Tag: latin america

In Memory of Carlos Ball

I’m sad to report that Venezuelan journalist and Cato adjunct scholar Carlos Ball passed away last week. He was 75. Carlos was a champion of liberty and a long-time friend to so many of us in the freedom movement in the Americas. His life was a testimony to the power of ideas, and he lived it true to his classical-liberal convictions.

Carlos was a co-founder of CEDICE, the market-liberal think tank in Caracas that celebrated its 30th anniversary this year and with whom Cato has worked closely for many years (and that has been severely harassed by the Chavista regime). In the 1980s, Carlos was the editor of El Diario de Caracas, an important daily that was critical of government policies. It was when Carlos represented Venezuelan journalists at an Inter-American Press Association conference in 1987 in San Antonio, Texas and denounced then-President Lusinchi’s attacks on freedom of the press, that Lusinchi demanded that Carlos be fired from the newspaper, conditioning the renewal of the license of the popular television station RCTV—part of the same media company—on that outcome. Carlos was let go from the paper, he was criminally charged by the government, and was told by the judge presiding his case that “I have orders from above.” It was at that time that Carlos left Venezuela, moving to Florida where he would live the rest of his life. RCTV received a 20-year license. It was the expiration of that license in 2007—that Hugo Chavez refused to renew, thus shutting down the television station—that triggered the massive student uprising against the government that year. (As a result, Chavez lost a constitutional referendum and temporarily slowed down his accumulation of power.)

The idea that Venezuela was doomed to repeat such experiences and that the country would only lose more freedoms if economic freedom was not also respected was a long-time theme in Carlos’s writings. In that regard, he was among a very small group of Venezuelan intellectuals who decades ago warned against the ideology of socialism predominant in the political system and much of Venezuelan society. Indeed, he very correctly viewed Hugo Chavez’s regime as a logical, though more extreme, extension of what had come before. “Chavez,” he wrote, “has intensified, accelerated and exacerbated corruption, the concentration of power, the violation of property rights” and the power of the bureaucracy in people’s lives. In a 1992 essay, Carlos wrote that the “fatal date” for his country was January 1976, when President Perez nationalized the petroleum industry. That “meant a radical change; for the first time since the death of General Gomez [1935], political and economic power was again concentrated in the same hands: in those of the head of state.”

He would later write: “Without that concentration of wealth in political hands, Chavez would never have been able to Cubanize Venezuela because it was the economic power of oil that allowed the government to crush the individual liberties of the Venezuelans.” How right he was.

Measuring Misery in Latin America: More Dollarization, Please

In my misery index, I calculate a ranking for all countries where suitable data from the Economist Intelligence Unit exist. My misery index — a simple sum of inflation, lending rates, and unemployment rates, minus year-on-year per capita GDP growth — is used to construct a ranking for 89 countries. The table below is a sub-index of all Latin American countries presented in the world misery index.

A higher score in the misery index means that the country, and its constituents, are more miserable. Indeed, this is a table where you do not want to be first.

Venezuela and Argentina, armed with aggressive socialist policies, end up the most miserable in the region. On the other hand, Panama, El Salvador, and Ecuador score the best on the misery index for Latin America. Panama, with roughly one tenth the misery index score of Venezuela, has used the USD as legal tender since 1904. Ecuador and El Salvador are also both dollarized (Ecuador since 2000 and El Salvador since 2001) – they use the greenback, and it is clear that the embrace of the USD trumps all other economic policies.

The lesson to be learned is clear: the tactics which socialist governments like Venezuela and Argentina employ yield miserable results, whereas dollarization is associated with less misery.

Will Venezuela Be Next?

Last year, Nicholas Krus and I published a chapter, “World Hyperinflations”, in the Routledge Handbook of Major Events in Economic History. We documented 56 hyperinflations – cases in which monthly inflation rates exceeded 50% per month. Only seven of those hyperinflations have savaged Latin America (see the accompanying table).

At present, the world’s highest inflation resides in Latin America, namely in Venezuela. The Johns Hopkins – Cato Institute Troubled Currencies Project, which I direct, estimates that Venezuela’s implied annual inflation rate is 302%. Will Venezuela be the eighth country to join the Latin American Hall of Shame? Maybe. But, it has a long way to go.

The Hanke-Krus Hyperinflation Table
Latin American edition

Country Month With Highest Inflation Rate Highest Monthly Inflation Rate Equivalent Daily Inflation Rate Time Required for Prices to Double
1. Peru Aug. 1990 397% 5.49% 13.1 days
2. Nicaragua Mar. 1991 261% 4.37% 16.4 days
3. Argentina Jul. 1989 197% 3.69% 19.4 days
4. Bolivia Feb. 1985 183% 3.53% 20.3 days
5. Peru Sep. 1988 114% 2.57% 27.7 days
6. Chile Oct. 1973 87.6% 2.12% 33.5 days
7. Brazil Mar. 1990 82.4% 2.02% 35.1 days

Source: Steve H. Hanke and Nicholas Krus (2013), “World Hyperinflations”, in Randall Parker and Robert Whaples (eds.) Routledge Handbook of Major Events in Economic History, London: Routledge Publishing.

