What Migbelis Castellanos taught me about work ethic

Típica habitante de la Costa Oriental
Típica habitante de la Costa Oriental

Over at Foreign Policy, I talk about how Miss Venezuela has become an oasis where hard work and (somewhat) honest competition are rewarded. The value added, with some anecdotes to follow:

Last Thursday, an annual Venezuelan ritual took place. Venezuelans of every social class and all sides of the political spectrum sat down to watch and comment on the Miss Venezuela, the country’s national beauty pageant. As a Venezuelan expatriate, I find it hard to take the whole thing seriously. As an analyst, though, I have to find a way to explain it.

Putting the obvious, snarky comments aside (“We Venezuelans are vain and sexist” would be the knee-jerk explanation), it’s worth pointing out that the pageant is one of the few remaining places where Venezuelans can watch honest competition and hard work play themselves out. Beauty queens go through months of rigorous training, and in the end the competition is deemed fair, with the outcome based (mostly) on merit alone.

This is a rare occurrence in revolutionary Venezuela, since chavismo has done its best to extinguish Venezuelans’ work ethic.

There isn’t an industry or sector in Venezuela that isn’t hampered by overbearing government regulations, whether they are price controls, labor rigidities (as outlined above), or foreign-exchange restrictions. The result is a society that expends most of its energy on schemes for getting rich quick.

Venezuelans waste countless hours looking to take advantage of the opportunities in the country’s dual exchange-rate system. By traveling overseas, they can access cheap dollars they can then sell at seven times their value in the black market. This practice, colloquially known as the “raspaíto,” has become one of the main growth industries in Venezuela. Everyone, from the country’s millions of informal street vendors to the businessmen making billions off juicy government contracts to provide electrical plants, seems to be exploiting opportunities to seek arbitrage that have flourished under the government’s policies.

My editors at Foreign Policy were very thankful for the excuse to put beauty queens on their blog. I told them I was pretty sure all beauty queens read Foreign Policy – how else will they be able to answer the questions about wars and world peace?

On a very similar take on our country’s obsession with beauty, take a look at Patrick Meinhardt’s photo essay. It’s quite the indictment.

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  1. Juan, estamos jodidos, realmente jodidos, si tenemos que poner a la mafia de la “belleza” y ese concursito como muestra de competición y de “meritocracia”. Sin dinero para la nariz y los senos y ciertos fenotipos básicos, el duro entrenamiento para andar en tacón alto y hablar mejor que otras misses sin haber leído un solo libro no cuenta para nada.

  2. Frm what I’ ve heard the thing is set up from the get go, Osmel’s favorite nearly always wins. And many of the unlucky contestants who dont break into tv or modelling end up being high price call girls.

  3. Venezuelans from way back have always had a soft spot for the cult and cultivation of splashy made up appearances, for showmanship , for frivolity , for gaudy spectacles , for modish styles , for the admiration of glamorous personal beauty . Chronicles from early XIX century foreign visitors have noted this ( see Holsteins Biography of Bolivar and how it describes Caraquenos ). The three things for which we as a people excell: producing beauty queens , world class musicians and baseball stars. involve not just the possesion of some outstanding personal qualities but an element of ‘show’ , the presentation of grand spectacles. You can also see this in Chavez love for the theatrical and the rethorically extravagant and how ordinary people lapped it up. You can also see this in the Venezuelan statistics for the comsumption of beauty products or treatments or plastic surgery
    If you love causing an effect then you will work hard for achieving it . Give us the right incentive and we will become disciplined and dedicated . Love of hard work is not automatic or instinctive in us as it is for other people ( the germans and japanese come to mind) , but we will work hard at what we love , not simply out of a sense of duty or a love of order and material achievement. .

  4. Nobody has commented on Meinhardt’s photo essay. It’s quite disturbing! I still don’t know how he managed to get into those operating rooms. I just know it made me feel icky after seeing those pics.

  5. Despite all the shallowness, plastic surgeons, etc, we should admit that in Venezuela, the Miss Venezuela pageant is not a bad platform to start for those girls that want to get into the showbiz.
    This girl – the winner – was the underdog (not Osmel’s favourite), and ended up winning because she spoke well and because she is smart. She’s studying two careers at the same time in the university (Politics and Communication) and for me it’s obvious that she’s just using the pageant as a trampoline, which is perfectly valid.
    Good for her.

