Thursday, August 28, 1997

Dreams and visions for Venezuela´s year 2000

To only think of the possibility that my three pretty, intelligent daughters must, together with their other Venezuelan companions, cross the threshold of the next century holding hands with any of the current options we have for the next presidential election, creates a lump in my throat. By saying this I do not wish to imply that none of these options are based on efficient and well meaning people. It’s just that until now, none of them have managed to present an inspiring vision or dream.

This country is in dire need of dreams and visions of the future. Without them, we will not be able to stimulate neither the efforts nor the sacrifices required to elevate Venezuela into the ranks of the truly developed nations. Evidently, there are no perfect prescriptions to achieve this development, but I do remember that an old Chinese proverb recommends that we aim for the sky, since even if we don’t reach it, we will surely have achieved more that if we had aimed at a lower target.

Let’s analyze an example of a dream. In Malaysia, a country with a population of 20 million living in an area one third the size of Venezuela, authorities recently launched an initiative to create an information technology park at an estimated cost of US$ 20 billion. This park, located somewhere between the capital city of Kuala Lumpur and the international airport on a plot of land of about 50 square kilometers, will consist of two new cities, the installation of fiber optic communications networks of immense capacity and the promise to develop both government as well as a series of laws designed for the management of this cybernetic reality - basically a cybernetic bubble.

Some of the main technological firms of the world have been invited to occupy this park and will be incentivated to participate in a series of futuristic projects such as the creation of “intelligent schools”, teledirected medicine and the design of electronic procedures that will eliminate the use of paper in government.

Until now, based on benefits such as fiscal incentives, protection of intellectual property and guaranteed freedom from censure (something extremely important in the world of Internet), a number of important firms have shown serious interest in joining this project.

Without making judgment as to the validity or not of this Malaysian plan, Venezuela definitely has nothing even similar. If we were to analyze the current local supply of dreams and visions, we would find that we have a depressingly poor selection, headed by the possibility of an intelligent identification system with cédulas with 4K memory chips.

Even in the case of the much heralded and promised train to Cúa, the latter’s recent rebirth is based on publicity calling it a “solution to Caracas’ problems” rather than the initiation of development and progress. In dreams of previous times, when trains criss-crossed the entire country, plans for a train station in Cúa probably didn’t even exist.

Audacious plans, for example the use of the resources obtained during the recent bids in the oil patch to equip four million students with modern computers, offering them total access to information and opening the possibility of a real educational and social revolution, are schemes that are not even being considered as possibilities.

On the contrary, these resources from the oil aperture, obtained by sacking the future flows that really belong to our children and grandchildren, will most probably be used to satisfy and cover the labor costs of a bloated bureaucracy, which, maybe anticipating the Malaysian experiment, seems to have also eliminated the use of paper, even when not by design but by sheer logistical incapacity. What egghead could be happy when confronted by the fact that the international reserves of the Central Bank have now reached US$ 18 billion when the country’s real reserves, its youth, is deprived and undernourished, both physically as well as mentally.

As a nation, I consider that we all have the immediate responsibility to develop plans and visions for the future that would provide not only a sense of direction but that would also satisfy the need for illusion and dream so proper of youth. We must expect and more importantly, require, from our leaders the capacity to understand these plans and visions, to assimilate them and to convert them to reality.

I hope to God that when December 31st, 1999 rolls around, I will not have to announce to my daughters that we will be moving to a successful park in Malaysia. I hope to God that the illusions twinkling in their eyes will include Venezuela.


Friday, August 01, 1997

A million-dollar cédula

I realize that the dance of billions of Bolívares (millardos in Venezuela-speak) can often make it difficult to determine if we are talking of important amounts of money or not. When we speak in terms of dollars, it is usually clearer. During the past few weeks, we have been subjected to the debate swirling around the government’s decision to acquire a new national identification system valued at US$ 500 million.

US$ 500 million is a truly large sum of money! It is equivalent, for example, to the cost of 600,000 good computers or 35,000 middle range automobiles. It is superior by a long shot to estimates of the investment required to renew the entire metropolitan aqueduct of Caracas. Measured in day-to-day matters, this sum amounts to approximately 2.1 billion subway tickets. The financial cost of this investment, at a modest 10% interest rate, would be US$ 50 million per annum, which allocated to an estimated 2 million cédulas issued per year would result in a unit cost (interest only) of US$ 25 per document produced.

What is truly surprising, is that the debate this decision has raised is centered on whether or not formal steps corresponding to the award process, either by formal bid or through direct negotiation, have been complied with. There has been little mention of analysis, nor have many questions been raised, as to how the use of the nation’s resources is being prioritized. Suppose, strictly for argument’s sake, that a 10% commission will go towards fattening a corrupt official’s bank account. Suppose, as well, that the investment per se is really not necessary and that the objectives established could be reasonably covered with an investment of, say, US$ 100 million. The cost to the nation of the crime represented by the commission paid would be US$ 50 million. The cost of a flawed decision, even if taken by Mother Teresa herself, would be US$ 400 million.

A country often must undertake considerable institutional investments even when basic primary needs have not been met, but in this case, the cost-benefit ratio used by the National Government to support this huge outlay is difficult to fathom. Although it would obviously be nice to have a cutting-edge national identification system, the country has many profound needs that are far too important to allow us the luxury of trying to resolve a basic organizational problem by simply throwing money at it.

When we contemplate the dilapidated state of our health and education systems, it is difficult to understand the decision to dedicate such an important amount of resources towards resolving a problem which seems to be secondary in nature. Even developed countries such as the United States and the UK don’t even have identification systems.

