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Kai Ryssdal: Hugo Chavez is looking for some help from his friends. The Venezuelan president has invited a team of Cuban energy experts to help Caracas deal with an ongoing power crisis. That’s interesting on two counts. First, Cuba’s not really known for having sound energy policies of its own. Also, Venezuela is one of the world’s leading energy exporters. It ships millions of barrels of crude oil every day.
Commentator David Frum has just come back from a State Department-sponsored trip to Venezuela. And he sent along these observations about the curious state of its economy.
DAVID FRUM: The campus of the Central University of Venezuela is a UNESCO landmark, a perfect example of the tropical modernism of the 1960s. I visited just a few days ago to talk to students and faculty and noticed something strange: Every clock in the building had stopped dead. I asked why. Answer: The 1980s vintage computer that controlled the clocks had failed, and the university could not obtain foreign currency to repair or replace it.
It’s not an unusual story in Venezuela. In the five days I spent there, I met middle-class professionals who had given up their cars for lack of imported spare parts. Next-door, Colombia demands dollars for its coffee, so most Venezuelans must make do with brackish Nicaraguan brew.
Those who have maintained illegal bank accounts in the United States smuggle scarce goods from Miami. It took an hour to load my flight, as middle-class Venezuelans struggled to wedge their bags into the overhead bins. They won’t check their luggage because, they explain, they fear the Caracas luggage handlers will rob them.
Those who must use local currency lose one-third of their purchasing power to inflation every year and in late January saw their savings cut in half by a devaluation. Electricity disappears for two hours a day outside the capital. Water taps run dry. In the single month of January, the Hugo Chavez government seized ownership of a major shopping mall and a large grocery chain was caught shipping a boatload of missiles to Hezbollah and ordered cable stations to drop the country’s most popular TV station because it did not carry a long-winded presidential speech in full.
It takes a certain kind of genius to lay waste to the economy of one of the world’s major oil producers. But in his excuses, at least, Chavez is very far from original. He fixes the blame where it always goes: on the Americans and the Jews.
RYSSDAL: David Frum is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
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