Missionary Capitalist: Nelson Rockefeller in Venezuela / Edition 1

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The first work to draw on Nelson A. Rockefeller's newly available personal papers as well as research in Latin American archives, Missionary Capitalist details Rockefeller's efforts to promote economic development in Latin America, particularly Venezuela, from the late 1930s through the 1950s.

Rockefeller's involvement in the region began in 1936 with his investment in Creole Petroleum, the Venezuelan subsidiary of Standard Oil. Almost immediately, he began trying to influence North Americans' individual, corporate, and government relationships with Latin Americans. Through his work developing technical assistance programs for the Roosevelt administration during World War II, his business ventures (primarily agricultural production and food retailing), and his postwar founding of the nonprofit American International Association, Rockefeller hoped to demonstrate how U.S. capitalists could nurture entrepreneurial spirit and work successfully with government agencies in Latin America to encourage economic development and improve U.S.-Latin American relations. Ultimately, however, he overestimated the ability of the United States, through public or private endeavors, to promote Latin American economic, political, and social change.

This objective account paints a portrait of Rockefeller not as the rapacious, exploitative figure of stereotype, but as a man fueled by idealism and humanitarian concern as well as ambition.

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Editorial Reviews

Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman
Rivas challenges our assumptions about the relationship of U.S. capital to Latin America in the postwar period. Anyone interested in Yankee imperialism or the spread of U.S. economic ideals must read this fine book.
Foreign Affairs
A solid, archive-based assessment of Nelson Rockefeller's efforts to promote economic development in Venezuela (and Latin America more generally) from the late 1930s through the 1950s. Encouraged by his World War II experience in running assistance programs, his extensive business involvement in Latin America, and his engagement with nonprofit institutions, Rockefeller believed passionately in both American capitalism and his own ability to encourage economic development — and that U.S. relations with the countries of Latin America would be improved. This fascinating account strips away the many stereotypes to provide a more nuanced view of Rockefeller's enthusiasm. As the author sees it, Rockefeller tried to accomplish too much, especially during the Eisenhower administration. While providing assistance to underdeveloped areas appealed to many Americans, U.S. foreign aid at the time was limited to those countries seen as under the threat of communist subversion or aggression. A narrower focus might have achieved more, the author argues, and Rockefeller's faith that business groups and bureaucrats would put aside their self-interest to support his dramatic vision was naive. But he was prescient about the dangers of the growing North-South divide, and he believed that the United States and Latin America had a common purpose. This last lesson, Rivas concludes, should still inspire Americans today.
From the Publisher
Rivas challenges our assumptions about the relationship of U.S. capital to Latin America in the postwar period. Anyone interested in Yankee imperialism or the spread of U.S. economic ideals must read this fine book. (Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman, author of The Rich Neighbor Policy: Rockefeller and Kaiser in Brazil)
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Darlene Rivas is associate professor of history at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California.

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Read an Excerpt

Missionary Capitalist
Nelson Rockefeller in Venezuela

By Darlene Rivas

University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2002 The University of North Carolina Press.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0807826847


Nelson Rockefeller was deeply moved. The drama he witnessed at a remote clinic in Haiti one day in 1943 brought to his mind one of the "biblical stories of Christ's healing. . . . The roads were choked with the believers, as you might say, being carried, riding on donkeys, hobbling on crutches, coming to this little hut which was the center of this clinic." Once there, almost 2,300 of the faithful received injections to combat yaws. Three Haitian doctors administered the medication. These local physicians had recently replaced a health mission staffed by North Americans, which had established the antiyaws campaign, funded jointly by the U.S. and Haitian governments. One of the doctors rose to thank the United States for its benevolence. As he finished his speech, "a great cheer went up from the people. . . . Really, it was just like the healing by the waters, in the old days in the Bible."[1]

Nelson Rockefeller approached life with an exuberant self-assurance, confident of his own and his country's abilities and future. His early career coincided with high noon of the era Henry Luce would call the American Century. Born into the third generation of an American business and philanthropic dynasty, Rockefeller possessed unique means and opportunities to transform his ideas about U.S. foreign relations into action. In the 1940s and early 1950s, he hoped to influence the respective roles of the state and private individuals in the economic development of Latin America and, more broadly, the entire "developing" world. His story is one of many that spring from the evangelistic, nation-building impulse that has moved the United States to play a leadership role in global modernization during the twentieth century.

