Thursday, March 25, 2004

Odious Debt

One of my recent articles, which focused on the need to protect the environment, concluded by recalling the ancient proverb, “We have not inherited the world from our parents; we have borrowed it from our children.” On that occasion, as always, I thought about Venezuela and I knew that, as borrowers from our children, we have acted like veritable pigs. Not only have we extracted our country’s oil without putting it to much good use, we have even mortgaged its future in the process.

Some countries may be in need of foreign loans to get on their feet, but here in Venezuela we ought to know by now that our foreign public debt, be it the debt of yesterday, today, or tomorrow, only serves to fasten us all the more securely to a sinking ship. Foreign public debt is a monstrous obstacle. It keeps our citizens from getting loans (or at least makes loans much more expensive) that could indeed lead to growth in the country and allow the government to satisfy social needs through taxation.

Our only salvation is to learn how to resist the lure of the eternal sirens’ song, which goes “foreign debt taken on by the previous administrations is evil and good for nothing, but rest assured, with us, everything’s going to be different.” How do we—like the ancient Odysseus—tie ourselves to the mast?

There are those, in similar desperation, who argue that since our creditors were accomplices of those administrations, we shouldn’t pay our debts to them. I accept the theory of complicity, at least on the part of the intermediaries, but I think we should punish them much more harshly, by canceling the entire debt and never again taking out another loan.

What can ordinary citizens do who want to and have to go about their daily lives and can’t be continually overseeing the government? The same as any company: they can refuse to provide their management with authorization for contracting debts. Along these lines, a doctrine is now being discussed in the world according to which, if the debt was contracted by an illegitimate government, or for uses that were clearly of no benefit to the country said debt could be declared odious and, as such, its collection would not be legally enforceable.

Dear friends, if we are going to do right by our children, our grandchildren, and our great grandchildren, and return the country we borrowed from them in good shape, maybe we should take advantage of such a possibility and declare our foreign public debt eternally odious. Given that threat: Would creditors dare provide us with loans? What would the credit-rating agencies say? 

Or let us be even more clear about the message and amend our constitution to say that the government of Venezuela has no authority to borrow from foreign sources, that any attempt to do so is illegal, and hence that all such illegal debts will not be repaid. That should stop foreigners from lending us money!