Venezuelan governors on study tour applaud the way Maryland is run

November 12, 1993|By Alan Kline | Alan Kline,Capital News Service

The political climate in Venezuela is changing and, last week, four of the country's governors visited Maryland for a crash course in how an American state is run.

Why Maryland, which experts say is mired in an economic slump?

"Where we are from, Maryland government is considered to be very efficient," said Victor Silva Gana, an adviser traveling with the group.

And, in the governors' view, Maryland lived up to its reputation. The group applauded everything about the Free State, from its economic development programs to human services initiatives to privatization efforts. They even congratulated Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer on how well the traffic flowed.

But they were most impressed with Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

"He is a very important person," said Gov. Edgar Vicente Sayago of the state of Amazonas. "He has great control over this state."

In 1989, Venezuela's 20 states began to elect governors for the first time in the country's 170-year history. Previously, governors were appointed by the president.

The elections paved the way for the current decentralization effort, which, said Mr. Silva, eventually will give states control of services now run by the federal government.

"We have learned that many of the principal services, like health, education and the infrastructure managed by the federal government, have proven to be not very efficient," Mr. Silva said.

But Venezuelan states -- like their American counterparts -- need money. It's difficult to be semi-autonomous when most taxpayers' dollars still go to the federal government, said Gov. Gehard Cartay of Barinas.

Their lack of revenue may explain their rapt interest in a presentation last week by the Department of Transportation. The governors learned that American states actually receive income from things such as gasoline taxes and tolls. Not that the governors plan to install toll booths when they return; but, as they move toward decentralization, it's something worth considering.

"That's why we came," Mr. Silva said. "To look at our options."

Privatization is something else the governors will look at, he said, adding that Maryland government "has excellent relations with private groups . . . and [the arrangement] works very well."

But Manuel C. Ramos, Latin American director for the Port of Baltimore, warned that privatization won't work in Venezuela unless the governors strike a balance of power with industry.

He warned the governors not to simply hand business to the private sector. Government must maintain some control, he said.

Trade was also discussed. Both the visitors and their hosts spoke about bringing the $147 million import/export business back to 1991 levels, which topped $160 million.

Mr. Sayago also hopes his visit will stimulate ecological tourism to his state, which, he boasted, is rich in rain forests.

The governors also enjoyed a cocktail reception held by the Maryland International Division. And the Port Authority treated the group to a Baltimore Harbor luncheon cruise. Except for those events, said Robert MacDonald, director of the state's Office of Developing Markets, the Venezuelans footed the bill for the trip.

As for the state's citizens Margarita de Sayago, the governor's wife, said Marylanders were the nicest in the country.

"They're different from the rest of the United States," she said. "They're much more open and warm."

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