Presidente, you’ve let us down! Hugo, we expected better of you!
We learnt last week that you had closed down hundreds of hamburger joints in Venezuela run by a foreign company which for legal reasons I choose to call Joint X. You cited as your reason tax evasion.
At a time when many bonus-laden business leaders, not least in Wall Street and the world’s myriad financial boltholes, are seen as making a mockery of other taxpayers by their secret manoeuvres to evade payments, a cheer went up in many homes and offices round the world.
At least, in Venezuela – a South American country whose government was briefly overthrown in 2002 with the help of George Bush and José María Aznar, the then prime minister of Spain, and which is consistently threatened, insulted and ridiculed in the US media and by US non-governmental organisations – someone has not been afraid to take a stand.
Throughout Venezuela the joints – I refuse to call them “restaurants” – were closed down. Inspections by SENIAT, your revenue people, had apparently thrown up evidence against Joint X of offences against VAT or value added tax regulations. The owners were fined a modest sum for each joint closed. Something similar had happened at the beginning of 2005 and Joint X was also temporarily shut down.
The cheer celebrating the closures was taken up by those who are aghast at the rise of child obesity which some experts link to junk foods like hamburgers particularly among the poor in many rich countries – there are 1,000 million overweight people in the world of whom 300 million are obese and, according to the UN World Health Organisation, 500,000 die every year from illness linked to obesity.
Professor Alan Marion Davis of the Faculty of Public Health in London says he particularly fears the effect of hamburgers on youngsters. “As fatty foods they don’t do much for Venezuelans’ – or anyone else’s – waistlines and I’m worried about the effect on the future generations,” he says.
The cheer was echoed by those who have followed Joint X’s record of litigation against its critics. It was repeated by those who campaign here and elsewhere for the rights of trade unionists and against low pay. There was applause among those who have constantly to be on their guard against the visual pollution threatened by Joint X’s attempts to litter streetscapes and motorways with its great big signs.
Your action, presidente, was part of a constant and laudable drive against tax fraud which started in 2004 and which pushed up tax collection by 50 per cent in its first year. As the oil price sinks, Venezuela needs the money. Understandably enough, those penalised by SENIAT have included a large range of firms, more of them Venezuelan-owned than foreign.
The fact, however, than foreign companies with their phalanxes of lawyers have been fined for tax offences would point to the fact that such bodies are trying to infect countries such as Venezuela with some of the practices which have been rife in Wall Street for a long time.
So, if the Venezuelan government has been so rapid and efficient on tax matters what am I, and many others like me, complaining about? Why do we feel let down? Why did we expect better?
The answer lies in the fact that you shut down Joint X’s hamburger joints for a mere 48 hours. The sanction was all too brief. You can’t reduce obesity by such transitory measures, you can teach an offender to reform his corporate habits with such a tiny penalty. Something more is needed, something more draconian for tax dodgers in Venezuela of all sorts. What about making the closures go on for longer? What about making the fines bigger?
I respectfully suggest that giving SENIAT sharper teeth to bite with would soon have people round the world cheering once again.