DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Here's the name of a government office that caught our attention: The Vice Ministry for the Supreme Social Happiness of the People. This is a newly created office in Venezuela, where government bureaucracy sure seems to be growing. John Otis tells us more.
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Venezuela's government has made a lot of quirky decisions. Under the late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, Venezuela created its own time zone by setting the clock back half an hour. It redesigned the flag so that a horse galloping to the right now moves to the left in line with the government's politics. Chavez died of cancer in March, but his successor, President Nicolas Maduro, has made his own startling announcements.
PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO: (Speaking foreign language)
OTIS: In an October speech, Maduro said he was creating the Vice Ministry for the Supreme Social Happiness of the Venezuelan People. Critics immediately ridiculed the new office and its flamboyant Orwellian name.
CAROLOS BERRIZBEITIA: (Speaking foreign language)
OTIS: Opposition lawmaker Carlos Berrizbeitia claimed the government was trying to put a happy face on a nation plagued by high crime, inflation and food shortages.
RAFAEL RIOS: (Speaking foreign language)
OTIS: But when I catch up with Rafael Rios, the newly appointed vice-minister for happiness, he says the job is more than just government propaganda. His office coordinates social welfare programs for the poor, the disabled, drug addicts and pregnant teenagers.
RIOS: (Speaking foreign language)
OTIS: Rios quotes Latin American liberator Simon Boliva, who once proclaimed that the most perfect government is the one that produces the greatest amount of human happiness. Many international development experts agree. They insist that traditional indicators like gross domestic product are inadequate and that happiness and well being are key for measuring human progress.
These arguments are catching on. The United Nations now publishes an annual world happiness report. In 2013, that report placed Venezuela first among South American nations and 20th overall. So for all its problems, Venezuela is apparently a fairly joyful place. When I ask why, Venezuelans point to their tropical climate, to expanded government health, education and nutrition programs, and to the country's massive oil deposits, which can make people from all walks of life feel well endowed.
Edna Correa, who works at a Caracas call center, thanks a live-for-today mentality.
EDNA CORREA: It doesn't matter what is happening around the world, you can see always the beaches full, crowded, people playing on the streets or going to dance every weekend. You see people trying to have fun and to enjoy the moment.
OTIS: But if that's the case, why does Venezuela need a special happiness vice ministry? It turns out that the pursuit of supreme happiness was part of Hugo Chavez's official government plan that's now in the hands of President Maduro.
TIBISAY SERRADA: (Speaking foreign language)
OTIS: Tibisay Serrada is dean of the Sociology department of the Central University of Venezuela. She says the government sees happiness as a collective rather than an individual endeavor and one that's best achieved through socialism. But many Venezuelans don't like the idea of their government defining happiness. They see it as another step towards greater government involvement in all aspects of Venezuelan life.
DAVID SMILDE: It's not a minimalist project.
OTIS: David Smilde, a senior analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, says Venezuelans are right to be concerned.
SMILDE: That a government would aspire to actually be the guarantor of supreme happiness can be a little alarming.
OTIS: But others shrug off the happiness office as just another one of their government's crazy ideas. Indeed, some joke that the Vice Ministry for the Supreme Social Happiness of the Venezuelan People is already achieving its purpose because so many people are laughing about it. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Caracas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.