Sovereign Currency Populism versus Dollarized Populism

Venezuela and Ecuador both have left-wing populist governments that have benefited tremendously from record high oil revenues. Both governments used those revenues to significantly increase public spending. However, there is a critical difference between these countries: while Venezuela has its own currency (the so called “strong Bolívar”), Ecuador adopted the U.S. dollar as its official currency in 2000. That means that, no matter how fiscally irresponsible the Ecuadorean government, it can’t print money to pay for its spending.

The result: Venezuela has the highest inflation rate in Latin America whereas Ecuador has one of the lowest rates in the region.

Uruguay’s House of Deputies Votes to Legalize Marijuana

Uruguay’s House of Deputies voted today to allow the production, commercialization, and distribution of cannabis, taking the first step to becoming the first country in the world to fully legalize marijuana. Even though Uruguay never criminalized personal consumption, this vote, passed 50-46, is a much bolder move.

The bill is a more elaborate piece of legislation than the draft introduced to the Uruguayan congress a year ago, which had only one article giving the state the power to regulate the cannabis market. Initially, the government contemplated creating a state-owned monopoly in the production and sale of the drug. The bill approved today provides for a private but strictly regulated market for cannabis. Uruguayans will be able to grow their own pot (up to six plants) or they can join membership clubs which can also grow their own marijuana (up to 99 plants). All crops require prior government authorization.

Also, Uruguayans will be able to buy marijuana from authorized drug stores (up to 40 grams per month). In order to do so, they will have to join a National Registry of Users. Even though the bill stipulates that the registry will be private and the information there is considered “sensitive,” there are good reasons to believe that not many people will rush to a government agency to register as a marijuana user. People under 18 years of age won’t be able to legally access marijuana and all forms of advertisement of the drug are prohibited.

The bill is now headed to the Senate where it is expected to pass. Once it becomes the law of the land, Uruguay will become the world’s standard-bearer of drug policy reform. Even though the country is small and it’s not beset by the plight of drug-related violence seen in Mexico or Central America, Uruguay’s marijuana legalization constitutes a momentous step in the road to dismantling the international prohibitionist regime that has been in place since the 1960s. Marijuana legalization bills have already been introduced in the legislatures of countries such as Chile and Mexico. And let’s not forget that cannabis was legalized last November (via referendum) in Colorado and Washington State.

The Obama administration faces a choice: it may either obstruct the momentum toward reform, or it may engage Latin American countries in an open debate about how to end a failed policy that has cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in the region. That would be change we can believe in.

The Balloon Effect in Cocaine Production in the Andes

The Wall Street Journal has a lengthy story today [requires subscription] about the booming cocaine business in Peru, where production has skyrocketed in recent years. The report serves a reminder of the balloon effect in U.S.-led efforts to eradicate cocaine production in the Andean region. Gil Kerlikowske, the Obama administration’s drug czar, has repeatedly pointed out that production in Colombia dropped by 61 percent between 2001 and 2009. But as the graph below illustrates, cocaine manufacturing has just moved back to Peru, which according to some estimates, might already be the world’s largest producer of cocaine:

* Average range of total production in the Andean region.
Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

As we can see, Peru was the world’s largest source of potential cocaine production back in the early 1990s, but production of coca moved to Colombia once the regime of Alberto Fujimori cracked down on drug trafficking. By 2000, Colombia was by far the largest producer. However, due to eradication efforts by then president Álvaro Uribe under the U.S.-sponsored Plan Colombia, production came down in that country. But it didn’t go away, it just moved back to Peru. Overall, the World Drug Report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that cocaine production levels in the Andes are pretty much the same as a decade ago.

Mr. Kerlikowske should present the whole picture next time he boasts about declining cocaine production in Colombia.

Fidel Castro, Medicare Beneficiary?

There’s no proof yet, but it looks an awful lot like Medicare might be subsidizing the Castro brothers.

I, for one,  was not surprised to read that Medicare payments for non-existent medical services are ending up in Cuban (read: government-controlled) banks. Nor that “accused scammers are escaping in droves to Cuba and other Latin American countries to avoid prosecution — with more than 150 fugitives now wanted for stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from the U.S. healthcare program, according to the FBI and court records.”

In fact, I have been wondering for some time when we would see evidence that foreign governments have been stealing from Medicare. The official (read: conservative) estimates are that Medicare and Medicaid lose $70 billion each year to fraud and improper payments, a result of having almost zero meaningful controls in place. That’s practically an open invitation to steal from American taxpayers. Kleptocratic governments—and other organized-crime rings—would be insane not to wet their beaks.

In this National Review article, I explain how easily it could happen:

Last year, the feds indicted 44 members of an Armenian crime syndicate for operating a sprawling Medicare-fraud scheme. The syndicate had set up 118 phony clinics and billed Medicare for $35 million. They transferred at least some of their booty overseas. Who knows what LBJ’s Great Society is funding?

I also explain how these vast amounts of fraud aren’t going to stop without fundamental Medicare and Medicaid reform. Give the National Review article a read, and tell me if you share my suspicion that Medicare is bankrolling other governments.