relationship with Venezuela has three phases: My teenage years
in the country, my professional years there and the present.
in the 40s and 50s
days after my fourteenth birthday I arrived in Maiquetia from
Curaçao after a three day trip via KLM from Copenhagen,
Denmark. We had flown from Copenhagen to Amsterdam in a DC-4,
from Amsterdam via Glasgow, Gander and New York to Curaçao
in a Lockheed Constellation, the “Eindhoven”,
to Curaçao and the last leg, after a night in a very
hot KLM hostelry – a former
US Army barracks - in another DC-4, set up for half cargo
and half passengers. The passenger half was lined in black
material of some sort and it was really hot.
I arrived in Maiquetia,
was received by a friend of my new stepfather and after a night
at the hotel El Conde, owned by PanAm,
my papers were arranged with the authorities and I was put on
an Avensa DC-3 and proceded to San
Antonio del Táchira via Barquisimeto, Valera and Mérida.
I did not know when I was to get off the plane and nobody on
the plane spoke English, let alone Danish, but I do remember
being offered my very first Coca Cola on that flight.
For the record, it was probably Joseph Stalin’s fault
that I even went to Venezuela in the first place. My mother
had recently married Axel Tveskov, a Dane who had gone to Venezuela
before the war and had become marooned there by the German invasion
of Denmark April 9, 1940. The original plan was that I was to
finish my schooling in Denmark, but with the advent of the blockade
of Berlin by the Soviets and the very real possibility of World
War III breaking out, it was decided that I was to leave the
rationed gloom and darkness of post war Denmark and head for
So off I went and settled in Palmira in the state of Táchira,
where my stepfather had built a cement plant for the Delfino
family and been asked to manage it.
We lived in a beautiful quinta in Palmira with a fantastic
southern view over the valley of the Torbes River.
There is a mountain on the far horizon and to this date I
wonder what is its name and where is it located? In Venezuela?
Because of his position as director of a major local enterprise,
my stepfather was a member of the local society. He belonged
to the local clubs where we socialized with the governor of
the state, Señor Romero Espejo – later murdered
under the Pérez Jimenez dictatorship and the military
commandant of Táchira, major – Comandante –
Mario Vargas, who also eventually ran afoul of PJ, but survived.
Even PJ himself visited our home. I remember him as a short,
pudgy and quiet colonel sitting by himself nursing a drink!
I suppose it was a pretty decadent lifestyle, and certainly
different from Denmark!
We made frequent trip across the border to Cúcuta to
go shopping. The Venezuelan money was worth more than the
Colombian peso and it was possible to buy imported goods,
as well as liquor, in Cúcuta due to the high tariffs
imposed on imports in Venezuela. There were also good restaurants
and the Colombians, albeit in many ways like the Venezuelan
Andinos, seemed more cultured. As an example, there were several
Colombians employed at my stepfather’s factory and they
always referred to my mother as “su señora Madre”.
The Spanish spoken on the other side of the border was also
closer to Castilian Spanish than the language spoken in Venezuela;
in fact I am told that most Castilian Spanish spoken in Latin
America is spoken in Medellín, Colombia.
As in most countries there were distinct regional differences
between various areas. The Andinos – or gochos as they
were known by other Venezuelans – tended to be quiet
and dignified, usually white with a touch of Indian, especially
in the mountain villages. There used to be a saying that “se
usan Ustéd hasta a los gatos” in the Andes,
as the second person “tú” was rarely used
except between parents and their children. The children would
address their parents as “Ustéd”.
The “Maracuchos” from Maracaibo spoke a more sing-song
Spanish characterized by using the second person plural –
vós and Vosotros – among each other. Supposedly
this accent comes from Southern Spain.
In Caracas the Spanish was much less formal and in many ways
similar to Puerto Rican Spanish – or even today’s
Spanglish. For instance, the “r” in the
middle of a word is often pronounced closer to an “l”.
In the East and on the Llanos the language was less differentiated
from “official” Spanish, which incidentally in
those days was always referred to as “Castellano”,
Ethnically there seemed to be a greater division between white
Criollos and blacks and mulattos in the Coastal regions and
Caracas, while the Llaneros generally appeared to be more
There was a tremendous influx of European immigrants right
after World War II, especially from Italy, Spain and Portugal
and it seemed that most small businesses, bus lines and stores
in Caracas belonged to recently arrived Southern Europeans.