    • Carolina, have you thought about the cost benefit relationship?
      You can completely go for the individual: she wins, whatever the other do does not matter, it’s up to them. But reality is that for that thing to be so successful, there must be lots of disparities in society.
      To be honest: I don’t think Belgian girls are a bit less beautiful than Venezuelan girls. Here you also have the odd beauty queen who turns into “celebrity woman” on TV or so…and that’s all.
      In Venezuela to provide for the dosh and fame for the winner, you need a whole society to be thrilled by the whole thing and you need hundreds of thousands of girls stupidly
      spending lots of money in that crap instead of books. And no wonder why we have one of the highest birth rates in Latin America and one of the highest shares of child mothers.

      • That’s not what I said Kep, even though I understand you point about the whole society pushing for it.
        But you’re saying that if a woman gets her boobs done, it automatically implies that she doesn’t read books and I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I’m saying that beauty and brains can go perfectly well together, and I believe that’s the case of this girl.
        One more thing just to bug you: if your goal in life is to win a Nobel prize, you study, you read all the books, you work hard to pursue perfection.
        If your goal is to be the most beautiful, then you use the available resources: you go to the gym and work your ass off, go to the salon and get your hair done every other day, you watch what you eat, and if something needs a little “fixing”, then you do it.
        Or both.
        It’s all about personal goals. 🙂

        • I don’t totally agree with you, Carolina. If your goal is to be the most beautiful, or the most muscular, it implies a heavy dose of narcissism. Furthermore, if all your time is spent on improving your physical outer shell, will you really have the time or the interest to devote to the reading of ideas from others?

          As a corollary, has anyone really looked into the aspirations of beauty queen contestants to determine if, indeed, they followed up on their lofty verbal platforms?

          One thing is to believe in and develop the cult of bodily perfection. The other is to “study… read all the books … work hard” to develop your mind, AND come up with an ORIGINAL IDEA, that once implemented RADICALLY CHANGES the perception or welfare of society at large.

          Two very different ends of a spectrum, in my opinion…

          • I know a lot of smart people that study as hard as they can in order to be the best and go far in life, to be known as a “susccesful” person. I think THAT also implies a heavy dose of narcissism…

          • I think a lot of it plays into decision theory. There may be a narcissistic component, but by and large, people will engage in what they think gives them the best chance at the greatest possible reward for the most minimal investment of effort.

            Say you are a person who has a lot of ambition, but an average amount of intelligence and personality. However, imagine that you have also been blessed with exceptional physical beauty. Given that you have to provide for yourself, what sort of future path would you take?

            Given their “attributes”, real or faux, what are their likelihood of a moderately or extremely successful careers? .00005% if they were to go to school to become a petrochemical engineer? .0005% if they became an attorney? .005% if they became a doctor? .05% if they went to business school and started a company? .5% if they try modeling or acting? or 5% if they go for Miss Venezuela?

            There’s nothing wrong with playing to one’s strengths. I think the narcissism is a result of success in pandering to one’s strengths, but not necessarily the result of that strength per se. Just as a PhD reinforces to an intelligent person that they are smart, or negotiating a difficult major business contract reinforces to an empathetic person that they are good with people, so too does success in pageants reinforce that an attractive person is, well, attractive.

            So do we fault pulchritudinous women for pursuing what will give them the best chance at a successful livelihood? Or does it say something more about a society in general? There’s a whole industry built up around beauty, and that same industry sells the illusion of beauty wherein those who aren’t “born” with it believe they can acquire it through various means. Where is the real problem? The beautiful woman who has a real shot, or those who don’t but delusionally believe that they do merely because society places a value on a quality that exceeds intrinsic worth?

            Incidentally, this is no different than what I’ve seen first hand working with at-risk youth who seem to believe that they have a shot at being an NBA player despite being 5’9″ and a lack of real physical coordination. The fact they aren’t 6’6″, muscular and athletic doesn’t dissuade them in the least because they’ve been repeatedly sold the message by society that they can “just do it” if they work hard enough. So they throw away other opportunities in the deluded quest that they can be something that isn’t really something they have as a core strength.

