- The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela
Miguel Tinker Salas opens his latest work with the question that many asked in 2002 about Venezuela: how to explain that a government describing itself as revolutionary ends up facing a crippling strike that almost led to its being overthrown by the nationalized oil industry? Although the project, obviously, was in the works for a long while before the 2002–2004 turmoil that engulfed President Hugo Chávez, the book helps us understand the complexity of the relationship between the foreign oil companies and Venezuelan society beyond the political realm. Tinker Salas has written a monograph that bridges business and social and cultural history, but he has also written a study in class formation, the Venezuelan middle class, to be specific. The result is not only quite successful but also thoroughly enjoyable. [End Page 168]
After a couple of chapters describing what the Maracaibo region looked like at the turn of the twentieth century and the early days of exploring for oil through the 1920s, the book follows a thematic approach. Although the author covers nearly a century of oil history, Tinker Salas does not follow a chronological line to organize his text because he argues, convincingly, that continuity rather change characterizes relations between the oil industry and the state throughout the twentieth century. The traditional political periodization (the Gómez years, 1908–1935; the Acción Democrática Trienio; the Pérez Jiménez years, 1948–1958; the era of post-1958 civilian governments) did not mean substantial changes in the operations of the oil industry, even after the 1976 nationalization. By that time, the social and cultural practices the companies had promoted were so entrenched that they withstood political changes largely intact: Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) was already a state within a state independent of who occupied the presidency or the congress. Thus, Tinker Salas makes the case for looking at what one might term the "soft" power of culture in shaping national policy, in contrast to the outright muscle-flexing of political and economic might. The topics addressed in this work to illustrate how the oil companies shaped a distinct culture and forged a Venezuelan middle class include race and immigration in the selection of the work force, gender and family life among foreign employees, and corporate culture as a model of citizenship for the whole society. By examining the cultural practices and strategies the foreign companies used in these three areas, Tinker Salas explains how the nation came to conflate its interests with the interests of the oil industry and thus muted Venezuelan nationalism.
The tale is fascinating. Tinker Salas shows how the companies learned from their experiences elsewhere, namely, the 1938 nationalization of the industry in Mexico, and applied the lessons they drew to the Venezuela case quite successfully. Without abandoning their self-image as civilizers and modernizers, oil company executives nevertheless bid good bye to the days of extreme arrogance and unabashed racism. Instead, the companies subscribed to "enlightened industrialism" in the 1920s, which meant taking responsibility for providing basic services (housing, transportation, meals, health) to a labor force they were recruiting and shaping before the lack thereof became the source of labor unrest. In the 1940s, the companies ratcheted up the charm offensive with the establishment of a public relations department in charge of selling the industry to the nation as a model citizen, with model workers who possessed an ethic of individualism. In this period as well the companies made sure their "experts" were seen on television regularly, just as they nurtured contacts with the newspapers; radio; and well-known artists, writers, and intellectuals. By [End Page 169] the 1950s, the companies had no trouble accepting organized labor and contract negotiations. Unions, they discovered, brought stability to the industry and promoted industrial peace.
Similarly, the company professionals modeled a personal and family lifestyle for their Venezuelan employees in the compounds they shared as housing. Thus what American wives did to support...