The Miami Herald
September 5, 1998

Venezuelans face a lifetime unraveling bureaucratic red tape

             CHRISTINA HOAG
             Special to The Herald

             CARACAS -- Magalis Rivero just wanted to correct the spelling of her first name
             on her national identity card so she could graduate from high school. Armed with
             her birth certificate, she thought it would be simple enough.

             But after three trips to the National Identity Office and seven hours of standing in
             line, she was having doubts about whether she would ever receive her diploma.

             ``They just keep telling me to come back, and I keep coming back, and nothing,''
             she said, a note of desperation in her voice. ``The school says they can't give me
             my diploma because my name on the card is spelled with a `y' instead of an `i' and
             I can't enroll in university until I get the diploma. Now I'm going to miss the
             enrollment date.''

             At 18, Rivero is just beginning to cope with the reams of red tape that Venezuelans
             must unravel in their lifetimes.

            Long lines, surly employees

             From registering a car to obtaining a copy of a birth certificate to buying a home,
             the process usually entails missing days at work to pile up sheafs of documents,
             standing in long lines and dealing with surly public employees.

             Information desks are nowhere to be found. Signs identifying lines and windows
             are often nonexistent or misleading -- making it common to stand in line for hours
             before discovering it's the wrong one.

             ``With anything to do with public services, there's no organization, no information,
             and the mentality of public employees is like they're doing you a favor,'' journalist
             Anabelle Yanes said. ``The only way to get what you want is to yell at them.''

             Procedures are bafflingly complicated.

             To obtain a copy of the title to her car, Julia Torres took off work to go to the
             Ministry of Transport and Communications. After waiting for a couple of hours in
             the 18th-floor office, she was informed that she had to fill out a form.

             What form? Go to the mezzanine office. She went down to the mezzanine, filled
             out the form and returned to the 18th floor, only to be told that she hadn't paid a
             fee that must be deposited in a bank. She went to the bank, paid the fee and
             returned to the ministry. She was finally able to turn in the form.

             ``Then they told me it'll be ready in a week. I came back, and they told me to
             come back next week. I came back -- the same story. It took three weeks to print
             out a paper from a computer,'' the 32-year-old graphics designer recalled. And
             this, she pointed out, was only one step in obtaining a series of documents in order
             to withdraw a complaint that her car had been stolen.

            One of the worst offenders

             Many Venezuelans point to the National Identity Office as one of the worst
             offenders. The office often runs out of materials like paper and photographic film
             for identity cards. Last year, it ran out of blank passports and resorted to issuing
             stamped pieces of paper instead.

             This year, the Finance Ministry has run out of timbres fiscales, which look like
             postage stamps and must be bought and stuck on documents as evidence of having
             paid the fee. No stamp, no document.

             Planning Minister Teodoro Petkoff acknowledges that Venezuelan bureaucracy is
             ``cumbersome,'' and has vowed to streamline procedures. Some progress has
             been made. The Ministry of Transport and Communications periodically holds
             special days for driver's license transactions, such as renewals and copies. At the
             National Identity Office, the hours for receiving and issuing documents have been
             extended, and the agency no longer closes for lunch.

             But some say the bureaucracy will never really be untangled because government
             employees would lose their lucrative sideline of ``commissions.''

             ``If they simplify the process, they'll kill the goose that lays the golden egg,'' said
             Jose Manuel Gamez, a 33-year-old fast-food franchise owner who was on his
             sixth attempt at buying fiscal stamps.

            Inside connections

             At the Foreigner Control Office, hand-scrawled signs are plastered on the walls:
             ``All services rendered free of charge.''

             But that doesn't stop Mario M., an employee currently on sick leave. He wanders
             the hallways looking for frustrated faces and offering his insider connections -- for
             a fee, of course.

             ``It's a way of earning a little extra,'' he says.

             The formidable red tape has also resulted in a legal business called gestorías, which
             charge fees to have fix-it people known as gestores carry out official transactions.
             A gestor said part of the fee greases the bureaucratic wheels at the agency in

             Charging directly to the head of the line, gestores inevitably incur the wrath of the
             weary document-seekers behind them.

             ``Just because some people have money to pay, they don't have to wait. But for
             people who don't have money for payoffs, we have to wait,'' a woman said
             indignantly as heads nodded.

             That's the name of the game of getting things done in Venezuela, said journalist

             ``This is the country where you have to use connections or pay up,'' she said.