          • There can be something else, Carolina. There are some people who study very hard above all because they are extremely curious. There are some who on top of that are creative.
            Now: what is the equivalent of that for a person who has a narrow face, particularly symmetrical face traits, probably blue eyes (in Latin America) and a decent BMI?
            In the first case, it is a focus that goes beyond them and it often, even if not necessarily, leads to success. In the second, it is about the celebration of the self and that mostly because of the good chance.

        • Carolina,

          I don’t think a piece of silicon stuck under the skin to give the impression that there is a larger mass of subcutaneous fat in the mammary glands makes a woman beautiful. But well: de gustibus non est disputandum.

          In any case: there is a whole range between being a beauty pageant and a Nobel prize winner.

          If you get 1,000,000 girls spending all their time and resources trying to be beauty queens, you will get 10 beauty queens and 50 first class prostitutes, 10000 prostitutes and 500000 with premature pregnancies, the rest just whatever is average now in Venezuela.

          If you get the same 1,000,0000 girls spending half the time studying a bit and doing some freaking sports, you would get perhaps not even a Nobel prize but perhaps 20 prostitutes, 1000 premature pregnancies and at least 100,000 women who won’t treat their sons as pashas and a couple of thousand extra engineers or technicians.

          It’s good that every woman in Belgium or Norway has the choice to try to become Miss Belgium or Norway, but it is much greater that most people are not particularly impressed if she does and won’t give the money to finance a world where so few benefit.

          • I dont see anything in the young lady’s curriculum to make her qualify as a full rank sports minister other than the fact that she excelled in sports. Lots of people excell in sports and that doesnt make them ministerial material . I am inclined to believe that her phisical attractiveness did probably have something to do with her appointment as minister, specially in a country such as ours , under the current regime which views politics as involving the use of smoke and mirrors , hypped up glamour , gleaming tinsel and cheap theatrics.

          • Clarification , the above refers to the post coming after this one , the one on the failure of Ciudad Bolivar to host the Panamerican Games , sorry for the goof !!

          • Kep – just as a side note: instead of fighting so much the beauty pageants or the level of hedonism in the venezuelan society, we should be fighting for making illegal for companies when they ask for a particular gender when offering employment.
            Or age, for that matter.

          • Do you think that has more chances of delivering concrete results in Venezuela or in Canada, for that matter?
            Even if you don’t see the person but the CV chances are you know their age and gender.
            Make sure less girls get pregnant at 15 and you chance society much faster.

  6. Well do not push to much the thing of oh yeah be a woman and study and bla blah blah! Because even in the best countries the inequality in gender is a REAL problem… at least in Venezuela they are not fake about it…I am not a feminist that I hate man, but I have seen how women are still not well received even with high qualifications…so in a way yes the ones saying yes study and this and that , and at the same time…yes be a woman with the degrees etc…and be a little cute to experience first hand , than more that you think always they prefer beauty over brains…and God forbid you show it because you know how you would be called?

  7. There are jobs that circumstances make difficult for most women to perform because they involve entering a mans club , this is not fair but if you care about the job getting done then a qualified male is the one to hire . there are others which you know women are better at than any man , in my experience jobs requiring meticulous attention to detail , persistent effort , following strict protocoles , putting disparate things together . In my time many women were afraid to be womanly in their work and acted mannishly , like another one of the guys . which in a way was offputting , women can be women , thoroughly feminine without diminishing one bit their effectiveness in their job , perhaps enhancing it . What bothers me most about the practice of discriminating against women is not so much the ‘equal rights’ stuff , but the sheer waste that it involves , if you have so many talented or potentially talented woman capable of doing a job , to let that talent go to waste just because of reasons of gender seems so dumb !! i once knew of a large company that made it a policy not to hire beautiful women only plain looking ones , because they felt the presence of beatiful women was distracting and ultimately led to trouble !! that was a long time ago.!!

