Miguel Tinker Salas: The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela

Article excerpt

Miguel Tinker Salas

The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela

Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2009, xvi + 297 pp.

The arrival of Hugo Chavez to the presidency of Venezuela generated a good deal of interest in the United States, not least because this oil-producing nation is one of its largest oil suppliers. When Chavez was first elected to office in 1998 he sought to redefine the relationship between and among the nation's state-owned petroleum monopoly, Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), the Venezuelan government, and Venezuelan society. But more importantly from the US standpoint, he also sought to curb the powerful influence of the United States in his country. As part of his plan, Chavez insisted that PDVSA renegotiate contracts with foreign companies. He also challenged the powerful roles of both management and unions. The conflicts Chavez generated through the implementation of these and other reforms led to an ultimately unsuccessful coup attempt against his government in 2002. With the subsequent consolidation of his power after the failed coup, the vaunted independence of PDVSA was broken. Chavez declared that Venezuela would embark on a process of building socialism for the 21st century, a process in which oil would be the servant and not the master.

In The Enduring Legacy, Miguel Tinker Salas forces us to look beyond the facile generalities about oil-dependent economies such as Venezuela that many observers across the political spectrum have proposed. He closely examines not only how the oil industry changed Venezuelan society but also how society changed the oil industry. His cogently structured argument makes clear the impact of oil on the rest of the Venezuelan economy. He shows, for example, how the growth of the oil sector led to a decline in industry and agriculture and to other momentous social and cultural changes.

After abundant supplies of petroleum were found in the 1920s, the foreign corporations that monopolized its extraction, refining, and distribution functioned as relatively independent enclaves of power in company towns where they exercised virtual autonomy from the state. They hired North Americans and Europeans who were disproportionately white, reinforcing existing racial prejudices and importing a dose of North America's own structural racism. The oil monopolies provided most of the public services in the towns where they were located. Some of these towns started out as wild outposts but soon became planned communities following modern principles of rationalism. The unfortunate result in some cases was systematic social exclusion.

Tinker Salas shows how neocolonial economic relations evolved in Venezuela so that oil production, consumption, and distribution became intimately connected to the everyday lives of most Venezuelan citizens. Although only a tiny fraction of Venezuela's population has ever worked in the petroleum sector, it is clear that the industry has profoundly affected social and cultural life in urban and rural areas throughout the nation. While noted Venezuelan politicians and intellectuals have always decried the nation's economic dependence on oil, echoing the call by Venezuelan writer and social critic Arturo Uslar Pietri to "sow petroleum" by investing oil profits in manufacturing and agriculture, such a project has never materialized. …