Caracas had begun its explosive expansion. On that my first
visit I remember seeing the big hole in the ground from where
the Centro Bolivar’s two skyscrapers were to emerge!
Otherwise, the city was still basically its old Colonial self.
Venezuela was just then emerging from the hangover of the
thirty-five year Juan Vicente Gomez dictatorship. It had been
followed by the presidencies of two other generals from Táchira:
López Contreras and Medina Angarita and with their
leadership had evolved into the first true democratic experiment,
the novelist Rómulo Gallegos having been elected president
Three major political parties were active: Acción
Democrática (AD) led by Romulo Betancourt,
COPEI (The Christian Democrats) led by Rafael Caldera
and URD whose leader was Jóvito Villalba.
Both Betancourt and Caldera eventually were elected president
after the fall of General Pérez Jimenez, while URD’s
claim to fame was that they actually beat Pérez Jimenez’
“official” party in the fixed elections in 1951!
Did not do them any good as Pérez Jimenez then cancelled
the election results and declared himself the winner.
However, Rómulo Gallegos was ousted by a military coup
in 1948 and succeeded by a Junta Militar de Gobierno composed
of three colonels: Delgado Chalbaud, Pérez Jimenez
and Llovera Paez. Delgado Chalbaud was kidnapped and brutally
assassinated in 1949. While the actual murder was carried
out by a political adventurer, “General” Urbina,
who was shot “trying to escape” afterwards, fingers
were and are pointed at Pérez Jimenez, who ended up
running the country as dictator till 1958.
It is historically significant that the three colonels were
products of Gomez’ new national Military Academy in
Caracas, established in his successful attempt to do away
with the individual federal states’ militias and thus
preventing local war lords, usually from Táchira, as
was Gomez, from marching on Caracas and starting another civil
war, of which there were many!
Venezuelan currency had been revised introducing the Bolivar
as the basic unit. However, the old nomenclature was still
commonly used, a nomenclature based on the Venezuelan Peso
and Real. The coins, except for the two smallest denominations,
were all silver, the largest coin being identical in size
and silver content to the European “Crowns” and
the US silver dollar. However, while this coin was worth Bs.
5, the US Dollar could be bought for Bs. 3.35 in the forties,
as the Bolivar had appreciated. Some gold coins were still
in circulation, most commonly the Bs. 20 coin which was identical
in size to the Bs. 1 coin, except that Bolivar’s face
pointed in the opposite direction, this to discourage people
from gilding the silver coins and passing them as gold.
As the silver coins were identical in design, albeit not in
size, and for some reason did not show any numerical values,
one had to be familiar with their names and monetary values,
sometimes that could be difficult.
5: Similar in size
to the US silver dollar, called the “Fuerte”
or “Cachete”: “Cheek”,
as it showed Bolivar’s face in profile.
Smaller than a US 50 cent coin. Called the “Peso”.
About the size of the US 25 cent coin. The base unit
of the new currency system.
centimos: The “Real” from an
older system, a name still widely in common use in the
40s and 50s.
centimos: Known as the “Medio”
as it was half of a “Real”. This
could be very complicated when one went shopping. For
instance, a pack of cigarettes cost 75 centimos, but
was quoted as “Real y Medio”!
centimos: A nickel copper coin known as the “Locha”
as it was Un Octavo of a Real! Did I lose you yet?
centimos: Another small nickel copper coin still
in use in the 40s and 50s. Sometimes known as a “pulga”:
In the 1960s the denomination of the coins were finally printed
on the coins and eventually the silver coins disappeared altogether,
to be replaced by coins made of semi-precious metals, following
the lead of the US and our coins.
By today, inflation of course has made coins completely irrelevant.
By the time I returned to Venezuela to work in the sixties,
the Bolivar had stabilized at Bs 4.45/$, but today it is around
Bs 2,400/$, creating price tags that are hard to interpret
by us old-timers!
When leaving Denmark I was in the
eight grade, which corresponded academically to the US third
year of High School. Besides foreign languages – English
and German – (After all, nobody speaks Danish! Even
in that small country a city boy from Copenhagen was hard
pressed to understand the Jutland dialect, only a hundred
miles or so away) we had begun algebra, trigonometry, physics
and chemistry. I was fluent in English and German, but of
course had no Spanish at all.
