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

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Oil has played a major role in Venezuela’s economy since the first gusher was discovered along Lake Maracaibo in 1922. As Miguel Tinker Salas demonstrates, oil has also transformed the country’s social, cultural, and political landscapes. In The Enduring Legacy, Tinker Salas traces the history of the oil industry’s rise in Venezuela from the beginning of the twentieth century, paying particular attention to the experiences and perceptions of industry employees, both foreign and Venezuelan. He reveals how class ambitions and corporate interests combined to reshape many Venezuelans’ ideas of citizenship. Middle-class Venezuelans embraced the oil industry from the start, anticipating that it would transform the country by introducing modern technology, sparking economic development, and breaking the landed elites’ stranglehold. Eventually Venezuelan employees of the industry found that their benefits, including relatively high salaries, fueled loyalty to the oil companies. That loyalty sometimes trumped allegiance to the nation-state.

North American and British petroleum companies, seeking to maintain their stakes in Venezuela, promoted the idea that their interests were synonymous with national development. They set up oil camps—residential communities to house their workers—that brought Venezuelan employees together with workers from the United States and Britain, and eventually with Chinese, West Indian, and Mexican migrants as well. Through the camps, the companies offered not just housing but also schooling, leisure activities, and acculturation into a structured, corporate way of life. Tinker Salas contends that these practices shaped the heart and soul of generations of Venezuelans whom the industry provided with access to a middle-class lifestyle. His interest in how oil suffused the consciousness of Venezuela is personal: Tinker Salas was born and raised in one of its oil camps.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“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. . . . Tinker Salas has written a wonderful book that merits a wide audience, not only among students of Venezuela, but anyone who is interested in learning about the legacies of oil worldwide.” - Myrna Santiago, Enterprise and Society

“Few other historical books have been published with the perfect timing of Miguel Tinker Salas’s excellent study of the oil multinationals’ cultural and social legacy in Venezuela. . . . Covering a period of around a hundred years, The Enduring Legacy provides a concise, well-supported background to contemporary oil politics and social conflict in Venezuela. . . . The Enduring Legacy will undoubtedly become required reading for students of the Venezuelan oil industry. It will appeal not only to scholars and graduate students but also to undergraduates and general readers.” - Marcelo Bucheli, Business History Review

“This book is a good general introduction to some cultural aspects of modern Venezuela, and it shows an important research area in the country’s oil history; Tinker Salas certainly makes a significant contribution to this field.” - Marco Cupolo, Latin American Politics and Society

The Enduring Legacy is a rare exploration of the complex interconnections between the political, economic, social, and cultural aspects of petroleum dependency. . . . Tinker Salas’ unique history is an important addition to the literature on Venezuela and other oil-dependent economies.” - Tom Angotti, Canadian Journal of Latin American & Caribbean Studies

“Tinker Salas’s well-researched book helps us understand the role that oil played in shaping class, race, and gender relations in the twentieth century,
particularly in the oil industry.” - Harold A. Trinkunas, Latin American Research Review

“[A] magnificent survey of the heavy stain of oil that has splashed and seeped across Venezuelan society during the twentieth century. . . . The Enduring Legacy is a sharp piece of writing and research. It complements the existing literature well by providing insight into the human and cultural side of oil operations, and blurring the distinctions between the hegemonic oil companies and exploited Venezuelans.” - Matthew Brown, Bulletin of Latin American Research

The Enduring Legacy illuminates a national landscape deeply shaped by the oil industry, yet often analyzed as if this industry were an economic enclave isolated from Venezuelan society. Miguel Tinker Salas convincingly argues that from the outset, this industry was a crucible of social transformations within and beyond itself. By examining the transmutation of this industry from a foreign enclave to a national industry, this valuable book offers a sweeping view of one hundred years of Venezuelan history.”—Fernando Coronil, author of The Magical State: Nature, Money, and Modernity in Venezuela

“Miguel Tinker Salas leaves no stone unturned in his examination of the Venezuelan oil industry and in the process demonstrates its all-encompassing influence on the political, social, economic, and cultural life of the nation throughout most of the twentieth century. One of his most important contributions is to show how the foreign-owned oil companies ingeniously modified policies in order to adapt to the requirements of different regimes, including dictatorships, transitional governments, and democratic ones. At the same time, however, he amply documents how the multinationals generated resentment and resistance as a result of their imposition on Venezuelans of attitudes and patterns from the metropolis and their spurning of local traditions. In short, The Enduring Legacy is a must read for anyone who wants to go beneath the surface to understand the Venezuelan experience in all its dimensions.”—Steve Ellner, author of Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict, and the Chávez Phenomenon

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822344193
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/2009
  • Series: American Encounters/Global Interactions Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 344
  • Sales rank: 1,444,210
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Miguel Tinker Salas is Arango Professor in Latin American History and Professor of History and Chicano/a Studies at Pomona College. He is the author of In the Shadow of the Eagles: Sonora and the Transformation of the Border during the Porfiriato and co-editor of Venezuela: Hugo Chávez and the Decline of an “Exceptional Democracy.”