    • “There are jobs that circumstances make difficult for most women to perform because they involve entering a mans club , this is not fair but if you care about the job getting done then a qualified male is the one to hire.”
      Like which ones? I’m curious.

      • construction capatáz, pro football coach, large-animal veterinarian, truck driver union boss, and a shrinking number of other male-dominated arenas — por ahora.

  8. None of those sound to me as “better suited for men” jobs! I’m in construction and there are MANY women working as good and as hard as the men.
    If anything, the only thing that came to mind is something like a miner, but still.

    • Momentito. You don’t specify what positions the women have in construction. For as you know, there are layers and layers in any organization.

      Are you saying that you know (many) female construction foremen, in charge of men on a construction site? And how prevalent is this? Because in my years, I have yet to see that, in reality. In all the road construction crews I’ve passed, I have never yet seen a woman in charge of men. In all the new housing developments being built, I’ve never yet seen a woman in charge of building crews. Yes, women are in the office. Yes, women are at the sales desk. But show me women in charge of a group of men on the site.

      Firemen. That’s another largely male preserve. But I digress.

      Years ago, one woman acquaintance was going on and on, about women in the top echelons of corporate Canada. I just shook my head, wondering what fantasyland she inhabited. One need only to have looked at the main national paper’s business section to see published the photos of members of Boards of Directors, with one or two tokens being female. Things have improved in the intervening 15 years. But not enough, as statistics would show.

      One reason for this is an unfair generalization. Unfair, since not all women fit the profile of those who have families and who, on average, will spend less time on the job, on developing contacts, on growing the business, than men. Men at the upper echelons will breathe and eat the job. I’m talking about averages.

  9. I have always said that Venezuelans are only serious about two things: 1) partying and 2) beauty pagents. In a country where improvisation is king, the only things that are not improvised are entertainment and beauty.

    This being said, it is too bad that Osmel Sousa is not in politics. The guy is responsible for having put together a really amazing organization, wether we like beauty pageants or not. If we had a likewise in the government or in the opposition, we would be much better off!

    • Frankly, Miss Venezuela makes me want to go out in the street and yell too. It is always inspiring to see Venezuelans out in the street protesting.

      If I could just add one small further editorial comment: If Osmel Sousa wants to perform a public service to repent from all of this, he could retract his anti-gay commentary. Is the only acceptable way to be an openly gay person in Venezuela to make comments like gay people are not fit to be parents, etc. Sure he works hard. Pimps work hard too.

      • What is racist? That in the media/Venezuelan beauty events people are selected according to Northern-European looks in an area where the vast majority have not only a European but a strongly native American one or to remark about that?

        • I don’t think people are selected or rejected because of their race; that they are selected or rejected based on parameters that have a higher likelihood to appear in certain races does not necessarily make the chooser a racist. Analogously, if there were a race that had a higher percentage of homosexuals, would you say that homosexuals were being racist?

          • Extorres,

            Excuse me, but you have written such a piece of rubbish.

            “Race” is basically about certain phenotypes which happen to be those parameters.
            What else?
            About half the candidates have blue or green eyes. Do you know what’s the incidence of that in Venezuela? The average candidate has a lighter skin colour – by far – than the average Venezuelan. What’s that? Of course, they always have the token brown ones and even one black, which happens to look like what Osmel’s conceptions of a beautiful black should be.

            This bloke, Osmel S., even talked so openly about that in front of the German TV. It went along the line that “I am not racist but the blacks in Venezuela, unlike those in Colombia, are ugly”. Why? Because more flatter noses?
            Geez…even European beauty contests are currently more representative of the population in their respective countries than Venezuela’s.

          • Kepler, you’re wrong. Just because there is a racial correlation does not prove that there is a racial causation. Read the “rubbish” again, but this time recycle.

            Racism is about the belief in racial superiority, and/or unfair treatment based on race. Note in your example that Osmel does not reject people because of their race, but because of their noses. If he’s out to win a competition, he better be discriminating due to noses, and not due to race. The judges are not choosing which contestant is the most representative of her nation; they are judging based on phenotypes for which Osmel seems to have an eye. Analogously, are sports racist just because there is a higher proportion of certain races winning at some of them than others?

            Again, correlation does not prove causation.


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