So I went to the US right after New Years in 1949 and attended
New York Military Academy
in Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY. I was placed in the eight grade
which academically was way behind where I had been in Denmark.
I did learn how to make a hospital corner on a bed, do close
order drill and how to field strip a Springfield 30-06 army
rifle, as well as American History, which was a totally
new subject for me. One thing that I will never forget is
that while our history book was quite detailed about World
War II, there was no mention at all about the Holocaust,
and this four years after the end of the war.
So it was decided that I was to attend a Venezuelan boarding
school the next term. The school chosen was the Colégio
de San José de Mérida, a two hundred
year old Jesuit school attended by the children of the Venezuelan
aristocracy from Caracas, Maracaibo, San Cristobal and other
I was placed in the Third Year of Bachillerato, roughly
equivalent to where I had been in Denmark. In order to remain
in that class I needed to take an equivalency exam in ninety
days, covering two years of Spanish language and literature.
I was drilled in those subjects every afternoon by one of
the Jesuit priests and passed the exam, which took place
in the public high school, the Liceo and was given by the
teachers of that institution. Speak of total immersion!
So Spanish in effect became my first language until I came
to the US in 1952 and had to make yet another change.
I spent two years at the Colégio de San José
and I can only say that they were great years. First of
all, Mérida is an absolutely beautiful place and
with its snow capped mountains quite a change from the Danish
lowlands. By the way, do not picture Denmark as flat; anyone
who has ridden a bicycle there can attest that it definitely
The boys that I lived and studied with became good friends
and as the future leaders of Venezuela, I managed to keep
in touch with some. By now these friends have passed on.
The best known was probably Jorge Olavarria who became Venezuela’s
ambassador to Great Britain, historian, senator and presidential
candidate, who ended up as a thorn in the side of Hugo Chavez
as a columnist for El Nacional until he died a couple of
Among the priests, several stood out. The rector Fr.Jose
Maria Velaz, a Chilean, who eventually started the educational
organization for grown children of peasants and workers
y Alegría, very similar to the Danish Folk High
School idea. Fr.Carlos Reyna SJ, an engineer and the only
Venezuelan priest in the school eventually became the first
rector of the Catholic university in Caracas: Universidad
Católica Andrés Bello. Most of the priests were
Basques from Spain and very much against Francisco Franco,
the Caudillo of Spain. It was enlightening to me to find
out that not all Franco’s opposition were Communists!
These men certainly were anything but. So another culture
was opened up to me: The Basque.
In December 1950 a DC-3 of AVENSA
left Mérida due for Maiquetía with 27 students
of all ages from the school aboard. It got lost in fog and
crashed into a mountain near Valera, killing all aboard.
A month or so after the crash a group of volunteer students,
including me, went to the crash site to recover our friends’
belongings. We also brought the plane’s props back
down and they were incorporated into a memorial monument
at the spiritual retreat San
Javiér de Valle Grande, built by the Jesuits outside
of Mérida. They are still there, perpetually bathed
in a small waterfall symbolizing the eternal tears of the
survivors. A beautiful spot, well worth a visit.
March 1951, a group of seniors went to the
acccident site from where we brought back
the plane's propellers, which were inswtalled
in the retreat house which the Jesuit fathers
built at San Javier del Valle, near Mérida,
in memory of the boys. We brought a large
cross to the site, which was installed there.
A temporary interruption
near Chachopo en route to the accident
site - a very common event on the
Rivas Cols, a classmate and friend,
in the typical type of bus used in
the Andes in those days that took
us from Mérida to Esquque,
from where we made the rest of the
trip on foot. Carlos Rivas became
the first Venezuelan PhD in Biology,
his area of research being bioluminescence.
He is now emeritus.
Me at the
In 1951 my folks moved to Caracas where I entered the Liceo
Andrés Bello for my 5th year of High School
or Pre-Universitario, from where I graduated in 1952. That
year was quite chaotic due to the political situation precipitated
by Pérez Jimenez’ brutal dictatorship. The
students at Liceo Andrés Bello were middle
class Venezuelans and the children of recent immigrants,
a different group than my friends from Mérida. There
were several strikes which we foreigners – “musiús”
as they called us – could not in any way be identified
with unless we wanted immediate expulsion from the country.