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Read an Excerpt

The Enduring Legacy


Duke University Press

Copyright © 2009 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4419-3

Chapter One

A Tropical Mediterranean

Lake Maracaibo at the Turn of the Century

Rather than the prototypical colonial backwater that was often represented, Venezuela before the advent of the oil industry exhibited patterns of development commonly found throughout Latin America toward the end of the nineteenth century. The notion of a backward Venezuela is rooted in the idea that the discovery of oil was synonymous with progress and modernization, an argument that has increasingly proved unsustainable not only in Venezuela but also in other oil-producing countries throughout the world. An overview of Venezuelan society and politics in the regions where the industry developed, as well as the states from which workers were drawn, provides the background against which to assess this purported transformation. Too often descriptions of Venezuela commence with the rise of the oil industry and fail to provide a point of comparison from which to evaluate the changes that the industry purportedly introduced. Moreover, they assume that oil swept away all existing social, economic, and political structures. In the words of the oil industry pioneer José Antonio Giacopini Zárraga, with oil Venezuela went from a "society that had nothing to a society that had almost everything. These are two very distinct Venezuela's." The Venezuela that had existed before did not disappear, however, but rather coexisted with the new reality. While touching on other regions, the focus of this chapter is western Venezuela, where Lake Maracaibo resembled a tropical Mediterranean linking the various communities around its shores and other distinct regions in a single, broad socioeconomic unit. It outlines the environmental, demographic, and social conditions of the area and its principal economic activities. Though the lake provided the basis for an active export economy rooted in coffee production, there was little contact between inhabitants of the area, and local experiences continued to determine social practices and patterns of identity.

At the beginning of the twentieth century Venezuela remained an assortment of discrete regional entities, driven by a host of contradictory forces. The Spanish had imposed their political administrative structure over the country's three distinct ecosystems-the lush tropical rain forest in the south; the sweeping plains, bathed by a network of rivers; and the coastal and Andean mountain ranges, with fertile valleys and the largest freshwater lake in South America. The country's limited population remained dispersed over its 912,050 square kilometers. Population density was among the lowest in Latin America, and there was little if any interaction among the regions. As the essayist Mariano Picón Salas noted, "with poor communication across its vast territory, which at that moment never surpassed two million inhabitants, each region with its climatic, racial, and dietary particularities seemed to engender its own ethnic type." As late as 1936 Venezuela still only had five inhabitants per square kilometer. Caracas, called the tropical Paris by Venezuelan intellectuals obsessed with European analogies, had a population that hovered near ninety thousand, making it the undisputed political and social center of the country. If Caracas was the center of power, the interior was the "barbarian" hinterland, inhabited, according to one intellectual, by the Venezuelan equivalent of "Goths, Visigoths, Sweves, and Burgundians." Besides Caracas, secondary cities such as Valencia, Maracay, Cumana, Mérida, San Cristóbal, and Maracaibo were important regional centers, although most people continued to live in the rural countryside.

Throughout the nineteenth century politics had been marked by intense struggles spilling over into prolonged periods of civil war that devastated the country. Conflicts resulted not only from the deep-seated divisions between conservatives and liberals unwilling to share power that were so common throughout Latin America, but also from the determination of regional élites to retain local autonomy. On many occasions, as one Venezuelan historian has noted, "local political bosses exploited these conflicts to consolidate or expand their power." At no time during most of the nineteenth century, the historian Germán Cardozo Galué writes, did there emerge a "dominant class with national support, with capacity or presence to dominate the vast territory or unite and formulate ... a [national] project."

In 1899 the first of a series of Andean strongmen from the state of Táchira descended on Caracas. Cipriano Castro's rise to power signaled a break with the past caudillos who had mobilized the campesino masses to assume power. From the outset the presence of his army of fewer than two thousand soldiers could not explain his hold on the capital. Rather, it reflected the turning of the tide against decades of civil war and political conflict. With only a tenuous hold on power, Castro found it necessary to negotiate with the Caracas élite and include them in his government, and this situation eventually weakened his ability to challenge the established order. Forces internal to the Andean faction that controlled power eventually led to his demise and his replacement by Juan Vicente Gómez, who ruled the country from 1908 until he died peacefully in his sleep in December 1935. Gómez, according to the historian Domingo Alberto Rangel, "became the demolisher of the old caste of caudillos and their tacit allies the intellectuals who had not adapted to the changes produced by 1908."


