is made up of "products in which the agricultural raw materials undergo profound transformations,"74 processes that not only make the product more expensive, but frequently impoverish (at times radically) their nutritive value. Only 9 per cent of the national food consumption is made up of fresh food.75 This prosperous agribusiness76 is not able, after so many years of oil wealth and prolonged and massive subsidies by the state, to satisfy the population's right to nutrition.

The Health Model

The perverse consequences of an inappropriate technological model in terms of its impact on human rights and the satisfaction of the basic needs of the population is equally evident in the field of health. In terms of total spending on health, the number of doctors and beds, the availability of high-technology equipment, etc., all the Venezuelan statistics would appear to be fairly satisfactory. Nevertheless, the health system is unable to offer a minimum of medical attention to most of the population.

In Venezuela the health system is so closely modelled on those of industrialized countries that the majority of the problems of cost and coverage, and policy and ethical issues in relation to medicine, which are typical of these countries are present. Additional problems exist that have to do with the absolute lack of viability of this medical model in relation to the resources and capacities of the country. Taking the technological health systems of industrialized countries especially the US model- as a reference, a highly centralized medical-technological system has been established, with a marked emphasis on hospitals and on curative and high-technology medicine, with immense imbalances in access to health services among the different sectors of the population. A large part of the important public resources that have been assigned to the health sector in the past decades has been invested in hospitals. Low priority has been given to preventive medicine, environmental improvement, and primary-level health care. The preference for the most advanced and specialized medical technology - technological options whose efficacy has frequently not been shown - leads to the channelling of a high proportion of available resources toward the purchase of expensive and sophisticated medical equipment and drugs. In contrast to the pioneering steps that have been taken in the past years in the industrialized countries,77 there is no policy of evaluation or control of this technology. Thus, there is a leek of norms or criteria on which decisions could be made for the maximization of health services for the population on the basis of available resources.

Because of this indiscriminate introduction of high technology, the overall costs of the health service rise, the tendency to specialization increases, the relationship between doctor and patient changes, substituting for the general practitioner or the internist a battery of tests that are frequently useless. Resources that could be used more fruitfully in other areas of the health system are diverted. Millions of dollars are invested in equipment that at times is not installed, or that in a short time has to be eliminated owing to lack of maintenance or the impossibility of financing the high costs of operation.78 Moreover, the structure of the health sector becomes more rigid, severely limiting the scope for future action towards reorientation of the system in terms of other priorities.

The Pan American Health Organization and the World Health Organization have emphasized in past years the negative impact that this medical and technological model has on the right to medical assistance of the majority of the population:

If at least a part of the considerable effort being focused by industrialized countries on producing state-of-the-art technology were being used to find solutions to the pressing social and health needs of the people of this planet, there would be more reason for optimism about the role of technology in Third World societies. As it stands, technology transfer can bring its own associated problems: it frequently introduces new risks, spurs a rise in health costs, and, through synergistic effects, promotes high levels of specialization. The most fundamental problem, however, becomes evident when the social distribution of technology's benefits are analyzed.

The indiscriminate incorporation of technology is contributing to a polarization of health services within societies. While the elite in developing countries have access to private hospitals with services equivalent to those in developed countries, the rest of the population must depend on public hospitals and services frequently lacking the most critical supplies and unable to modernize their technological infrastructure. In addition, shortages of parts and deficiencies in maintenance have paralyzed many installations, affecting as much as 96 per cent of the medical equipment in extreme cases. As a result of the distortion in investment at the tertiary level and the imbalance in the health sector's institutional makeup and organization, in most developing countries, including those of

Latin America and the Caribbean, priority is given to intensive coverage of small portions of the population with the highest levels of income and fewest health risks.79

This basic option of the health system is reflected in medical teaching. The specialties, above all those related to high technology and the medical areas with the greatest development in industrialized countries, are privileged over social medicine end general practice. There is a greater emphasis on training for working conditions and medical technologies that are found only in a limited number of private clinics than on confronting the most common health problem of the Venezuelan population.

