By Jeremy Morgan
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS – An opposition politician stole a march on President Hugo Chávez by revealing the high level of salaries he claimed were being paid to top government officials.
Chávez has called for senior officials to be paid no more than 12 times the minimum legal wage, which is to be raised by 20% to BsF958 a month in two stages during the course of this year.
The call for pay curbs at the upper income level for state employees is a key symbol of the president’s wish for his sudden switch to austerity to be seen to be starting with his own government. However, in the process, he’s sparked speculation about just who’s been getting how much.
Now, Oscar Pérez of Alianza Bravo Pueblo, the party formed by Caracas Metropolitan Mayor Antonio Ledezma, a key opposition figure who’s been under siege from government supporters since winning office last November, believes he’s unlocked some secrets.
Pérez announced Monday that Energy and Oil Minister Rafael Ramírez, who doubles up as president of the state oil corporation, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), was raking in BsF83,000 a month. That, he said, was the equivalent of BsF10,000 more than United States President Barack Obama’s salary at the White House.
Tibisay Lucena, president of the National Electoral Council (CNE), was getting BsF42,000 a month, Pérez continued. In announcing his wish to see pay restraint in the top echelon of the government, Chávez had wondered out loud that he’d like to know what CNE directors were paid.
Pérez also disclosed the salary paid to Comptroller General Clodosbaldo Russián, whose ban on over 200 people, mainly from the opposition, from running for or holding public office has brought accusations that he’s the government’s stooge.
Russián, Pérez said, was paid BsF41,000 a month. Pérez condemned the official for being “complicit” with the government.
Russián maintains that he’s only doing his job by applying the law against corrupt individuals. Critics claim he’s abusing his powers by basing his decisions on allegations rather than convictions in court, as required by the rules governing his office.
Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz, whose energetic prosecution of cases against Maracaibo Mayor Manuel Rosales, a leading opposition figure, has also sparked suspicions of pro-government bias against her, receives 52,000 a month. That was just BsF200 less than Supreme Justice Tribunal President Luisa Estela Morales is paid.
Again according to Pérez, Venezuelan Central Bank directors each get BsF55,000 a month, while José David Cabello, head of the tax collection agency, Seniat, is on BsF36,000 a month.
There’s some speculation that legislators at the National Assembly, whom the president ordered to rush through a law setting limits on top pay in the state sector, are also under Chávez’ eye. So far, there seem few signs of willingness to make personal sacrifices among legislators who set their own pay scales.
National Assembly Deputy Oscar Figueroa, the head of the Venezuelan Communist Party, who protested when a journalist, Beatriz Adrian, claimed to have revealed his remuneration last week, has since said the disclosure wasn’t actually illegal.
However, he still objected to the purpose to which this “confidential” information had been put. Adrian works for Globovisión, a private sector television channel that does nothing to disguise its dislike of the Chávez regime. Figueroa has confirmed that his salary is to rise to BsF4,500 a month this year.
National Assembly President Cilia Flores demanded an investigation into how Adrian had gotten hold of the figures for Figueroa. Adrian had also zeroed in on pay slips referring to Flores, who seemed more intent on tracking down whoever it was who was doing the leaking.
Governor Henrique Capriles Radonski of Miranda state, arguably the biggest opposition victor at last year’s regional elections, accused the government of a “double discourse” when it came to pay. Officials pledged themselves to lowering their pay and pretended to be living even more modestly than people on the minimum wage, but behind this façade there lay “gigantic corruption,” he claimed.
Pay austerity for senior officials is key to Chávez’ efforts to persuade labor unions to moderate their pay demands during the annual round of negotiations on collective bargaining agreements with employers. State sector medical staff and teachers have been particularly active in their demands.
Shortly before leaving on another extensive foreign trip, Chávez promised teachers a pay rise “this same year” – but then said this would have to be “necessarily prudent” and he didn’t say when or how much.
Chávez was speaking at a meeting with teachers on Sunday, and he conceded they had a case. He ordered ministries to reach agreements with employees next week so that new salaries would be paid from May 1 onwards.
The decision to restrict public sector pay rises coincides with Chávez’ stated aim of reining in state spending without cutting back on social welfare for the poorer sectors of the population. But all this hinges on what happens to the price of and demand for oil exports, the over-riding factors in the Venezuelan economic equation.
The Oil and Energy Ministry announced that the price of Venezuela’s mix of medium-grade and heavy crude oil averaged $47.95 a barrel last week, marking an increase of 10.2% from $43.51 a week before.
The latest figure was some way above the $40 a barrel forecast assumed in the revised 2009 budget, and continued the moderate upturn seen since a low point of $33.93 a barrel in the week ending February 20 this year.
Ramírez argues that oil prices have to be at a minimum $70 a barrel to finance investment needed to ensure petroleum supply.