The states of Sucre, Monagas, and Anzoategui and the island of Nueva Esparta (Margarita), generally known as Oriente, or the East, were linked by little beyond their geographic location. With its two peninsulas resembling stretched extremities protruding into the Caribbean, Sucre had been settled early on by the Spaniards. Its ports of Cumana and Carupano, dating from the colonial period, depended on fishing and on maritime trade centered on the export of coffee and cacao. These agricultural crops flourished in the lush tropical valleys in the interior of the state. Corsicans had migrated to the region at the turn of the century and established a foothold in commerce. The lush tropical vegetation in Sucre continued into Monagas, in cool, fertile valleys such as those around Caripe. The central and southern reaches of the state included broad llanos, or plains, well suited to cattle production. Monagas also benefited from a series of river and delta systems that became trade routes. The city of Maturín took shape near the banks of the Guarapiche and engaged in overseas trade with Trinidad and other ports. In similar fashion, on the banks of the San Juan River, Caripito exported cattle and agricultural goods, mostly as contraband to the nearby British-controlled islands. The southern reaches of the state, near the banks of the mighty Orinoco, relied on cattle production and subsistence agriculture. Overland routes proved largely nonexistent, and the exchange of goods and personal travel relied on river networks and intercoastal shipping that linked the states of eastern Venezuela with Trinidad and then far-off Caracas.

On Nueva Esparta, Margariteños eked out an existence on a barren island. Visitors immediately noted its desert-like conditions. One geologist from the United States in 1912 described it as "arid, the usual tall, thin corrugated cacti and thorny bushes being evident along the coast." Confronted by these conditions, the indigenous ancestors of the present-day inhabitants, the Waikéri, had visited the northern coast of Venezuela and the Antilles decades before the arrival of the Spanish. They traded salt, which was abundant in the island lagoons, as well as casaba, ritual and musical instruments, and hoya (a plant similar to coca) throughout the region. The arrival of the Spanish and the development of an extractive pearl industry devastated the island's resources, accentuating the process of deforestation and heightening dependence on the sea. Margariteños grew increasingly reliant on seafaring that at times carried them as far away as the Gulf of Venezuela at the entrance to Lake Maracaibo and brought them into contact with their western compatriots. Their reputation as experienced sailors made them a valuable asset on board the ships that plied the waters off northern Venezuela. The Orientales were seen as "extroverts: ... treating others without much formality, they are open to strangers, always employing popular adages, ... rely on jokes, and speak quickly as if possessed by a certain hyperness."


In most of western Venezuela, life followed established traditional patterns in place since the late colonial period. Contrary to popular Venezuelan lore, however, the Andes did not generate a unified experience, much less a shared identity. Differences in ethnicity, agriculture, land tenure, access to markets, and social structures produced divergent outcomes for the residents of the states of Trujillo, Mérida, and Táchira. Outside a few towns-Trujillo, Mérida, and San Cristóbal-little had changed in the region for some time. Privileged during the colonial period with an administrative structure, a bishopric, a university, and in the view of one historian "legions of voracious bureaucrats," the city of Mérida attempted to exercise control over the Andean region. Despite differences, agricultural activity and by extension social activity in the Andes followed the cyclical rhythms imposed by nature. Settlements in the high mountain chains that enclosed the territory resembled "small islands of houses and corrals lost amidst the ferocity of regal valleys." According to the historian Ramón J. Velásquez, at night, except for the flicker of a few oil lamps, darkness enveloped the area. Though it remains problematic to speak of a unified Andean culture, in the popular mind isolation had produced a reserved, stoic, and distrustful Andean character popularly known as a gocho.

The Andes experienced important changes during the later decades of the nineteenth century. Traditional landholders had leveraged existing family networks, joining forces with recent Italian immigrants and arrivals from the neighboring state of Barinas to produce coffee that they exported to German firms in Maracaibo and on to world markets. The rivers of the region, the Chama, the Motatan, and the Albarregas, emptied into Lake Maracaibo, and so did most overland trails. Mule trains loaded with sacks of coffee made their way over well-worn mountain trails to the principal cities of the region and from there to the railroad that connected the Andes to Lake Maracaibo. German merchants from Maracaibo frequently made the journey into the Andes and as far south as Cúcuta in Colombia to establish trade arrangements and ensure the availability of supplies. Cúcuta proved critical to the region's trade; it was in a position to link the merchants of the Magdalena River and Lake Maracaibo. Besides coffee, small-scale mining, especially of urao (carbonate of sodium and magnesium), enriched a select group of Mérida's merchants and miners. For most of the nineteenth century the Andean states had a quasi-political and economic relationship with Maracaibo, and in 1866 they actually united to become part of the state of Zulia.