The same state of affairs is reflected in drugs. Although the epidemiological profile is different from that of industrialized countries for reasons that have to do with the age structure of the population, and with sanitary, food, and ecological conditions, there is little research on drugs oriented to the specific demands of the health situation in the country. The transnational pharmaceutical industry every year introduces new products, many of them with an effectiveness that has not been proved, or drugs that have the same therapeutic value but at a higher cost than the product that they substitute.80 A country accustomed to importing on a massive scale the most complete variety of expensive drugs today faces the impossibility of purchasing them, thus intensifying the crisis of the health sector. To the extent that hospitals are not able to supply the drugs, and that as their prices rise free medical attention is disappearing, the possibility of access to medical services is denied to the lower income strata. The pharmaceutical transnational actively oppose the manufacture of generic drugs that could significantly reduce costs.

This medical model deprives the population of the knowledge that previously gave it the capacity to deal with some degree of autonomy with its health problems. As has happened in other parts of the world, traditional medical plants (free or very inexpensive) are displaced at times by patented (expensive) drugs based on the same plants. A collective image of health care develops whereby hospital attention -preferably with examinations on the basis of high technology - is always considered as the best attention. Health care and hospital attention become identified with each other. For these cultural reasons, and because of pressures exerted by the medical community, the use of non-conventional therapies (acupuncture, homeopathy, etc.), by which many health problems could be treated in a less traumatic and expensive manner, is limited.

The privileged status of curative, hospital, high-technology medicine leads to an incapacity to respond at the other levels of the health system. It has been estimated that 80 per cent of the persons who visit hospitals suffer from minor problems that could be treated in centres of primary-level attention.81 Thus hospitals are congested and the capacity to give attention to those who require hospital care is limited. A technological model based on the great import capacity that high oil revenues and an overvalued currency generated cannot be sustained. New equipment cannot be purchased and the maintenance of existing equipment cannot be carried out. Moreover, resources for the basic supplies without which hospitals are unable to operate are unavailable. Many of them are literally on the verge of collapse.

Thus, at the time when, as a consequence of the economic crisis (unemployment, malnutrition, deterioration of public services), the need for medical attention is greater, the capacity of the health system to respond to those demands is lower. Infant mortality is increasing and endemic diseases that had been eradicated 30 years ago are reappearing.82


Regarding housing, we find the same lack of correspondence between the responses and dominant technological options83 exercised by the public and private sectors and the needs for housing of the population. Housing policies are heavily influenced by the housing models of industrialized countries, even in terms of materials, construction technology, and distribution of space, overlooking economic, cultural, and climatic differences. The housing in the private construction market is generally high-cost housing, accessible only to the very high income sectors. Public housing is characterized not only by its high unit costs, but also by the use of materials and adoption of standardized spatial distribution that impedes differential relationships with the natural environment in a country with a wide geographic diversity, and which superimposes the patterns of a private and isolated nuclear family from the middle classes of the industrialized countries on a cultural experience in which both extended family relationships and community ties persist strongly.

This mode of housing is absolutely inadequate, owing to the simple fact that the country lacks the resources to satisfy - in this manner - the housing demands of more than a small and decreasing proportion of the population.84 It is calculated that with the country's current income distribution, and on the basis of the prices of housing that the private and the public sectors now construct in what is globally the formal housing market - only one-fourth of families have the capacity to purchase housing.85 Since the rental market is virtually non-existent, a high and increasing proportion of the need for housing of the rural and urban population is solved by so-called "informal housing." This housing is based on self-construction (with or without a complement of hired wage-workers), which is progressively developed over time.

In public urban and regional development programmes, informal housing has been seen as an illegal activity that occupies land meant for other uses, or as a temporary solution destined to disappear when the housing supply of the formal market increases. As a consequence, informal housing is constructed not only without the aid of the state, but also frequently in confrontation to it.86

For the low-income population, this is the worst of all possible combinations. Of these sectors, only a small minority can aspire to have access to housing in the formal market. And the possibilities of obtaining adequate housing in the in formal market are very limited. Since public housing policy has not deemed this to be a "solution," when urban development plans are formulated the existence of zones occupied by informal housing is not considered.87 The threat of eviction, and the legal insecurity due to the lack of lawful ownership of the land occupied, may slow down investment by the inhabitants and contribute to a sensation of temporality even in settlements that are several decades old. The spontaneous nature of these settlements implies the absence of planning in the use of space, in the laying out of circulation paths, and in relation to community areas. The future provision of services (even of precarious services) proves to be much more expensive than if they had been foreseen from the beginning of the urbanization process.88

In terms of expenditure, informal housing, especially in urban areas, cannot be considered an adequate solution either. Their costs are unnecessarily high because of the progressive (unprogrammed) nature of the construction, which leads to processes of construction and demolition as the housing is consolidated and enlarged. Materials are used inefficiently, and additional costs arise as a consequence of the retail purchases of materials, transport difficulties, and the lack of mortgage financing for this informal market. Finally, enormous losses are sustained when houses are dislodged or when, as occurs frequently in the constructions on the hill slopes of Caracas, they are destroyed by landslides.