In public memory, Nelson Rockefeller is known best as the governor of New York, perennial presidential hopeful, and Gerald Ford's vice president. Rockefeller was a consummate politician, a cold warrior, a big spender, a frustrated almost-but-not-quite president, the epitome of a liberal Republican—a Rockefeller Republican. These phrases represent partial truths or quasitruths; none captures the essence of the man. Henry Kissinger offers an apt portrait of Rockefeller. He possessed, according to Kissinger, "absolute, almost touching, faith in the power of ideas." Rockefeller longed to find, and do, "the right thing." "Untypical as he might seem to be," Kissinger continued, "he was in a way quintessentially American in his boundless energy, his pragmatic genius, and his unquenchable optimism. Obstacles were there to be overcome; problems were opportunities. He could never imagine that a wrong could not be righted or that an honorable aspiration was beyond reach. For other nations utopia is a blessed past never to be recovered; for Americans it is no farther than the intensity of their commitment."[2]

Despite Kissinger's penchant for hyperbole and his personal friendship with Rockefeller (in an important sense, Rockefeller was Kissinger's patron), this portrait reveals the heart and will of both the public and the private Nelson Rockefeller. As a young man, Nelson's "boundless energy" and "unquenchable optimism" focused primarily on how he might marshal support for improved U.S. relations with Latin American nations. Beginning in the late 1930s, he attempted to influence the individual, corporate, and public conduct of North Americans with ties to Latin America. Rockefeller's interest in U.S.-Latin American relations remained high throughout his career, but his direct personal involvement in the region peaked between 1939 and 1953, the period that is the focus of this book. In one nation in particular, he invested both vision and capital. Venezuela became the arena in which the young Nelson Rockefeller confronted his idealism and from which he emerged briefly chastened, less naive, and, sadly, less visionary.

The story of Rockefeller in Venezuela offers answers to important questions about Rockefeller's life and career. At the same time, his story illuminates significant issues in U.S. foreign relations. Rockefeller's involvement in Venezuela coincided with a surge in and eventual decline of public interest in Latin America. This decline corresponded with, and in part followed from, the emergence of the United States on the world scene as the greatest political, economic, and military power of the twentieth century, with far-flung interests and policies, many of which had made their debut on the inter-American stage. This context shaped Rockefeller's initial fascination with the region and his sense of mission in trying to maintain creativity in U.S. public and private policies after World War II.

Broadly defined, U.S. relations with Latin America encompass more than public policies. In his efforts to influence inter-American relations, Rockefeller acted in both a public and a private capacity. He experimented with business and philanthropic endeavors in Venezuela, in Brazil, and elsewhere in Latin America. He also served in appointed positions in the Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower administrations. Rockefeller maneuvered between the public and private spheres and within that significant yet ill-defined space in which the two sectors overlapped more than at any earlier time in American history. He focused his energies on the economic relationship among the nations of the Western Hemisphere. The most important issue confounding inter-American relations during this period was the question of how the United States could—or whether it should—promote the development of Latin American economies. Venezuelan governments, despite that nation's access to oil revenues, sought U.S. public and private support for their development and modernization goals. Rockefeller cooperated with public and private Venezuelan interests to assist the country's economic development.

Rockefeller's experiences in his official U.S. government capacities and his Venezuelan activities shaped his perception of the proper roles of public and private capital in promoting development. He supported public loans and greater collaboration between the government and private sector in planning to achieve adequate flows of capital to Latin America. Rockefeller believed that a reformed and regulated capitalism offered Latin America and the world their best chance for broad-based economic development. However, nationalist resentment of foreign corporations, particularly North American-based firms, threatened to retard what Rockefeller saw as the very basis of human freedom. Furthermore, it seemed to Rockefeller that local elites in Latin America acted in a purely self-interested manner and lacked genuine desire to advance the common good through productive investment. Believing that self-interest (in part, the pursuit of profit) was compatible with public interest, he launched a personal crusade to reform capitalist behavior by setting an example of "capitalism with social objectives." He hoped to create a model based on his vision of "progressive" capitalist behavior that would influence both U.S. and Venezuelan investors. He was not alone in this quest. While this book is about Nelson Rockefeller, it places him within U.S. cultural trends, offering a glimpse into the thoughts and behavior of other North Americans whom Rockefeller transplanted to Venezuela. Rockefeller surrounded himself with individuals with a similar worldview, but who came from a variety of backgrounds and experiences, including business, academia, and government service. He had the wealth and drive to translate his and their ideas into organized action.

