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Carmen Meléndez, the first Venezuelan women to reach the military rank of admiral, is the Minister of Popular Power for the Office of the Presidency (chief of staff) and Follow Up for Presidential Governance. A kilometer-long name for a post that, since October, can be changed for a shorter name: she’s the inspector.
Tired of hearing that public works and government projects are not functioning like they should, President Hugo Chavez has given instructions for Meléndez to do on-site supervisions and to bring back the names of those responsible. So it should not surprise anyone that the very possibility of the inspector visiting public institutions suspected of inefficiency will send some into a panic, and make others tremble.
Ciudad CCS: What does it feel like to be the most feared woman in Venezuela?
Melendez: No, I don’t see it like that. Some people might think that, but as long as they do their job, no one has any reason to be afraid of an inspection. This job is about detecting flaws and can end with a commendation or with a warning about certain problems. It is necessary for an outside person to come find the flaws because those who are there day to day become accustomed to them and stop noticing them, Murphy’s Law gets them.
At the core of these problems that constantly torment the President, is it not a question of ethics?
Yes, of course. Values and ethics are the most important thing in the education of any citizen. In any institution or organization the first thing should be values and ethics. We are putting a lot of emphasis on that, and in fact we have developed an Inspector’s Code that each one of us will have to carry in our pocket.
In the military sphere everything is foreseeable: a superior officer gives an order and it is carried out without exception. But in the civil sphere it is different. Have you suffered from a clash between these two different mentalities?
Yes, of course I have, not so much now but when I began my first post outside of the military institutions. In 2000, I was director of Administration of the Secretariat. I felt a clash with those people who said “she’s a military person, she should go and command the officers on her ship.” But later came the union of civilian and military institutions, and the integration has broken those barriers.
There exists a risk that some people will use your office to submit irresponsible or reckless complaints as part of personal or group rivalries. How can that be avoided?
Our guarantee is that the first thing we do upon receiving information is to verify it. We don’t act without verification. Now everyone wants to do inspections, it’s a boom, but we are not improvising, but rather doing things right, creating a corps of inspectors. On Monday (19November) we begin a course to graduate 200 inspectors; people from the vice-presidency, from Sebin (Bolivarian Intelligence Service), from the Finance Ministry and other institutions. The idea is that every step we take is well planned, so that no one is making it up as they go. There is a verification guide for every type of process. If it is a school, there is a different guide than if it is a business or a hospital. The inspector must use the appropriate format.
How to you harmonize the inspection work with that of the General Inspectors Office?
The general inspector has its functions, and we are not going to interfere with them. We limit ourselves to determining if the organization or business is meeting its objectives. If there are administrative irregularities we send them to the general inspector.
The President has created certain expectations with his discourse so that some are expecting heads to roll. Will you do that?
The President has said that he wants to know who is responsible. We are going to determine if the person is doing their job or not. If they are not, then it is up to President Chavez to unseat them. In the notorious case of Helados Coppelia (Coppelia Ice Cream) the regional director that was not attentive was fired along with another director from the Lácteos Los Andes milk company.
The President wants to see the whole chain of command. But that often ends in the president’s cabinet. If you apply that rule, none of the ministers would be safe.
It’s not humanly possible for any person to be in control of everything, and it wouldn’t be fair to always place the responsibility on the ministers. What we have to do is look for the organizational manuals and procedures in each case. Analyzing them we can know who is directly responsible for each thing. Of course, as a boss and supervisor one should be doing follow-up.
How will you avoid your office being drowned in complaints that go without an answer?
We will have to try. I have met with the directors of management in all the ministries. We want to create a good system that allows complaints to be verified as quickly as possible, and if there is a basis for it we will continue the investigation. What the people want are answers. Everyday we get protests and many of them don’t correspond to the central government. The problem is that if the problems aren’t resolved at the local or regional level, the people say “let’s take the problem to Chavez, he’ll solve it.”
Do you also have jurisdiction in the military sphere?
I go where the President tells me to go. The head of the inspections is the President of the republic. He is the one that sets the priorities. We present him with a list and he decides where we inspect.
A Profile of Carmen Melendez
Carmen Teresa Meléndez Rivas (born in Barinas in 1961) knows that she is a pioneer. If you call her by her rank she likes to be called “almiranta” (feminine version of Admiral), not “almirante” (masculine version of Admiral). “They say that it sounds strange, but that because it didn’t exist before. Soon it will be normal. If one is going to be a pioneer
She comes from a humble family of eleven children on the southern plains. She is the fifth child. “They raised us on the principle of solidarity above all. With so many mouths to feed, if three more kids came over there was food for all just the same.”
She belongs to the military generation who had part of their career in the Fourth Republic and the other part in the Fifth Republic. That’s why she sees a difference: “Military people before were like a crypt, we didn’t know what happened on the outside… They would even tell us not to go to the university in our uniform because it was prohibited. The new relationship between civil society and the military began with the arrival of our commander to the presidency, but it became stronger after the coup d’état of 2002.
Among the many military posts that she has had, she had the opportunity to direct the female candidates entering the Naval School. We asked her what was more difficult: direct a group of “newbies” or work with President Chavez. “Ah, no, working with the President is hard because he is constantly working, producing, from the time he gets up until he goes to bed. You always have to be attentive to his orders. A call from his phone makes everyone tremble. When he calls we all think: “Oh my god, what happened?”