One day returning from lunch I met a large group of students
being chased down the street from the school by a machete
swinging policeman. I kept on walking through the crowd;
the cop gave me a curious look and continued his chase.
So I graduated and became a Bachillér de Físicas
y Matemáticas, and as Pérez Jimenez had closed
the universities, I came to the US to study engineering,
but that – as they say – is another story!
One comment on the difference between the Venezuelan, Danish
and US educational philosophies – at least back then:
The Venezuelan & Danish systems were very much based
on absolutes and root learning. It was quite an enlightenment
for me to come to the university in the US and be expected
to disagree with the professor, as long as one’s reasoning
and research were sound.
social life in Caracas
Dating as we know it was unknown, at
least with Venezuelan girls. Young people who knew each other
well, would often get together at someone’s house to
dance to records and if the group was larger and not so well
acquainted, the room would be well chaperoned with mothers
and aunts sitting along the walls keeping an eye on things.
On occasion one might double date with two sisters, who could
then keep an eye on each other. So one made do.
I played soccer with a pick-up Danish team against similar
Italian and Spanish teams – on a very rocky field I
might add. I still have a scar on my knee to prove that.
I was also involved with a Danish folk-dancing group, but
believe me; Danish folk dancing is not intended for even temperate
albeit un-air conditioned Caracas.
Once while on vacation from college a Panamanian friend of
mine, his sister and his girlfriend and I went to the Hotel
Tamanaco’s night club. They had advertised in “El
Universal” that the Mexican singer Pedro Vargas
would perform and there would be no cover or minimum charges.
So we enjoyed a lovely evening listening to Pedro Vargas singing
“La qué se fué” and other
favorites, dancing and each consuming a coke. Well, the bill
arrived and it included both a cover and minimum charge! Fortunately
we found a copy of “El Universal” and
proved to the head waiter that we had been misled, so we avoided
washing dishes or whatever the local penalty would have been
for not paying a night club bill!
Through a young lady from Spain, with whom I worked during
the Christmas vacation of my last year in high school, I was
also invited to the Galician social club, the “Lar
Gallego” where I learned to dance to the Galician
After receiving my engineering degree
in 1956 I went to work for the Oilwell Supply
Division of U.S. Steel Corporation
(now National Oilwell
Varco), as well as got married and had two
little Texans born in Odessa.
After four years working mainly in Odessa, Texas, I was sent
to Venezuela as District Engineer for Oilwell
– known as USSI Ltd. in Venezuela
- based in Anaco.
The company had built a very nice little camp with a warehouse
and office, and three lovely quintas, appropriately named
Ruth, Carole and Nancy after the
wives of three big shots from Dallas. Fair enough, I suppose.
For awhile Oilwell also had an office
and warehouse in Maracaibo where I did vacation relief a couple
of times, thus getting familiar with the Maracaibo end of
the Venezuelan oil fields.
One thing that stands out was that when a vendor called on
the Shell headquarters,
one was expected to wear a coat and a tie! In Maracaibo yet.
At least the building was air-conditioned.
The bridge had yet to be built and it was always a welcome
relief to be able to get on the ferry at the end of the day
and sip a cold “Polar” on the way back
to Maracaibo from the east side of the lake!
A friend took me to the local TB sanitarium where I purchased
some very nice red placemats and napkins embroidered by the
patients, which we still have and use.
In Anaco our biggest client was Mobil
and their Campo Norte was pretty much the center of everyone’s
social activities. There were a lot of nice people in Anaco,
clients and competitors both – our camp was right next
door to National Supply on the Carretera
Negra leading to Puerto LaCruz.
Amazing to think that those two major competitors eventually
merged into National-Oilwell, sort
of like Ford and General
I was mainly involved with the development, installation and
operation of Oilwell’s hydraulic
subsurface pumps with Mobil. It
was a way to get the very heavy oil out of the ground, not
always successful. I had a can of that crude sitting on my
desk upside down. It never did flow out!