An examination of Rockefeller's experiences helps to answer a host of questions. What, to borrow Kissinger's phrase, was "quintessentially American" about the ideas and activities of Rockefeller and his associates in Venezuela? What were Rockefeller's views about the respective roles of the state and private enterprise in economic development? How did U.S. government officials or U.S. domestic interests view his version of their proper roles? Finally, what can Rockefeller's experience, given his unique circumstances and opportunities, tell us about U.S. foreign relations in the 1940s and early 1950s?

Another important set of questions deals with the interaction between North Americans and Venezuelans. What assumptions did North Americans and Venezuelans have in common regarding development? What aspects of Rockefeller's vision did Venezuelans accept? What impact did U.S. ideas and policies have when implemented? How did different sectors of Venezuelan society respond to his ideas and programs? What effects did economic nationalism and changes in political regimes have on the character and implementation of Rockefeller's programs?

This book challenges general portrayals of U.S.-Latin American relations that suggest that Americans inevitably sought power and profit at the expense of other nations and that Nelson Rockefeller, specifically, was an avaricious capitalist or reactive Cold Warrior blinded by anticommunism. The book also challenges the notion that Latin Americans (in this case Venezuelans) were pawns in the hands of powerful U.S. interests. Rockefeller's influence gave him privileged access to the politically and economically powerful in Venezuela, but this power was limited. Contacts with influential Venezuelans did not guarantee Rockefeller could get what he wanted, and though his arrogance often led him to believe that he knew what was best for Venezuelans, he did not seek to exploit them.

This study highlights the ambiguous and complex character of U.S.-Latin American relations, which were shaped by both conflict and common ground between U.S. and Latin American modernizers. It also speaks to characterizations of U.S. foreign investors and the consequences of their investments. Scholars and the general public regard Rockefeller with suspicion because of his family background and power (both real and assumed). Most scholarly attention regarding Rockefeller's early years has focused on his involvement as coordinator of inter-American affairs and assistant secretary of state. While authors who discuss these wartime activities are generally sympathetic with him due to their sense that he identified with Latin American leaders and Latin American aspirations, others note his "cold warrior" mentality in putting together an anti-Soviet Latin American bloc at the United Nations conference or suggest that Wall Street sympathies were behind his decision to support friendlier relations with Argentina in 1945.[3] Except for Elizabeth A. Cobbs's Rich Neighbor Policy: Rockefeller and Kaiser in Brazil, there has been little scholarship on his involvement as a businessman and philanthropist in Latin America before or after World War II.

As this study shows, Rockefeller was not some stereotypical and cartoonish robber baron hiding behind a mask of liberal Republicanism. The "missionary capitalist" was full of contradictions—idealistic, ambitious, rash, far-sighted, concerned, callous, empathetic, and detached, among other qualities. Moreover, his ideas and activities were not isolated aberrations, but reflected a broader U.S. interest in reforming capitalist behavior and nurturing worker welfare at home and abroad, born of the depression and nurtured by the early cold war. Americans developed a vision of what they had to offer, such as respect for the dignity of individual workers and farmers, technical expertise (or "know-how"), capital, and values of efficiency and rationality, which they believed the people of other nations needed. This reform impulse began among an elite corporate leadership but expanded to appeal to a broad spectrum of Americans who by the 1950s envisioned a "people's capitalism." In the 1940s and 1950s, Nelson tapped into a mood favorable to "people-to-people" nation-building and appealed to "do-gooders," who included applied scientists and business "experts."[4] Their efforts preceded the boom in studies of development by the social science community and the state. They were the Point Four, and then the Peace Corps and Alliance for Progress, vanguard.

