Miguel Tinker Salas Presents his Book "Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to know"

The first thing most people outside of Venezuela know about the country is its former president, Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías, one of the most charismatic and controversial leaders in the Western Hemisphere in the last one hundred years, whose death in 2013 traumatized the nation. The political discontent and the support of social movements that propelled Chávez to power in 1998 thrust Venezuela onto the international stage and recast relations with the United States, Latin America, and the rest of the world. Chávez represented the first of a wave of Latin American leftist leaders to assume office during the 1990s and the early 2000s in the wake of Washington’s policies that dramatically increased inequality in the region.

Venezuela’s previous disengagement from regional issues and its newfound notoriety under Chávez were directly related to the vast oil reserves that sustain not only its economy but remain a central component of its culture and its very identity. Oil has served as the nexus of Venezuelan-United States relations since the discovery of vast deposits in the 1920s began to shape economic and political relations, and forged a web of personal and social relations that has endured over time.

Except for its connection to oil, before 1998 Venezuela seldom registered in theNorth American popular imagination. With large oil reserves and the profits they generated, economic and political elites in Venezuela did little to promote the country outside its borders. The factors common to other Latin American nations that might have brought Venezuela to the full attention of the United States did not exist. With little or no promotion,  Venezuela remained something of an undiscovered gem, never becoming a popular destination for tourists seeking warm Caribbean beaches despite its exceptional coastline, and spectacular offshore coastal reefs. It also was not on the itinerary of people seeking to explore indigenous civilizations or expressions of Afro-Latin American culture. Through most of Venezuela’s history there was no concerted effort by those in power to highlight the country’s diverse racial or ethnic heritage. Its diverse environment—including snow-capped Andean mountains, vast Amazon rainforests, and the world’s highest waterfall—never attracted significant numbers of foreign visitors. Few knew about its culinary traditions, its arepas (corn cakes) that are consumed daily,cachápas (corn pancakes), pabellón (the de facto national dish of string beef, white rice, black beans, yucca), hallacas (a Christmas dish similar in some ways to tamales), and many other dishes.

On occasion, Venezuela’s independence leader, Simón Bolívar (1783–1830) drew attention to the country. Bolívar had proposed the creation of a supranation composed of former Spanish colonies in order to alter the balance of power between Latin America, Europe, and the United States. His writings continue to beguile those on both the left and the right who cite him to affirm their divergent points of view. Revered in Venezuela and in many other countries in Latin America as El Libertador, his legacy inspired proponents of social change long before Hugo Chávez appeared on the political stage.

There are contemporary events for which Venezuela has garnered some attention in the United States. In the sports world, Venezuelans have fielded a talented pool of baseball players, second only to the Dominicans in the major leagues. Others might identify the country for its uncanny ability to win Miss Universe and Miss World pageants, giving rise to a cult of beauty. In an unprecedented occurrence, Venezuelan women won two consecutive Miss Universe crowns in 2008 and in 2009 and won again in 2013.

In the last decade, Venezuela has also gained international acclaim for the success of its national youth orchestra program known popularly as el Sistema (the System). Started in 1975 as the brainchild of José Antonio Abreu, the program, officially known as the Fundación Musical Simón Bolívar (Simón Bolívar Musical Foundation), has expanded to provide  underprivileged children with training in classical music throughout the country. Musicians and conductors trained under the auspices of el Sistema, including Gustavo Dudamel, the celebrated conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, have established international reputations in leading orchestras throughout the world.

Oil, however, remains the most identifiable image associated with Venezuela. Since its discovery in the first decades of the twentieth century, it has dominated the economy and society. By 1928, with dozens of United States and European oil companies and thousands of foreigners in the country, Venezuela became the world’s second leading exporter of oil and the first by 1935.

In the last decade, Venezuela’s oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PdVSA) has expanded operations in the Orinoco River basin, where heavy crude deposits have increased its certified reserves to 296 billion barrels, an immense quantity that surpasses the holdings of Saudi Arabia. At many levels, oil continues to be the key that helps explain and elucidate contemporary Venezuelan society, culture, and history. Control of the Venezuelan state implies control over the nation’s purse strings, which overwhelmingly means oil and gas.

As the principal engine of the Venezuelan economy, the immensity of petroleum assets has served to obscure  social inequality and has helped create an illusion that all sectors of society share in the wealth. Like a lubricant coating the various parts of an internal combustion engine, oil literally permeates every aspect of Venezuelan society in ways that are not apparent to an outsider. Long before Chávez’s first electoral victory in 1998, the key role of oil was evident  in practically  every arena from the absurdly low price charged for gasoline, to subsidies and programs that reach every sector of society, including subsidized dollars for the private sector, the funding of various social programs, higher education, and basic food products. Many Venezuelans consider subsidies derived from the oil industry as a birthright, and no government that hopes to remain in power has altered this arrangement.  