We were of course also involved in the sales and service of
all of Oilwell’s other products
from sucker rods through secondary recovery pumps to entire
On one occasion one of the local drilling contractor’s
rigs burned to the ground. They ordered a new rig from us
– lock, stock and barrel. My boss took the next Avensa
Convair to Caracas to call Dallas to place the order as telephone
service was pretty much non-existent in Anaco. The order was
placed and the rig eventually delivered, but my boss was put
on the carpet for having spent the money to fly to Caracas!
Without getting into ragging on one’s former employer,
they did have a certain provincial point of view. For one,
they had given us VWs as company cars. The reason was that
VW in Germany was a big customer for US Steel
steel sheets. Try to take a toolpusher from West Texas out
to lunch in your Beetle while trying to convince him that
US products are better than the European product just entering
the markets back then! Not an easy sell.
Once a group of big shots from Pittsburgh and Dallas flew
into Anaco in the company Vickers Viscount – a British
We also had a 1958 Chevy two door station wagon with standard
shift and no radio or air conditioning. Enough said. After
my wrecking the last Beetle, the big boss in Dallas found
a second hand 1958 Pontiac V8 with all the bells and whistles
which he sent us. Just try to get spare parts for a Pontiac
V8 in Eastern Venezuela in 1961. Not easy.
By the way, we were not the only ones experimenting with unusual
cars. Mobil bought a bunch of English Fords. Nice looking
cars, but not really meant for caliche roads!
Speaking of provincial, they sent an engineer down from the
Oilwell factory in Pennsylvania
to work on a problem with the hydraulic subsurface pumps.
He was a rather frugal Pennsylvania Dutchman and found it
outrageous that we ate lunch in the Texaco
dining hall in Mata or wherever it was and had to pay Bs.5
for the meal. The next day he demonstratively packed a ham
sandwich and brought it with him and suggested that I do the
same. I answered, that in a place where a dead body had to
be buried within 24 hours, I wasn’t about to eat a ham
sandwich that had sat in my un-air conditioned car for any
length of time. The next day he joined us in the Texaco
On the positive side, he borrowed my car one weekend to go
to the beach at Puerto LaCruz. When he returned he told me
that he had filled up the tank using the Mobil
credit card in the glove compartment. As there were no credit
cards in Venezuela then, I expressed some surprise. He showed
me the card. It was a gate-pass to Mobil’s
Campo Norte in Anaco.
So we got into the rhythm of living in Eastern Venezuela.
Shopping was no great problem as Rockefeller’s CADA
supermarket was in the local shopping center. Our little kids
started nursery school and kindergarten in the Escuela
Anaco in the Mobil camp.
We learned how to play decent bridge and got involved with
the little theatre, also in the Mobil
club. That was fun, except when rain hit the sheet metal roof
during a performance and the audience had to crowd up around
the stage to be able to hear anything.
Due to the coincidence of Venezuela’s and the US independence
days being back to back, there always were big back to back
parties July 4-5.
After one of these parties another young couple and we decided
to go for a swim in the pool – fully dressed. (Don’t
ask). I did carefully fold up my brand new dinner jacket on
the side of the pool only to have the ladies stand on it to
drain when the swim was over. When we got home, our maid Adelaide
very helpfully put the dinner jacket in the washing machine.
So who was around Anaco in those days? Mobil
of course, as well as Gulf around
San Tomé. Santa Fe Drilling
and H&P were there, as well
as a multitude of service and supply companies. Texaco
had fields east of El Tigre as well at Roblecito near Las
Mercedes west of Valle de la Pascua, only accessible by a
long, dusty ride on a dirt road. We installed a couple of
large compressors there.
The airport was served daily from Caracas by Avensa
Convairs and Fokker F-27s, with a DC-3 that continued on to
Canaima with tourists on the week-end.
The daily trip to meet the Convair was a necessary tradition,
as we also picked up our aero-paquete with the mail forwarded
On occasion we would visit the new Sears
in Puerto LaCruz and have lunch there and a great advantage
for us was that my parents lived first in Ciudad Piár
by the Orinoco Mining Company iron
mines and later in Ciudád Bolivar. They thus got to
know their first two grand children for the first time.
To reach C.B. one drove about 200 km, first to El Tigre and
then 120 km on an absolutely straight road with only one slight
dog leg in the middle to Soledad where one crossed the Orinoco
on a barge pushed by a tugboat. That involved a maneuver where
the barge had to be turned around in mid stream in a strong
current. It is no accident that Ciudád Bolivar’s
original name was Angostura: The narrows!
