Review of "The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture and Society in Venezuela"

Miguel Tinker Salas’ The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela begins with a Venezuela largely divided by natural terrain and facing moments of national unity only when regional caudillos were able to mobilize enough force to get a grip on the entire nation. Poor inter-regional communication and lengthy periods of travel amongst places make such occurrences difficult and their extension of power into the rural areas tenuous or nonexistent until modern technology was able to alleviate these problems. Juan Vicente Gómez Chacón, the military dictator between 1908-1935 leveraged these developments and the alliances that he’d made from his long tenure in the military to grab rule from his dictatorial predecessor Cipriano Castro and become Venezuela’s first modern president. Modern not necessarily because his junta was progressive in any sense but because it was able not just to use traditional income from patronage into projects but petrol dollars. Subsequent interpretations of Gómez have usually conceived of his policies as wily for his play of nations against each other for greater financial concessions for sub-soil access but still in essence a servant for extra-national interests,

With the first big discovery of oil in 1922 at La Rosa, a process of massive population migration, capital investment, infrastructure construction and transformation of Venezuelan politics begins. No longer is Venezuela a country just some minor supplier of agricultural products such as coffee because it won’t spoil on the long winding “roads” which required mules to move goods over the mountains but is placed within an international political and economic nexus. Oil is the precursor for modern industry. Oil is development. And oil soon starts dislocating large amounts of traditional communities and turning the government into a mediating force between outside corporations desperate for their crude oil and the people within these communities. The rhetoric within the country soon conceives of the government as a defender of it’s two-fold national body. There is the socio-political body and there is the large body of oil reserves that predicates the functioning of the government. The government’s dependence on oil revenues for it’s functioning creates a symbiotic relationship between them, the foreign extractive companies and the governments associated with them (predominantly American, British and Dutch).

In the process of developing the oil reserves for export, oil companies such as Shell and Caribe had to construct communities in the midst of the jungle. Their hiring practices consistently prefer foreign workers, mostly North Americans, for the advanced technical work, and use the native Venezuelans for manual labor. The creation of these petrol neighborhoods and the forms of living space they engendered had profound effects on the subsequent Venezuealan culture and values. The first wave of roughnecks that came in were mostly single men who cared about the natives only inasmuch as they could buy alcohol, prepared foods or clothes from them, hire them to clean their homes (if they even had them and weren’t sleeping in a hammock in a shack) and rent females by the hour for sexual liaisons. Conflict occasionally led to social unrest, be it from social causes such as drunk and rowdy drillers to environmental disaster, so the companies later sought to lessen this by the construction of fenced and guarded communities that would be considered desirable to live in by American standards and thus acceptable for families to be brought there by American workers. Summarizing his analysis of these and other trends, Salas states that “Beyond monopolizing the economy, oil shaped social values and class aspirations, cemented political alliances, and redefined concepts of citizenship for important segments of the population” (238). As the foods and the repasts of America came to become an indicator of cultural advancement, one of the reasons for explaining why, unlike the rest of Latin America, the national past-time is baseball and not futbol.

For my own interests, the latter part of the book contains the most compelling historiography and transition from an institutions and cultural studies approach to an analysis of political framing and civil society formation that illustrates the growth and functioning of a government “cursed” by such resources. Clientism, cronyism and nepotism abound in the political structure while in the quasi-private oil sector a supposed meritocracy reigns, a situation which Terry Lynn Karl poetically terms as the paradox of plenty. Having stated the obvious, how the American and British oil companies were in a symbiotic relationship with the Venezuelan state due to the latter’s reliance on oil revenues to function, Salas then illustrates how the capital to initiate a wide array of Venezuealan cultural outlets and political organization originated from the oil companies, how they sponsored surveillance networks to monitor leftist activities and promoted individualistic, corporatist values in their publications. Caribe sponsored schools, university posts, the construction of churches, radio and television broadcasts and infrastructure, magazines, newspapers, etc. One purpose of such publications was the creation of a unified cultural conception of what it meant to be “Venezuelan”. Bringing together the experiences within the andinos, the llanos, and the oriente under one coherent conceptual framework had much the same effects as the conceptions of the polis as “cafe con leche”. The divergent experiences were minimized and the notion of a single “people” came to the forefront.

The notion of the nation created, however, was not just inclusive of these but also exclusive. It was inclusive in the sense that the oil companies were promoted as the key component as to how it was that the nation was becoming “modernized”. Though the companies themselves were foreign, they defined themselves and hired multiple public relations firms to cast them as benevolent for their bringing up “the people” out of poverty and subsistence agricultural production. That vast numbers still lived in grinding poverty was not even mentioned. Additionally, the values propounded on the radio and television programs and in the papers excluded certain qualities as being proper to the economic order and thus indicative of atavism still present within the population. The qualities denigrated were not just those anathemic to regularized business practices, such as tardiness, conflict, non-“Christian” behavior as well as race. While the latter illustrates the desire for a docile, responsible labor force the latter speaks to the fat that Afro-Venezuealans and Trinidadians, while within the social-economic nexus of oil extraction, were largely confined to manual and house labor if able to gain steady employment at all. Their marginalization meant that during period of economic downturns they were the most at risk. While Salas does not focus much attention on the Chavez phenomenon in the book, he does define the motivation and forces supporting him as largely coming from those marginalized both symbolically, economically and politically and representing a new conception of a modern Venezuela that is not solely dependent upon it’s natural resources to function as an economy – because such functioning in fact greatly harm to those not fortunate enough to join that sector.