While there is scant knowledge of Venezuela in the United States, the opposite is not the case. Among almost all sectors of society, but especially among the middle and upper classes, there is intimate and even personal knowledge about the United States’ cultural, political, and social sensibilities. Knowledge of the “American way of life” includes broad exposure to US consumer culture, fashion, music, sports, films, diet, and the English language. Many Venezuelans  under- stand and order their relations with the outside world from the perspective of Venezuela as an oil exporter that services the energy needs of the United States.

Sustained relations with United States oil interests, government policy, and the presence of foreigners in the country has shaped social and political attitudes as well as consumer patterns. Without having to exercise an actual physical presence, at many levels the United States and the lifestyle it promotes functions as an internal constituent within the Venezuelan sociopolitical landscape.

Efforts by the Chávez government and the social movements that elected him have occurred within a country where the prevailing values of a capitalist society have sunk deep roots. The export model that the oil industry engendered led many social sectors to develop faith in the tenets of the capitalist system, a free market, the importance of private property, and a strong sense of individualism.

Oil revenue appeared to transform Venezuela, and nowhere was  this  more  evident  than  in Caracas. Leaving behind its quaint tradition of identifying addresses by their proximity to street corners and an urban landscape dotted by red tile roofs, within the span of decades the city became a metropolis of skyscrapers and bustling freeways. Beyond a physical transformation, Venezuelans increasingly appeared to lose a connection to their immediate past.

To comprehend Venezuelan political and social values, it is essential to consider the role the oil industry has played in generating expectations for continued growth and social mobility. Foreign control of the oil industry for much of the twentieth century reinforced these values. Nationalization in 1976 raised expectations  that the country would eventually attain levels of development similar to those of other more advanced Western nations. It is hard to underestimate the spell that oil cast over the nation, both in the immense profits the elites derived and the privileged lifestyle enjoyed by those employed in the industry. 

The Chávez phenomenon

Writing about contemporary Venezuela today is a complicated task, one made all the more difficult as we assess the post-Chávez landscape, a landscape that he shaped more profoundly than any leader in Latin America in this century. A country that previously seldom registered on the world stage became the source of global attention, mostly centered on the actions of Chávez, who died in March 2013. Informed by media accounts, many people seem to hold relatively one-sided opinions of Venezuela under Chávez. Typically depicting Venezuela as the principal nemesis of the United States in the region, most media accounts usually began their coverage by portraying Chávez as a faithful protégé of Fidel Castro, hoping to capitalize on a reservoir of enmity toward the Cuban revoution. Reducing Venezuela to a conspiratorial regional left bloc, many unfamiliar with Latin America’s distinct national histories are quick to claim that Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia, and Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador, were walking in lockstep with Chávez—a kind of leftist “three amigos” cannily conspiring against the United States.

Venezuela’s newfound prominence reflects the extent to which the country has managed to insert itself into regional and world affairs in little over a decade, influencing international debates on a wide range of topics. Much of what Venezuela has proposed—including  a nationalist energy policy, multipolar international relations, regional integration, and national sovereignty—now frame mainstream political discourse throughout Latin America. Undoubtedly Venezuela’s huge oil reserves have served to magnify its importance across the globe. Venezuela’s newfound presence on the international stage is even more dramatic precisely because of its previous disengagement not just from regional concerns but from world matters.

Accustomed  to dealing with a country that operated firmly in its orbit, the Washington political establishment, the media, and many academics in the United States appeared ill-prepared to deal  with the dramatic changes that gained momentum in Venezuela after 1998. In the past Venezuelan politicians seldom ventured from travel between Caracas and Washington, occasionally  visiting New York and the United Nations, but never including Beijing, Moscow, Brasilia, Buenos Aires, and much less Tehran or Luanda, Angola on their itinerary. Although the United States is still an important market for its oil, Venezuela no longer privileges relations with  Washington, and instead promotes ties and pursues investments from countries as distinct as Brazil, India, Iran, Russia, and China.

The so-called Chávez phenomenon, however captivating, is not necessarily the best way to understand contemporary Venezuela. While it would be relatively simple to divide Venezuela into periods that correspond to before and after Chávez’s first electoral victory (and to adopt the US media fixation with controversial  figures), the actions of one person who was in power a little over a decade do not do justice to the history of the country. Oil and the political, economic, and social expectations it generated provides a much more comprehensive lens through which to understand contemporary Venezuela. This book therefore explores Venezuela from the perspective of periods before and after the rise of the oil economy. The first part of the book traces the historical continuities between the colonial period and the rise of an independent yet fragmented nation. It highlights Venezuela’s torturous transition to a republic during the nineteenth century, marked by recurring civil wars and the absence of a powerful national elite capable of imposing a unifying national project. Breaking with traditional interpretations, this section underscores the role of race and inequality as constant sources of social and political tension in the country.