The subject of this book, Nelson Rockefeller's efforts to promote economic development in Latin America, specifically in Venezuela, places it at the heart of recent scholarship on U.S.-Latin American relations. Interpretations of U.S.-Latin American relations, whether historical or social scientific, have been dominated by economic and material explanations since the 1960s. Liberal social scientists developed modernization theory and radical scholars shaped New Left, dependency, and world systems approaches—all sharing the teleological notion that economic development was fundamental to the progress of Latin American nations and that the United States either promoted or stymied the achievement of such development, usually defined as sustained economic growth with wide distribution of benefits. Recently, historians of inter-American relations have emphasized culture, but they continue to focus on economic relationships because of the centrality of ideas on economic development and the emergence of consumer cultures in twentieth-century Latin American history. The cultural approach also reflects both liberal and radical perspectives, with historians such as Mark T. Berger arguing that the discourse of economic development furthered uneven power relationships between the United States and Latin America.[5]

While some scholars have relied upon modernization and dependency theories developed after World War II to explain U.S.-Latin American relations, it makes little sense to analyze Rockefeller's activities in Venezuela through the lens of any of these theories. Rockefeller's ideas about economic development and the projects he began reflect assumptions he absorbed from both the Latin American milieu and his connections to the North American business, philanthropic, diplomatic, and scholarly communities. He attempted to synthesize ideas that later emerged as competing theories to explain economic development. These constructs emerged from the historical context in which Rockefeller thought and acted. As Nick Cullather has suggested, it is time to historicize development.[6] Rockefeller's story permits examination of the emergence of development as a primary interest of both U.S. and Latin American modernizers. It reveals antecedents for modernization theory in the reformist impulse of the Franklin Roosevelt administration and the progressive business community. The foreign aid programs of the Kennedy administration, including the Alliance for Progress, grew out of precedents set in the Roosevelt administration and pioneered in the private sector by Nelson Rockefeller a decade or more prior to the 1960s.

Rockefeller and his coworkers' experiences demonstrate that the long dominant materialist/structuralist interpretation of U.S.-Latin American relations in diplomatic history is insufficient. This interpretation emphasizes U.S. economic motives, particularly the economic expansion evidenced in the U.S. search for markets and exploitation of raw materials. Nor is the interpretation adequate that largely emphasizes U.S. security concerns and tends to focus on dramatic events such as military or covert interventions, the long-term support for friendly dictators, and the impact of the cold war. Both of these interpretations emphasize conflict and disparities of power, which are indeed fundamental to an understanding of U.S.-Latin American relations. Economic and security-driven motives fuel much of U.S. policy, and the U.S. government, corporations, and private citizens have abused their power in multiple ways throughout Latin American history. Earlier liberal interpretations that suggested a harmony of interests and offered narratives centered on the development of Pan-Americanism, at the same time muting conflicts or placing blame for Latin America's "problems" on Latin Americans, are less satisfactory.[7] Still, as liberals have long noted, humanitarian and moral impulses, while often reflecting self-interest and ethnocentrism, have played a highly significant role in shaping North Americans' actions.

Many histories of inter-American relations falter on one or more of several false dichotomies. Are these relations shaped by conflict of interest or harmony of interest? Has the United States demonstrated hegemonic and imperial behavior, or has it been a good neighbor and leader? Has the United States supported authoritarian dictators or democracy? Have U.S. business interests exploited the poorest Latin Americans, extracting wealth and profits, or promoted balanced economic development? Has the United States perpetuated poverty and inequity or promoted social and economic justice? Rather than offering a competing interpretive paradigm that answers such questions, my work suggests that the history of U.S.-Latin American relations is more multifaceted than these interpretations allow. Rockefeller and his subordinates certainly sought to extend the liberal order that the United States tried to build during and after World War II. However, the hegemon's resources and attention to Latin America were limited, and both motivations for policies and the actual impact of policies were more complex than the current dominant theories would have one believe. The greatest weakness of these interpretations is that, for the most part, historians of U.S.-Latin American relations focus on U.S. motivations, actions, and historical sources and on the role of the state, thereby neglecting two fundamental characteristics of U.S.-Latin American relations—the significance of Latin Americans and private actors in shaping these relations.

