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Venezuelan Gov’t Bloated, Stifling

December 27, 1997

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ Los Magallanes public hospital has one ambulance and 14 ambulance drivers. Six women take turns running the single elevator that works in the nine-story building.

Before it went bankrupt last February, state-run Viasa airline had 12 airplanes and 291 pilots, or 24 pilots per plane.

At Town Hall in Caracas’ Sucre municipality, 18 doormen checked in visitors at three doors. The mayor recently fired most of them, along with four gardeners at Perez de Leon Hospital, which has no garden.

While Latin American governments are notoriously bloated and inefficient, Venezuela’s is among the worst.

Its bureaucracy is stifling economic development, scaring off foreign investors, stoking inflation and diverting funds needed for decaying highways, schools and hospitals, which lack supplies as basic as needles and bandages.

``It’s a thousand-headed monster,″ says Luis Supelano of the Planning Ministry.

Like officials elsewhere in Latin American, Venezuelan government leaders are trying to tame their bureaucratic monster as part of free-market economic reforms that have swept the region.

So far, they’ve had little success.

``When I got here, I found people who were on the payroll and hadn’t been seen in two or three years,″ says Delia Da Silva, who took over the National Identification and Immigration service in 1996.

The Health Ministry’s headquarters in Caracas is bulging with 6,000 secretaries, messengers, administrators and other workers. An internal study concluded 75 percent of them aren’t needed.

On a typical day, many stroll in late, take a coffee break and head out for a long lunch, often passing the afternoon browsing for clothes, makeup and other items offered by door-to-door salesmen, says Jose Siso, a Health Ministry official.

The 200 janitors and maintenance workers at Los Magallanes hospital do so little the government hired private firms to mop floors and paint walls, says hospital director Dr. Jorge Weir.

Doormen often spend the night playing cards, placing horse bets and drinking rum, sometimes ``wandering around drunk at 10 o’clock in the morning,″ says Dr. Emilia Colella, a kidney specialist.

Ambulance drivers drink on the job, too, she says, and sometimes zoom down the road with the siren blaring to go to the bank to cash their paychecks.

``There’s no law. It’s chaotic,″ said Colella.

The state payroll swelled during worldwide booms in the price of oil in the 1970s, when billions of dollars flowed into Venezuela, the No. 1 foreign supplier of oil to the United States.

At the time, Latin American governments were taking control of key industries to protect them from foreign and domestic competition.

In Venezuela, many jobs were handed out in exchange for votes. Stringent labor laws and powerful unions linked to political parties made it all but impossible to fire people.

In recent years, infrastructures decayed while the number of workers remained constant. Los Magallanes, for instance, opened in the 1970s with six elevators; five haven’t worked in years.

Today, 1.35 million of the country’s 22 million people are state employees. They account for one in six workers and eat up one-fourth of the $21 billion national budget.

Venezuela’s government employs 6.1 percent of the population, compared to Brazil’s 4.5 percent and Colombia’s 2.2 percent.

Critics say the government balks at firing people, fearing it will lose political support. Officials also know that layoffs could provoke widespread unrest, like the rioting that shook Venezuela in 1989 or the two attempted coups in 1992.

Four of five people already live in poverty by official estimates, 11 percent of workers are unemployed and 48 percent work in the informal economy, often as street vendors, shoe shiners or in other low-paying jobs.

Labor leaders point out that many workers are responsible, and are not to blame for government overhiring. Besides, there are few other jobs out there.

``I’m no bum,″ says ambulance driver Simon Mijares, 35, who says his monthly salary of $218 isn’t nearly enough to feed and clothe his wife and two children.

Two government agencies _ the Development Ministry and Foreign Commerce Institute _ managed to trim their bureaucracies by merging and cutting their combined staffs from 1,500 to 270.

Brazil took a harsher step after its stock market plunged 30 percent, announcing in November it would lay off 33,000 federal workers in 1998.

Colombia is trying to cut back through privatization of mines, electrical companies and banks, but the bureaucracy isn’t shrinking because many laid-off workers have found their way back onto the state payroll.

Unless Venezuela slims down, foreign investors warn that economic growth will be stymied, since everything from getting a driver’s license to starting a business is a headache.

Chris Sharpe, a British environmentalist employed by Venezuela’s Environment Ministry, says that when he applied for a visa at the immigration office, he went through legal channels rather than pay a bribe like many people do.

He got his visa _ after 26 visits.

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