The Banality of Incompetence

One story that should be getting more play abroad is the simply amazing tale of the oil Venezuela is selling to China for $5/barrel…only for the Chinese to turn around and sell it on to third-parties (read: gringos) at a markup of over 1000%. (And no, that is not a typo.)

The whole crazy story, revealed in the Wikileaks data dump, beggars belief in so many directions at once your head almost spins. Venezuela is sending foreign aid – to China! – to the tune, potentially, of tens of millions of dollars per day! in the form of oil that ends up in your gas tank!

The obvious question is “why?!” And the answer, as far as I can tell, is “just because…”

And that, I think , is why stories like this don’t get more play. Narratively, they’re just deeply unsatisfying. You can’t fit them into any of the tropes that dominate public understandings of Chávez abroad: Chávez-the-Budding-Dictator, Chávez-the-Buffoon and Chávez-the-Dashing-Champion-of-the-Poor. Basically, they don’t make any sense.

It isn’t because Chávez is a despot that Venezuela is handing over gobs of free cash to the Chinese. And it isn’t because he’s enamored of Chinese communism, either.

The reason China gets those $5 oil barrels is more banal and, in its own way, far more tragic: the people now charged with reaching international supply agreements on PDVSA’s behalf couldn’t negotiate their way out of a wet paper bag. This is happening because PDVSA is now so criminally mismanaged that the government ends up signing multimillion dollar deals before anybody’s really grasped what they’ll mean.

There’s no easy way for a journalist to telegraph this to his readers in an 800 word story without coming across as horrendously condescending, or worse. And so this has become a key missing strand in international understanding of the Chávez era: the way the country’s being destroyed not to serve any given political or ideological objective, but just through the insidious, corrosive impact of official hostility towards professional expertise.

My sense is that, inside Venezuela, people have a good grasp of this dynamic. We’ve all heard the stories about what goes on in nationalized farms and factories, we’ve seen the caliber of the people chavismo puts in sensitive positions. We’re no longer surprised when huge damage is done not through malice or ideological obtuseness but rather through simple, chronic haplessness. We get the vorágine.

Explaining this to outsiders, though, is much tougher. English language readers expect their news to make sense, to fit into an identifiable narrative with good guys, bad guys, set ideologies and events that happen for a reason.

Quisiera uno…