Rodolfo Medina
Rodolfo Medina

Rodolfo Medina: My prof, the minister

It’s always strange when someone you know turns up on the news. So imagine my surprise when I found out Rodolfo Medina, my old Econometrics teacher from undergrad days at UCV, is now Finance Minister.

The appointment of Rodolfo Medina as Finance Minister was – understandably – overshadowed from the get-go by the appointment of The Undertaker, the shockingly looney tunes minister-sans-portfolio Luis Salas.

Yet Medina’s promotion was remarkable in a very Venezuelan way: he’s the first real Economist in charge of the Finance Ministry since at least 8 years, and the first economist of any description in any cabinet post at in the Maduro era. Just based on his career path, he seems like a huge improvement over his legendarily clueless predecessor, Rodolfo Marco Torres. 

But don’t get too jolly just yet. I can tell you a thing or two about Rodolfo Medina, because some years ago I sat in a stuffy UCV classroom week in and week out struggling over the equations he was scribbling on the blackboard.

Yup, my old prof now runs the Finance Ministry. Imagine that.

Coffee and Medina Gossip

I called around to some old friends from those days to get their take on the appointment. One of them, I remembered, had even been his “preparador de laboratorio,” a kind of UCVized Teaching Assistant to the guy.

“Háblame mano, did you see Profe Medina yesterday? So crazy seeing him as FinMin…”

“Yeah, man,” he replied, “that good-for-nothing, greedy Marco Torres lap dog seized power…shocking!”

LOL man, I couldn’t believe it. Do you think he’ll last? He was your boss at ONAPRE, right?”

“Yeah, but let’s get real. He’s nothing more than a figurehead for Marco Torres. He’s there just to bring coffee, sign paperwork, take the credit for the hard work of his employees and preach false humility.”

That blows, man,” I say. “I thought he was ok as a professor…”

He gives me a bemused look, like a parent correcting a horribly misguided child. “Trust me,” he says “I had him in grad school taught, that guy doesn’t know shit. And working for him was hell.”

Rodolfo Medina taught my undergrad Econometrics class at UCV. It was one of the toughest and most technical subjects in our pensum. For the uninitiated, econometrics is all about applying rigorous statistical methods to the study of economic phenomena. It’s not for the faint of heart, and it was one of the hardest filtros us undergrads had to ace in order to get our degrees. Prof. Medina had been teaching it for several years and a reputation for failing a sizeable percentage of each classroom way before then; so yeah, I was a bit scared.

I call a friend who took that econometrics class with me and invite him out for coffee to prod his recollection. 

“Econometrics is an instrument,” he says, sipping his marrón grande. “A real manager has to go beyond that.”

Coño, well sad,” I reply, “but the guy also teaches Capital Markets at grad level, though, so who knows?”

Well, everybody deserves the benefit of the doubt,” my friend allows “but Medina’s the architect of the newest budget, with the absurd inflation and oil prices and all that stuff, remember?”

Question is, whether he did it out of his own initiative, or whether he was forced to. But yeah, it says a lot about the guy.” I say, with a grin.

But do you even realize how enchufado he is with Rodolfo Marco Torres?” he asks. “I think that says even more about him,” he adds with an ever wider grin.

“But was he basically competent? I thought he was,” I say. 

Please, Daniel,” my friend scoffs, “Rodolfo was a first rank pirata as a teacher. His knowledge of econometrics was limited to the first five chapters of the Gujarati textbook. I still remember when he proposed to make a regression for GDP explained by public spending, private consumption, investment and net foreign trade in the middle of the class (Economist-English translation: that’s really stupid!) Let’s not mislead people saying “he knows his stuff.”

Schooled,” I admit, “I take your point. It’s not like I hold him in highest esteem or anything like that, but I do consider him minimally competent. He has the intellectual tools to understand that the stuff Luis Salas & Co. are proposing is completely insane. In that sense he’s competent, right?”

No idea,” my coffee partner replies. “I think he’s more pendiente of some other mi$$ion$, like when he was at the ONT and at Banco de Venezuela.”

We pause.

“That fucking stinks. De pana.”

I strain to remember more details about my class, which suddenly seems to hold the keys to understanding the future of Venezuelan fiscal policy. I distinctly remember Medina’s irrational emphasis on textbook theory (Red flag in hindsight.. Econometrics is all about practice!)

But frankly, it’s hard to recollect with much detail at all. Medina didn’t stand out either way: he wasn’t some rock-star prof, but then neither was he in the running for most-mediocre teacher, either. He seemed nothing more than a slightly by-the-book, or caletrero as we say in Caracas, garden-variety professor (with a cuchi blog set up for the class that, amazingly, is still up.)  To be honest, I remember learning a lot more in the lab sessions run by Medina’s TAs than during the lectures themselves.

After a grueling semester, I ended up scoring the equivalent of a B-. Not bad at all, given the hallway legends proclaimed that a third of the class failed the semester.

When we were in school, Professor Medina moonlighted as a Research Associate at Banco de Venezuela to make ends meet, and employed students as interns there. One of my lab leaders was a sort of protegé of his during that time.

Suddenly I remember: he also was a football enthusiast, and bragged about going to play every weekend at Parque Del Este. Relevant? Possibly not, but I’m racking my brain here. All things considered, he seemed like a rather normal guy. A guy that – well, you could tell by thinly veiled remarks he made during class, and also by his generally heterodox economics – had a rojito heart.

Back at the coffee shop, my friend is getting more and more caustic.

“Dude, a guy who stupidly thinks he’s a better teacher because he fails more students than the rest knows what his role in this government is. He’ll be like one of those bobbing-head dogs on taxi dashboards. ‘Yes’ to everything his bosses tell him, that’s his game. He knows that, outside personal profit, there’s very little he can do for his country from a cabinet post alongside this band of jokers. This isn’t his first government job, so I wouldn’t appeal to his naiveté or his honesty. Remember his stint at the National Treasury? That’s the key to understanding him, not what he did or didn’t teach you and me years ago.”

Fast forward to early 2014: I’m now into my first job after college in a local financial institution, and one day I casually run into Medina in a hallway at work. The approachable professor I knew was hardly recognizable: black suit, red tie, binder full of official docs and a bitter face mixing exhaustion with smugness. Despite his pompous attitude, though, he recognized me from college and told me the reason he was at the bank that day.

He was now working as the personal adviser of Minister Rodolfo Marco Torres, “among other things” he said. He didn’t pause to explain more, of course: he had to rush off to a high-profile meeting with his powerful boss.

A quick Poderopedia search after the fact suggests Medina’s “other stuff” were at least seven different jobs in different public institutions since 2013 – all of them linked one way or another to the Finance Ministry: Banco del Tesoro, Bolsa Pública de Valores Bicentenaria, IVSS. In most cases, he held overlapping appointments in classic chavista apparatchik fashion. Article 148 is so last century, right?

I call a third friend who sat through Medina’s class, and she encapsulates the problem with Medina’s type of academic: “That’s the thing Carlos Escarrá taught us with his big, hypocritical example: when a teacher becomes a chavista official, you can count on him to forget everything he taught you in class instantly.”

I hate to agree. But I do.

Even if Rodolfo Medina the Professor seemed, on paper, more competent to run the Finance portfolio than his shockingly ignorant chavista cabinet mates, Rodolfo Medina the Minister acts and speaks like just another member of the Nomenklatura roja rojita.

Daniel Urdaneta

Russian-Venezuelan. A Santiaguino who left his heart in Caracas, Daniel is currently rehabbing from his addiction to High Beta and is pursuing a masters' degree in economics at Universidad Católica de Chile. Views are his own.