Business however, was slowing down as nationalization was
on the horizon. The oil companies were not importing any more
new equipment than what was absolutely necessary, as they
expected to lose it in the near future.
That of course meant that we did sell a lot of spare parts,
even big stuff. Emergency deliveries were made by RANSA
C-46s directly into Anaco. Once I had to deliver a bull gear
for a mud pump in our VW pick-up truck to a rig somewhere.
The front wheels of the VW were barely on the ground with
that load in the back. The speedometer only went to 100 kmh
and the needle was on the peg. One couldn’t keep a drilling
We all went home for a month in the summer and the tradition
of course was to stock up on new clothes. Everyone had the
same Samsonite suitcases. Once my
boss and his family came back from vacation, opened the suitcase
only to find someone else’s dirty laundry! Fortunately
the switchees were honest people, found some Oilwell
catalogues in the suitcase with all the new clothes, called
Oilwell in Dallas and the exchange
On the minus side, hepatitis was endemic. My wife went home
a week or so early on vacation only to send me a telegram
that she was in the hospital with hepatitis! We had had a
despedida for her, so I had to advise all the guests and round
up all the gamma globulin shots in Eastern Venezuela for them.
Awkward, to say the least and not very hospitable.
The tragic part about the hepatitis was that many of the men
got it, would treat it as a bad flu only to have it come back
and sometimes kill them.
At age sixteen
I had been issued a cédula de Identidad, in those
days a mini passport with a convict-style picture with a
number hung around your neck, finger print etc.
When I eventually was going back to Venezuela to work I
was told by the consulate in New York to forget about that
cédula, so when we arrived in Venezuela my wife and
I were issued new cédulas. Shortly after that I was
arrested, as I “already had a cédula”.
So I went to Caracas to try to straighten up this mess,
not easy, as I had changed my citizenship, my name - when
being naturalized – my profession and last but not
least: My “estado civil” – being married
and all! I could handle all but the last issue, so I returned
to Anaco with my new cédula – with the old
number – and the shocking surprise to my wife that
I was now “soltero”- single! She of course had
had no trouble getting declared “casada” on
her cédula. The local authorities in Anaco helpfully
suggested that the easiest way for us to proceed would be
to get married locally. We started down that road only to
find out that my wife would be committing bigamy by marrying
me, as she obviously already was “casada”. So
we did it the long way, getting our Texas marriage license
translated and certified all the way from Graham through
Austin and Washington to Caracas. By the time we received
the final documents, there were so many stamps on it that
it was hardly legible, but at least my wife was now an honest
woman and our kids legitimate – again.
An acquaintance of mine in Anaco, when applying for his
cédula, indicated that his mother was deceased. So
his full name in the cédula appeared as “John
Smith Deceased” as by Spanish custom your mother’s
last name would always be placed after your father’s.
This was an issue that most of us got
entangled with one way or the other. For me it was a bit easier
as I was fluent in Spanish, but not all that easy.
I had a head on collision at 4 am with a truck on the dirt
road between Aragua de Barcelona and Valle de la Pascua. My
poor VW Beetle company car ended up pitifully in the opposite
ditch, all wadded up, but with one headlight still shining
straight up in the air. The truck driver took me home and
then beat it. So there I stood at sunrise by my front door,
suitcase in hand with blood pouring down my face. The Beetle
was not a US export model and did not have safety glass in
the windshield! My wife took me to the Mobil
hospital where they patched me up only for me to be arrested
for leaving the scene of an accident! Luckily for me, the
truck driver had really left the scene so the charges were
There was an infamous local cop at Cantaura between Anaco
and El Tigre who used to stop speeders – probably with
good justification. When my turn came I told him to give me
the ticket and let me be on my way. He argued that it would
be very complicated if I got the ticket etc etc and we could
settle it on the spot, but I wouldn’t budge. He finally
gave up and said that at least I could buy him a beer! So
I handed him 2 Bs! He got furious, threw the coin at me and
got out of my car and went away. He later got fired and set
up business for himself on the road to Maturín where
on a deserted stretch in his old uniform sans badges, etc.
where he specialized in stopping American women and holding
them up for money.