The techniques of construction with earth, which have been abandoned, could have a great importance both for economic and climatic reasons.89 There is also a great potential, which has only begun to be explored, in teens of construction materials and techniques developed specifically for the conditions in which the construction of informal housing takes place.90 As has already been mentioned in relation to the training of doctors, in spite of the existence of valuable groups of researchers working in relation to these problems, the graduates of the country's schools of architecture have a training which is highly biased toward the residential architecture or high-prestige offices of the highest income sectors of the population. They are, therefore, unable to respond to the principal challenges the country faces in the field of architecture.

In summarizing the position, it can be stated that, throughout the past decades, financial, administrative, and technological resources have been concentrated on housing policies that are not capable of satisfying the housing needs of the majority of the population. The possibilities for joint action between the capacity of the population to construct its own housing and public policy (city planning, financial and technical support) have hardly been explored. Such collaboration could achieve a realistic housing policy with an appropriate technology that is neither the standardized housing, the costs of which are beyond the real capacity of the country, nor the shacks without services in which a high proportion of the population is compelled to live.

The analysis of technological models in other fields that cannot be treated owing to limitations of space - such as the role of private automobiles, the type of tourist installation that has been produced, or the technological choices involved in huge hydroelectric dams - would allow us to reach similar conclusions regarding the perverse impact of inappropriate political and technological choices in relation to the basic needs of the majority of the population.

Environmental Impact

Finally, it is not possible to speak of the development of Venezuela during the past decades and its relationship to human rights without emphasizing the violent environmental impact of this process.91 A depreciatory relationship with the environment has predominated in which water, soil, forests, and mines have been exploited on the basis of the criterion of maximum short-run enrichment.

The most severe environmental problem that the country faces is in relation to its sources of water. A consequence of the prevailing development model has been the concentration of the population in the mountainous zones of the north and west of the country, and in a few large cities. Massive deforestation has destroyed or significantly altered the hydrographic basins, and the flow of the rivers supplying this population has dried up or been reduced. These rivers are contaminated with untreated wastes.

The two principal lakes of the country (Lake Valencia and Lake Maracaibo), are seriously threatened. The contamination of Lake Valencia has already reached the limit compatible with survival of the biological species that make up its ecosystem. "The increasing and massive death of fish is a clear indication of the ecological disaster that is occurring and it can be said that. . . in less than a decade the lake has become a reservoir of dead water." 92 Maracaibo Lake, with an area of about 13,000 square kilometres - the principal fresh-water reserve of the country - presents a high level of deterioration as a consequence of the exploitation of oil deposits, of a navigation channel that has increased the entry of salt water, and by contamination produced by agriculture, industry, and sewage water from the urban centres.93 The basins of the two principal rivers of the country, the Caroni and the Orinoco, are being subjected to deforestation by uncontrolled lumber exploitation and contamination with mercury used in the exploitation of alluvion gold. In spite of the limited population,94 and the abundant water resources of the country, the supply of water for human use is not guaranteed in the medium term in many regions of the country.

There is an accelerated process of destruction of soils, a product of the exploitation of steep Andean slopes, the deforestation of fragile soils for agricultural use, the occupation of the most fertile land of the country for industrial, urban, or tourist activities, and the effects of mechanized agriculture with abundant use of fertilizers and pesticides. The principal cities of the country, especially Caracas, present high levels of atmospheric contamination, a consequence both of industrial activity and of toxic automotive emissions. There have been repeated cases in which the toxic wastes of industrial plants have had proven ill-effects on the health of their workers or nearby populations.95

Thus, with regard to the debate on the desirability or equity of the development model that has taken place in the country, it has to be stated that the model is one which, owing to its massive destructive capacity, is simply not sustainable in the middle and long run. It is unable to guarantee the satisfaction of the basic needs of the majority of the population and represents a threat to plant, animal, and human life in the national territory.

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