In Venezuela, A Much-Questioned Pursuit of Happiness

Image: Ervega. To date, the subject of happiness has become a yardstick of human development and the state of a country’s well-being. In the last two years, the concept of happiness has been largely discussed on a global scale so as to offer a clear sense of whether the world is heading in the right direction. Last September, the United Nations released its second annual World Happiness Report in light of the upcoming Sustainable Development Goal for 2015-2030. Spearheaded by renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs, the Happiness Report provides six key factors of happiness that are split between concerns on the human and government scale: GDP per capita, social support, health life expectancy at birth, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and perceptions of corruption.

Venezuela recently became the first country to institutionalize happiness goals. On 24 October 2013, President Nicolás Maduro announced the creation of a vice-ministry for the People’s Supreme Happiness “on behalf of [late President] Hugo Chávez and [legendary South American political and military leader] Simon Bolivar .”  The vice-ministry will be in charge of coordinating more than 30 social missions and will take care of inquiries, complaints, and asks from the population. According to Maduro, the new government agency will “assist the elderly and the young, the most beloved and sublime of the revolutionary population,” as well as the homeless.

The concept of “Supreme Happiness” is grounded in misiones (Spanish for missions), which are a swath of social projects sponsored by Chávez. Some of these programs include sports trainings, housing, education, primary health care, and production of farm goods. With the brand-new vice-ministry, the Maduro administration seeks to coordinate these programs under the leadership of Rafael Ríos, an expert in social security and former member of Chávez’s party lines. Ríos will be also responsible to evaluate the progress and effectiveness of the missions because, as Maduro stated, “this work has to reach all the way up to heaven in order to honor Hugo Chávez.”

Venezuela is listed as one of the top 20 countries in the UN World Happiness Report, alongside other Latin American countries such as Costa Rica, Panama, and Mexico.  In addition, the country ranked ninth in the top ten nations in the Happy Planet Index, another recognized metric of well-being in the world.

Though these outcomes paint an optimistic outlook for Venezuela, there are tangible socioeconomic shortcomings in the country that raise questions about the sufficiency and accuracy of these indices. A prevailing “supreme happiness” remains out of reach within Venezuela due to economic woes such as the control over currency exchange, a decline in foreign direct investment, and lack of internal competitiveness incentives.  In the first 100 days of Maduro’s presidency, the administration grappled with housing shortage and goods scarcity. Maduro has also experienced low popularity rates; five data analysis companies found that poll results showed an average 51.3 percent of Venezuelans blamed Maduro for their country’s dire economic situation. One of the surveys revealed that 58 percent of Venezuelans believed Maduro was taking their country in the wrong direction and that his economic measures would not resolve Venezuela’s crisis.

Other obstacles to “supreme happiness” include the Venezuelan government’s corruption, its consolidated power structure, and its poor protection of civil liberties. Of the 176 nations evaluated in the Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index, Venezuela ranks 165 with a score of 19, rendering it Latin America’s most corrupt country. The missions’ work and the creation of the new vice-ministry have sparked criticism among Venezuelans and members of the opposition alike. The opposition claims that missions only serve the purpose of gaining more loyalists yet do not offer alternatives to reduce poverty. In observing that the money allocated for the misiones does not appear on the budget ledgers, the opposition has also suggested that it may come from revenues by Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), the Venezuelan state-owned oil and natural gas company, a scenario conducive to government corruption and embezzlement.

The Maduro administration has the military, the judicial system, and the electoral commission on his side. Most recently, Maduro announced the creation of a security body called the Strategic Center for the Security and Protection of the Fatherland to coordinate information from intelligence organizations to curb internal or external activity of his opponents. Opposition leaders believe this new agency will grant dictatorial tools to Maduro and will further limit public debate.

The Venezuelan government limits the freedom of expression of its citizens. Recently, the Venezuelan government has tightened its grip on press outlets that were critical of it. Last March, for example, government pressure forced TV news channel Globovisión to sell a large share of its assets to a member of the chavismo movement, the left-wing political ideology based on the ideas by Chávez that include nationalization and social welfare programs. In addition, President Maduro has also intervened in the programming line-up of other TV channels like Venevision and Televen, particularly targeting those that criticize or mock his government. Additionally, Venezuela’ withdrawal from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in September 2013 further jeopardized the civil and human rights of its people.

Many Venezuelans were disgruntled by the new agency announcement. Thirty-one year old housewife Liliana Alfonso said, “Instead of a vice-ministry of Supreme Happiness, I’d be very happy if I could go to the supermarket and find milk, toilet paper…and if I wouldn’t return home with few items and my empty wallet.”

If happiness is based on the parameters outlined by the aforementioned human development reports, Venezuela must really make strides in ensuring civil liberties and freedom of redressing grievances without fear of retaliation from the government. An open and transparent government in terms of budget allocation and fair money distribution will also ensure that corruption levels could potentially decline, which in turn guarantees that the so-called misiones programs will be equally distributed. Finally, internal competitiveness and production of goods could also mean that Venezuelans will be able to meet their basic needs. Otherwise, populism will keep Maduro from seeing the realities of an economy and well-being in shambles.