An illusion of harmony, but without the harmony

Logo_Acción_DemocráticaFew books have marked Venezuela’s public debate as much as “El caso Venezuela: una illusion de armonía.” It was published in the mid-1980s by a group of young academics from the IESA Business School in Caracas, the then-unknown Ramón Piñango and Moisés Naím.

It bums me that I don’t have a copy of the book with me, but I still remember a few of its main lessons. The most important one was the alarm bells they kept ringing: in the waning days of the petro-state – the “Saudi Venezuela” – these folks set out to warn Venezuela that the good times could not last, that we couldn’t simply expect to go through life without prioritizing things, and that the lack of deep social conflict in the country at the time (yes, kids, that was Venezuela back then) was alarming.

The term “illusion of harmony” is a term that stuck in Venezuela’s public consciousness, probably because it described so fittingly a specific moment in time.

Well, we’ve stopped being that country long ago, but many of the traits the authors identified – the apparent disdain for hard work, the lack of clarity when it comes to public policy, the falsehood of the idea that Venezuela “is a rich country” – are still very much with us.

In honor of the 30th anniversary of the book, Prodavinci has published an insightful interview with Piñango, one of its authors. The part that jumps out at me:

“In spite of the dictatorships, the coups, and the personalistic regimes, in 1984 there had been something absent in our social relationshps. There was a lack of conflict. That was very strange because there were three basic guidelines that had steered, explicitly or implicitly, how the country and private industries were governed: there’s enough for everything, everything is possible, and since there is enough for everything and everything is possible, let’s avoid conflict,” recalls Piñango as if yesterday was today and Venezuela was still a fascinating case study.

This abundance of wealth, of course, was a veneer of civility, the glue that kept our unruly social fabric in its place.

Here’s another highlight:

“Venezuelan management was marked by the terrible principle that “if there’s enough for everything and everything is possible, why should I say no to you? This meant, for example, not having to establish priorities.”

Piñango goes on to say that our institutions were born out of this idea of incredible wealth, and are therefore ill-equipped to handle conflict. Our unions, our city halls, our state governments were born under the idea of “sharing the wealth.” Working together to achieve a common goal, to create something that doesn’t exist, is simply not their thing.

Even the main political party of the time, Acción Democrática, had in its banner the lemma “Bread, Land, and Work” … “Pan, Tierra y Trabajo.” All of these things refer to sharing the wealth, not to creating it. Implicit in the motto is the idea that the party is going to be in charge of giving people … bread, land, and work. The party was the provider of stuff.

I wonder how much of the cultural traits we find in Venezuelans, the apparent friendliness and openness in business or in social life, come from this idea that “there’s enough for everyone.” Could it be that our most valued personality traits … are based on a mirage? The harmony is long gone, but is the illusion still living within us?

I wonder…