In Venezuela today, we have severe problems related to the lack of basic equipment, material and even passports. These problems undoubtedly are caused by an absence of administrative capacity and this could mean that even if we invest in a new national identification system, we would very quickly be suffering the impact of this very same indolence.

It has been suggested that, should we not accept the proposed system, the one that contains a 4K memory chip, our only other alternative would be a student ID card. I don’t quite understand what is so wrong with our traditional laminated cedulas; if only they were ordered and issued on time.

If the political will to avoid fraud and to severely punish officials perpetrating the same does not exist, the system, no matter how much we invest in it, will not work. The only probable result would be that the tariff charged for corresponding illegal transactions would simply be increased.

As a pacifier, we are told that there is no reason to worry since this will essentially be a government to government transaction. Maybe we should be asking for a citizen-to-citizen conversation instead. I’m almost certain that the German citizens, should they be shown photographs of the operating rooms in the Hospital Pérez Carreño, would not see the ethical value of sending us a US$ 500 million personal identification system.

Finally, as an intellectual exercise, I asked several of my friends to come up with some of the bad things one can do with a false cedula. None of the suggestions they came up with come even close to the horrifying things someone can perpetrate with, for example, a false driver’s license. Except, perhaps, the role false cedulas may have had in electing our governments. For this to be avoided, 4K of memory might not be enough.

Traducción:

Reconozco que en el baile de los millardos de bolivares puede a veces resultar dificil determinar si se esta hablando de un monto importante o no. Cuando se expresa en dólares no. Durante las últimas semanas se le ha indicado al pais la voluntad del gobierno de adquirir un nuevo sistema de cedulación en 500 Millones de dólares.

500 Millones de dólares es un monto realmente grande. Equivale por ejemplo al costo de 600.000 buenas computadoras o a 35.000 carros tipo mediano. Es bastante superior a las estimaciones de costo requeridas para renovar todo el sistema del acueducto metropolitano. En elementos del dia a dia significa 2.130.000.000 de tikets de metro A una modesta tasa del 10% representa unos intereses anuales de 50 Millones de dólares y los cuales repartidos sobre un nivel de 2 millones de cédulas al año resultaría en un costo, solo por intereses de 25 dólares por cédula.

El tema ha generado un debate en el pais. Lo sorprendente de éste es que se ha centrado en determinar si se han cumplido o no con los pasos formales referentes a un proceso de adjudicación, sea por via de licitación o negociación directa, y menos en analizar o cuestionar los procesos de como se esta prioritizando el uso de los recursos del pais. Supongamos exclusivamente para fines de una discusión de que existiese una comisión del 10% y que fuera a engrosar la cuenta de algún funcionario corrupto. Supongamos además que la inversión en sí no fuese necesaria y que los objetivos previstos pudiesen razonablemente cumplirse con una inversión de 100 millones de dólares. El costo para el pais del crimen de la comisión es de 50 Millones. El costo para el pais de haber tomado la decisión equivocada y aún cuando así lo hubiese hecho la propia Madre Teresa, sería de 400 Millones de dólares.

A veces un pais puede tener la necesidad de efectuar inversiones institucionales aún cuando existan necesidades primarias insatisfechas pero en este caso resulta dificil entender la relación costo beneficio que pueda haberle sugerido al Gobierno Nacional este cuantioso gasto. Por supuesto que sería agradable poseer un sistema de identificación de vanguardia pero el país tiene necesidades mucho más importantes como para permitirse el lujo de tratar de resolver a realazos un problema básicamente de orígen organizativo.

Es dificil en Venezuela cuando contemplamos el lastimoso estado de la salud y de la educación entender que alguien sugiera dedicar tan importantes recursos a resolver un problema que pareceria hasta ser secundario por cuanto paises desarrollados como Estados Unidos e Inglaterra ni siquiera poseen sistemas de identificación.

Si en Venezuela tenemos un problema actual debido a la falta de equipos básicos, láminas y hasta de pasaporte es indiscutible que dicho problema se origina ante nada en una falta de capacidad administrativa y lo cual podría significar que aún cuando se efectúe la inversión en poco tiempo nuevamente suframos los impactos de la desidia.

Se nos ha dicho que de no aceptar la propuesta desarrollada, la del chip de los 4k, nuestra única alternativa sería la de un carnet estudiantil. No entiendo que de malo tiene nuestra actual cédula de identidad laminada, si la pidiesen y emitiesen a tiempo.

Si no existe la voluntad política de evitar los fraudes y de castigar severamente a los funcionarios incursos en los fraudes de identificación, el sistema y por mucho que se invierta, no funcionará. Probablemente el único resultado sería el de elevar la tarifa que se cobra por la ilegalidad.

Como un pacificador se le indica a la nación venezolana que no hay de que temer por cuanto esta operación se efectuara de gobierno a gobierno. Quizas debamos recurrir a una conversación de pueblo a pueblo. Estoy seguro de que el pueblo alemán, de mostrarles una fotos de la sala quirurgica del Hospital Pérez, estarían poco de acuerdo con el valor ético de vendernos un sistema de identificación en 500 Millones de dólares.

Finalmente y como un ejercicio intelectual le pregunté a varios de mis amigos sobre que cosas malas se puede hacer con una cédula falsa. Ninguna de las sugerencias llegaba ni cerca de los horrores que puedan producirse con por ejemplo una falsa licencia de conducir. Excepto quizás la de poder elegir nuestros gobiernos y para evitar tales desgracias quizas 4 k no sean suficientes.