During some minor political upheaval when F-86s
of the Venezuelan Air Force buzzed Anaco, I was crossing
the Orinoco on the barge when a man in bits and pieces of
uniform stuck a carbine in my face and demanded “mís
papeles”. I had had it and demanded his. A dumb thing
to do with a carbine pointed at you, I must admit. However,
he handed me an ID from the Ministry of Agriculture which
I looked at and then handed him my cédula and Título
de Chofer, and we parted friends.
The national highway patrol had installed radar sets on the
rear fenders of their new 1960 Chevrolets. Rumor had it that
the radar would sterilize them – as it turned out, not
that far from the truth, so they deactivated most of them.
One of them did catch me at Barcelona and again it was suggested
that we settle the problem right there. I had little cash
with me, so I gave him a check (!) which I then stopped payment
on – again not the wisest move, as the cop came looking
for me in Anaco afterwards, fortunately he looked in the “National
Supply” camp where my competitors nobly
covered up for me!
These stories could go on, I suppose.
One thing that was very clear was that if one was in real
trouble, the Guardia Nacional, in my experience, always was
on the up and up and could be depended on to assist you.
The Guardia Nacional, officially known as the Fuerzas Armadas
de Cooperación, is a branch of the Venezuelan Armed
Forces instituted by Gomez, a national uniformed police force
patterned on the Spanish Guardia Civíl and the Italian
Carabinieri. In “my day” they wore Italian-style
green uniforms with soft caps that had a visor and ear flaps
for use in the colder climes of the country.
Venezuela by Rail. Now don’t
laugh! President Gomez had built quite an extensive narrow
gage railroad system. One could take the train in LaGuaira
and go to Caracas where the station was near El Silencio.
Then from the same station through Maracay – Gomez’
favorite city where he, according to tradition, built the
hotel El Jardín to house his 200 mistresses
– to Valencia and then to Puerto Cabello.
Another railroad was built from Santa Barbara del Zulia at
the south western end of Lake Maracaibo to Estación
Táchira by San Juan de Colón north of San Cristobal.
This railroad actually had a branch that crossed the border
into Colombia. The Caracas-LaGuaira railroad was destroyed
in the yearly floods of 1948 and the railroad between Zulia
and Táchira was abandoned some time in the forties.
However, as late as 1954 I took the train from Valencia to
Caracas and back several times, a really nice and picturesque
Pérez Jimenez built a standard gage railroad from Puerto
Cabello to Barquisimeto, carrying both freight and passengers.
I do not know if that railroad is still in operation.
Venezuela by Road. When I arrived in Venezuela as a
teenager, most of the highways were still dirt roads, except
around Caracas and Maracaibo. During the reign of Pérez
Jimenez, the Autopista Caracas-LaGuaira was built, cutting
the trip from 4-5 hours by switchback road to less than 2
hours. I understand that a viaduct on that road recently was
fund unsafe, rerouting traffic back to the old road.
The new Panamerican Highway north of the Cordillera Andina
was also built at that time, making it unnecessary to use
Gomez’ old Carretera Trasandina from San Cristobal via
Mérida to Valera, a dirt road that crossed at least
three páramos – high mountain passes –
at El Zumbador, La Negra and Mucuchíes (Pico Áquila).
The road followed Simón Bolívar’s route
when he marched on Caracas during the War of Independence
and was built by convict labor, including political prisoners.
Tradition has it that it cost one human life per kilometer.
Transportation over the roads was provided either by private
cars, camionetas such as the early Chevrolet Suburbans that
carried about 8-9 passengers, and Por Puestos that were regular
automobiles carrying five unrelated passengers or buses.
The latter in those days were built of wood on truck chassis
and painted in bright colors. They did not have glazed windows,
but canvas curtains to roll down in case of rain. I remember
that the Línea Primavera carried passengers from San
Cristobal to Caracas. As none of these conveyances had air-conditioning
– or heaters for that matter – and the windows
were usually open, the rides tended to be long, tiring and
One unavoidable feature of traveling by road were the Alcabalas.
They were permanent road blocks manned by the Nacional, presumably
to control who and why people were traveling. They would have
a chain or wire rope across the dirt road, which they would
lower after giving you the beady eye and allow you to proceed.
As I drove without a driver’s license for the first
four years of my stay in Venezuela, there was always a certain
tension passing through one of the alcabalas in Táchira
and Mérida, but I was never challenged.