The second part of the book turns to the twentieth century. The discovery of oil in the first decades of the twentieth century held out the promise of dramatic change, although in practice it did little to alter the structures of power or the nature of economic relations. Rather than introduce  a new anticipated modern era, the oil industry grafted itself onto the long dictatorship of Juan Vicente Gómez (1908–1935). The Venezuelan economy increasingly became dependent on oil revenues, and imported much of what it consumed. In fact, by 1935 Venezuela was a net importer of basic foodstuffs.

Despite its connections to antidemocratic regimes, oil unleashed  new  political forces and expectations that  military governments proved unable to control. The late 1950s produced renewed clashes between middle-class political parties, leftist groups championing the lower socioeconomic strata of the nation, and the military in  power. With the ouster of the last military dictator, Marcos Pérez Jiménez, in 1958, democratic parties devised a power-sharing arrangement to minimize interparty conflict, control the military, and limit challenges from the left that had played a decisive role in overthrowing the dictatorship. After 1958, the two parties that dominated the political landscape, Acción Democrática or AD (Democratic Action, Social Democrats) and the Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente or COPEI (Committee of Political Electoral Independent Organization— Christian Democrats) used a carrot-and-stick approach: oil revenues were used to build patronage networks aimed at the middle classes and create social programs to mitigate the plight of the poorer sectors with the expectation of their votes at election time. Demands for more wealth sharing from the left were severely repressed. This arrangement served the government well until oil prices declined precipitously in the late 1980s. Repeated charges of corruption, cronyism, mismanagement of the economy, and the crash of several leading banks and insurance companies deepened the political crisis. Facing worsening conditions, the AD government, after first promising exactly the opposite in the elections of 1988, capitulated to international lending agencies and introduced austerity measures that sparked widespread political unrest.

Finally, the book’s third section focuses on the Chávez era and, now, the post-Chávez era. As a major producer of oil within OPEC, Venezuela remains important to the United States and the countries of Latin America. After more than a decade of social transformation it is difficult to imagine a scenario under which it will revert to the two-party/single policy form of electoral democracy that the United States still promotes within the region.

Despite depictions to the contrary, social movements and groups that supported Chávez and now his successor Nicolás Maduro are not undiscerning masses blindly captivated by charismatic leadership. Their loyalty depends on the ability of the government to fulfill its promise of political and socioeconomic change and improve their standard of living. The social forces unleashed in the last decades have gained a new voice and will demand a continued role in society. Likewise, it is unlikely that the well-organized opposition to the government will retreat or cease to defend their interests. When oil was discovered in Venezuela, the population hovered  at 2.5 million people; today the country has surpassed thirty million inhabitants.  Idyllic depictions of the past fail to cap- ture the dramatic increase in population and the new social and economic  demands  that this generates  for any govern- ment in power.

To  say  that  Venezuela  today  is  polarized  is  tantamount to a cliché. However, to suggest that class and racial divisions did not exist before the election of Chávez fails to recognize the deep social and racial fissures that have existed throughout the entire course of Venezuela history. What is clear though is that the appearance of Chávez on the political stage served to channel economic  and social  discontent  that might have otherwise  degenerated  into open conflict as occurred  previously in the Caracazo, the social rebellion of February 1989 that engulfed the capital and other cities.

Since Venezuela seldom attracted attention in previous decades, scholars in the United States who studied the country labored on the margins of a field dominated by Mexico and the Southern Cone, referring to southern Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay—the most prosperous macro-region in South America. But recent political upheavals, as exemplified by Cuba after Fidel Castro, or Nicaragua after the Sandinistas, sparked renewed interest in those countries whose earlier challenges  to  United  States  policy  had  already generated an upsurge in scholarly interest. As was previously  the case with Cuba and Nicaragua,  Venezuela  has been transformed from a friendly ally into an obstacle to Washington’s plans for the hemisphere.  This adversarial  relationship  has prompted scholars  to question  the operating  assumptions  that existed about the country’s history and society, and new scholarship is emerging that offers a more nuanced view of the country’s past and present.

The media—more than just National Geographic—is also drawn by the events that are reshaping the country. Increased coverage,  however,  does  not  always  produce  greater  clarity and is often unable to explain either the intricate nuances of Venezuelan society or the complex web of personal and economic relations that drive politics. Seldom is there any serious attempt to move beyond the dueling forces of Chávez and the leadership  of the opposition  bloc  that  challenged  his presidency  and now his legacy.  This book seeks to redirect  that conversation.

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