This study, however, reveals the interplay between Latin Americans and North Americans with emphasis on the activities of U.S. nongovernmental organizations in business and philanthropy, as well as on the state. It goes beyond the deterministic tendency of many policy studies by examining not only the making of policy but also the impact of U.S. ideas and actions. It highlights the complex interaction between Rockefeller, his associates, and Venezuelans as his plans underwent scrutiny, alteration, and partial implementation. Obstacles and unanticipated challenges faced Rockefeller and his programs at every turn. Using both U.S. and Venezuelan historical sources, this study demonstrates that Venezuelans, from presidents and bureaucrats to peasant farmers and fishermen, demonstrated agency. Venezuelans made choices—rejecting, resisting, and accommodating elements of Rockefeller's policies and programs. By paying attention to the interaction of historical actors during the implementation of policy in Venezuela, this study highlights greater ambiguity of results than scholars have long assumed.

In quest of clarity and in the interests of dramatic impact, scholars who seek to show Latin American agency can lose sight of this goal despite their best intentions. For example, in Peter H. Smith's commendable Talons of the Eagle: Dynamics of U.S.-Latin American Relations, he considers the reactions of Latin Americans to U.S. policies, detailing nationalist responses in particular. His goal is to demonstrate that Latin Americans had something to say about their relationship with their strong neighbor to the north. But the metaphor that he uses to characterize "the dynamics of U.S.-Latin American Relations" is that of an eagle with sharp talons. This image brings to mind a helpless mouse, pierced and bloody in the fierce eagle's talons. Venezuelans like Juan Pablo P‚rez Alfonso would correctly object that they were not rodents squirming hopelessly in Nelson Rockefeller's grip. Latin Americans also initiated ideas and contacts, at times shared common perspectives with U.S. citizens, and on occasion successfully challenged U.S. actions. Scholars who generalize from the perspective of conflicts of interest and unequal power relations imply that U.S. interests consistently bullied Latin Americans into following U.S. models. As this study will demonstrate, there were Latin American modernizers with similar goals, who selectively appropriated from Rockefeller's plans those programs and ideas they believed were suitable for their national culture; significantly, they were not solely social and economic elites. It is clear that the interplay between external and internal power struggles has led to diverse outcomes in Latin American history.

In a sense, this book serves as a companion volume to Elizabeth Cobbs's excellent study on Rockefeller's Brazilian projects.[8] Taken alone, Cobbs's work is not representative of Rockefeller's experience. The two nations presented different challenges to him, and his Venezuelan failures had more to do with the abandonment of his efforts to carve an identity for himself as a creative capitalist than did his Brazilian success. The different case studies also demonstrate similarities and differences in what nations wanted and what worked, something U.S. policymakers and social scientists have often failed to recognize in their quest to generalize a common Latin American experience and a common path to development.

Because it examines U.S. foreign relations through the lens of an individual's experiences, this book tells a very human story. It is the story of an ambitious and eager young man, developing a career and seeking an identity that is both consonant with family tradition and uniquely his own. It is a story of high purpose and occasional arrogance. It is a story of individuals motivated by a complex set of values, by moral and ethical concerns, by practical and professional interests. It is a story of both success and failure, unanticipated consequences, frustrated dreams, of people who wanted to make a difference in their world and who did, for good and for ill, and for somewhere in between.

Excerpted from Missionary Capitalist by Darlene Rivas. Copyright © 2002 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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  • Posted March 7, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Very Interesting Story

    If you ever wondered why Latin America can't be more like USA or why the progress of this country hasn't been transplanted to others down south, this book will give you a clue.

    Nelson Rockefeller, the grandson of the richest American ever, felt in the mid-1930's the need to a) prove his own business acumen in a clean slate and/or b) prove that the USA could be a good neighbor to Latin American countries, using Venezuela as a starting point.

    This book provides details on his endeavors here in Venezuela and how the results were somewhat underwhelming. It's hard to muster the hunger to succeed when you have your expenses paid for from birth. This was true for both Rockefeller and Venezuela, with its oil riches. It's flattering to know he tried for so many years.

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