- The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela
Miguel Tinker Salas's book on the social and cultural impact of the oil industry in Venezuela from the late 1910s into the 1970s, with a brief but insightful discussion of more recent events, is a welcome addition to Venezuelan historiography. It will find a receptive audience not only among Venezuelanists, but also among scholars of foreign investment in Latin America. The first half of the book surveys the early development of oil in Venezuela, including the interplay between the industry and the environment, migration from various regions of Venezuela and the Caribbean to the oil fields, the oil companies' decision to encourage American and European workers to bring their families to the oil zones, and the eventual shift towards hiring more Venezuelans into skilled and professional positions. During their first few decades in the country, the companies followed a policy of "enlightened industrialism" (p. 88) in which they provided utilities and services to communities where they operated, in part to compensate for the disruption caused by their operations.
Tinker Salas argues that the oil camps became "social laboratories" (p. 242), implanting new models of work, social life, consumerism, and citizenship. For example, company commissaries introduced products, brands, and patterns of supermarket-style shopping that became hallmarks of a middle class lifestyle, while foreign managers sought to inculcate company values of corporate loyalty, internalized work discipline, and "appropriate" use of leisure time. Although only a fragment of the Venezuelan labor force found employment in the oil sector, the centrality of oil resulted in the projection of these innovations more broadly throughout the nation, if only as ideals to which all Venezuelans might aspire.
Perhaps most important was the new concept of citizenship that the companies sought to propagate. According to Tinker Salas, Creole Petroleum (owned by Standard Oil of New Jersey) and Shell, motivated in part by the Mexican oil nationalization of 1938, [End Page 569] sought to disseminate the notion that their operations were modernizing Venezuela and held the key to its future progress. The propaganda effort worked. Cooperation with the companies became a hallmark of centrist and conservative conceptualizations of development among the increasingly powerful middle class. In practice, oil failed to improve the lives of marginalized Venezuelans, but the visible impact of the petroleum sector was sufficiently dramatic to keep the dream of oil-fueled progress alive for decades, blunting the appeal of more radical models of nationalism.
Tinker Salas's interpretation of relations between the oil companies and the Venezuelan state forms a logical extension of his social and cultural analysis, and differentiates his view of oil politics from that of previous historians. Other scholars have perceived conflicts between the companies and the progressive government dominated by Acción Democrática in 1945-1948, which they contrast to the allegedly more cordial relationships between the foreigners and military regimes, especially the 1948-1958 government led by Marcos Pérez Jiménez. In contrast, Tinker Salas offers persuasive evidence that both the companies and the leaders of Acción Democrática sought compromise and mutual accommodation.
Throughout most of the twentieth century, then, political leaders, the middle class, and Venezuelan economic elites found that a continuation of the oil-centered economy served their interests best, despite their lip service to the goal of economic diversification. Following the nationalization of oil in 1976, the new state petroleum company, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), perpetuated elements of the corporate culture inherited from Creole and Shell. Employees of PDVSA often portrayed themselves as the representatives of Venezuelan modernity, a technocratic elite with the skills and insight to manage oil on behalf of the nation. After Venezuela's economy began to unravel in the late 1980s, PDVSA increasingly came to be seen as an isolated, self-serving enclave, setting the stage for conflicts with Hugo Chávez.
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