One had to be either 18 or 21 to get a driver’s license
– I forget which - even with hanky-panky with the “Authorities”;
I did not manage to get a driver’s license.
I did, however, learn to drive during the summer of 1949 when
my stepfather was renovating a small hydroelectric plant in
San Juán de Colón and I worked on that project.
We drove back and forth in a 1947 Jeep CJ. The early CJs actually
had a column shift. It was discontinued shortly afterwards,
but until the Jeep body style was changed in the 60s, there
still was an unexplained notch in the dashboard over the steering
column to accommodate the defunct column shift!
You can win bets with that piece of knowledge at the next
While in high school I also drove the jeep belonging to the
Colegio de San José, as well as their Ford
panel truck and a surplus WW II Canadian Dodge olive drab
dump truck that had a canvas covered escape hatch in the roof
on the passenger side of the cab. That particular vehicle,
last I saw it in 1960, was sleeping in the monte at the San
Javier del Valle spiritual retreat, and probably by now
has been completely overgrown and quietly absorbed by nature.
The first “real car” that I drove – still
without a license – was my stepfather’s 1950
Nash Ambassador, the famous
bathtub model. Really a very great car. Trivia: He also had
had a 1949
600 – woefully underpowered – and both had
real leather interiors – albeit no “Weather
Eye” heaters. So there, aren’t you glad you
Personally I had the opportunity to use all these means of
transportation over the years.
of traveling by car in Venezuela
In 1960 my wife and I drove from Maracaibo
to Mérida, Barinas, Roblecito and Anaco in my’58
Ford Station Wagon, crossing the El Áquila páramo.
Along the way we came across a similar ’58 Ford Por
Puesto with a punctured tire and a flat spare. I lent the
driver my spare and together we went to the next village where
he got his tires fixed and I my spare back. It was a natural
thing to do in the Andes, but I doubt that I would have stopped
for this reason anywhere further east.
We also picked up a group of red-cheeked school kids in their
ponchos and alpargatas (Woven sandals with soles made of worn
out tires) who were on their way to school. I am sure they
arrived at least an hour early that morning!
On the highest point of the voyage, at the Pico Áquila,
I got out of the car and took a picture of my wife with the
snow covered peaks in the background. I will never forget
how I had to huff and puff to walk back to the car at that
When I arrived
in Venezuela, three airlines served the interior routes
of the country:
the government owned airline. It
started business in the late thirties
using new twin engined Lockheed
Electras, the kind of plane used
by Amelia Earhart. Later they converted
to DC-3s, Martin 202s and Vickers
Viscount turboprops. They had two
model 049 Lockheed Constellations,
the “Simón Bolivar”
and the “Francisco de Miranda”
flying between New York and Maiquetía,
later replaced by two Super Constellations,
one of which crashed after taking
off from New York.
LAV joined with
KLM in a joint
venture called VIASA
serving international routes. Some of their
jets were painted with KLM livery on one
side and VIASA
livery on the other.
went out of business, but I believe it has
been resuscitated as a domestic carrier.
There seemed to have been a great deal of
official corruption involved, especially
during the Pérez Jimenez years.
On one flight between Caracas and Barinas,
the LAV DC-3 that
I was on having started the leg to Barquisimeto
returned to Puerto Cabello being low on
fuel. The pilot asked the passengers for
money to fill up the tanks as the local
fuel supplier would not give LAV
credit, but found no takers. We then returned
to Maiquetía, filled up and started
all over again making it safely to Barinas,
late, but there, as the comedian Shelley
Berman used to say!
Aerovias Venezolanas S.A.
a subsidiary of Pan American World
Airways. Service started with
DC-3s, then a few DC-4s joined the fleet flying
between Maracaibo and Maiquetía, succeeded
by Convair 440s and Fokker F-27s. At some point
Avensa became independent
of PanAm and used
DC-6s and then DC-9s to serve some national
and international routes.
was probably the preferred airline to use due
to its connection with PanAm.
Transportes Aéreas Centroamericanos
de Venezuela. This airline and
its DC-3s were fairly popular, but I believe
TACA de Venezuela
was bought out by LAV
Rutas Aéreas Nacionales S.A.
(RANSA) was a cargo
airline that flew C-46s between Miami and Venezuela.