The nearby region of Falcón, east of Lake Maracaibo, also found itself drawn into Maracaibo's orbit. To the north, the desolate peninsula of Paraguana juts into the Caribbean, forming an inverted body of land connected to the mainland by a thin strip of shifting sand dunes. The peninsula is constantly buffeted by strong Caribbean trade winds that disrupt most vegetation and disperse ample amounts of sand, providing only a brief respite from the searing tropical sun. Lacking an ample supply of water, most residents of the northern peninsula relied on fishing, some agriculture, and clandestine trade with Curaçao as their main sources of income. Isolated from the central regions of the country, Coro, the capital of Falcón, founded in 1527, interacted principally with nearby Maracaibo and Curaçao. In the interior, cool mountains with ample water provided a refuge for agriculture as well as cattle and goat production. Throughout most of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth, Falcón had suffered an outmigration. Opportunities there remained limited, and as news of employment in the nearby state of Zulia spread, residents quickly migrated to the oilfields in large numbers. Oil also increased migration within the state, since Falcón possessed oil deposits of its own. On the eastern edge of the state a British company uncovered an extremely productive field of light crude at La Mara.


The daily course of activity in the vicinity of Lake Maracaibo on the eve of the twentieth century gave no indication of the monumental changes that would soon overtake the region and thrust it into the international limelight. Largely isolated from the rest of the nation, the lake remained the cornerstone of the economy and society of western Venezuela. It was the principal source of transportation in an area where natural barriers at times formed impenetrable obstacles to communication and formal roads remained non-existent. Bounded by the Andean range, whose peaks reached elevations of over fifteen thousand feet, the lake was an immense reservoir 135 miles long and 60 miles wide, gathering water from the area's many rivers and streams. High in the Sierra de Perija along the Colombian border and throughout the Andean chain, rivers such as the Catatumbo, the Escalante, the Santa Ana, the Chama, and the Motatan collected the flows of dozens of smaller streams, forming expansive deltas as they drained into the lake. In total more than 85 rivers and 100 streams emptied into Lake Maracaibo.

As these rivers meandered through valleys and plains, they collected large amounts of silt and deposited them in the lake. A study commissioned by the Creole Petroleum Corporation and conducted by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 1953 determined that the lake water tended to rotate in an "anticlockwise eddy," allowing "fresh water to remain in the lake on the average for about four years before escaping to the sea." Moreover, the study revealed "the existence of an unusual system of tidal motion in Lake Maracaibo which appears to be of importance in controlling the penetration of salt into the lake." Driven by the prevailing currents, the centuries-old accumulations of silt formed a natural barrier at the straits where the lake water collided with the salty currents of the Caribbean. Increased lake levels during the rainy season and the existence of this natural bar limited access to salty ocean currents and ensured the persistence of this bountiful yet precarious body of freshwater. The sand barrier at the entrance to the lake impeded lake travel for vessels with drafts of over ten feet. Even with an experienced local captain, navigating the intricate maze of canals and sandbars from the seventeenth-century castle at San Carlos to the port of Maracaibo could take one to two days.

The land and vegetation along the lakeshore presented a panorama of sharp contrasts. Miles of relatively desolate plains were dotted with low mesquite, cactus, and divi-divi trees whose seeds were used for dyes and tanning. Where access to water permitted, these lands also supported the grazing of cattle and goats. Farther south, along the crescent outline of the lake known locally as "Sur del Lago," tropical vegetation, forests, and marshes provided the conditions for sugar, cacao, tuber, and plantain production. Rich clusters of mangroves and lush tropical palms that the inhabitants harvested for copra marked the area east of the lake. Cardozo Galué has identified two subregions here: the coastal plains, whose principal port Maracaibo dominated commerce, and the agriculturally productive Andean piedmont which extended south into Colombia.


Excerpted from The Enduring Legacy by MIGUEL TINKER SALAS Copyright © 2009 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface vii

Introduction: Oil, Culture, and Society 1

Chapter 1 A Tropical Mediterranean: Lake Maracaibo at the Turn of the Century 15

Chapter 2 The Search for Black Gold 39

Chapter 3 La Ruta Petrolera: Learning to Live with Oil 73

Chapter 4 Oil, Race, Labor, and Nationalism 107

Chapter 5 Our Tropical Outpost: Gender and the Senior Staff Camps 143

Chapter 6 The Oil Industry and Civil Society 171

Chapter 7 Oil and Politics: An Enduring Relation 205

Conclusion An Enduring Legacy 237

Notes 251

Bibliography 299

Index 317

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