last time I was in Venezuela was in early 1964. At the
time I represented Oilwell Supply
in Brazil where we serviced two customers: Petrobrás,
the national oil company, and Brantley Drilling
Company. We lived in the lovely city of
Salvador da Bahia. I was assigned to vacation relief
in Venezuela where USSI Ltd.
had turned the warehousing and day to day operations
over to “East West Oil Tools” whose
manager in Anaco was Bob Thompson. USSI
Ltd. still maintained a presence in Maracaibo
in the person of Ned Niver, my former boss from Anaco,
who was based there with his wife and family.
It was delightful to return to Anaco and be reunited
with old friends such as Joe and Susan McKee. Joe managed
an independent supply company and they had been our
neighbors when we lived in Anaco.
It was great to see them again and in retrospect even
greater considering that Joe was seriously injured in
an automobile accident shortly afterwards and they had
to return to the US. Joe’s younger brother left
the US Air Force to run the business, but tragically
was killed in a case of road rage, when he too was in
an automobile accident and the other party pulled a
gun and shot him.
On a funnier note; during that stay I was driving on
one of the deserted dirt roads east of San Tomé
when I had to stop to answer the call of nature, only
to have Joe McKee land his Cessna next to me on the
road! One could not have privacy anywhere, it seems!
On another occasion, I had borrowed someone’s
Nash Rambler to drive to Ciudad
Bolivar to visit my folks. It is not clear to me why
anyone would use a Nash Rambler
in Eastern Venezuela where it would be strictly an “orphan”,
but so be it. In any event, the owner had had a piece
of diamond plate steel welded to the bottom of the car
to prevent damage to its innards. As I approached Soledad,
I realized that the carpet in the back seat was on fire.
Apparently enough heat had built up between the “shield”
and the floor boards to set the nylon afire. I kept
going till I reached a filling station in Soledad –
what else could I do? I rushed in and asked the attendants
for a can of water, which he provided. He shook his
head when the crazy gringo, rather than filling the
radiator, threw the water in the back seat!
Anyway, back then Venezuela and Caracas were bustling.
Caracas was a reasonably safe place to be, even though
my wife did get temporarily kidnapped right in front
of the U.S. Embassy by a cab driver who, I suppose,
thought she was my Venezuelan girlfriend, being short
and brunette. Once he got the picture- Judy spoke very
little Spanish - he drove her to the Hotel Ávila
and dropped her off in a hurry together with the stuff
she had bought at Sears that
day. A very scary experience for both of us.
Caracas was not as clean as what we were to experience
in Rio de Janeiro and Salvador da Bahia in Brazil, but
a good place to spend some time.
I recently saw a tourist article in a newspaper about
Venezuela, a rare thing to find indeed. It mentioned
the Hotel Tamanaco and the
Tarzilandia restaurant. I
was amazed that after forty years there was nothing
new in Caracas. I mean, while I personally preferred
to stay at the Hotel Ávila
rather than the Tamanaco,
we did eat in the churrasquería Tarzilandia
back then when we visited Caracas. Plús cá
change, etc., etc.
The fact that Venezuela after forty years of democratic
– albeit imperfect – government, now is
falling into the hands of another caudillo, buckles
Imperfect or not, during the forty years since the fall
of Perez Jimenez on January 23, 1958, not only had popularly
elected presidents completed their terms and even turned
the office over to popularly elected presidents of the
opposition party, but one president had even been impeached
and removed from office.
So what is happening? In the forties Venezuela had about
5 million inhabitants, in the sixties around 7 and today
there are three times that many people.
Traditionally the white criollo aristocracy had run
the country. With the growing prosperity in the '50s
and '60s, more and more Venezuelans moved into the middle
class, augmented by the thousands of European immigrants
mostly from Southern Europe who came, set down roots,
stayed and developed businesses in the country.
Then, as well as now, the hills around Caracas were
covered with ranchitos, primitive dwellings built of
corrugated sheets and – if lucky – concrete
Venezuela had and has compulsory, free public education
and a rudimentary public health system. The aristocracy
of course either had their children educated abroad
or in private – usually Catholic – schools,
while the middle class, including the children of the
immigrants, took advantage of the free public liceos.
I attended both types of schools, the Colegio de
San José in Mérída and the
Licéo Andrés Bello in Caracas.
In the 1970s the Bolivar collapsed and the population
grew exponentially. I have no data to back this up,
but I speculate that the lower classes of the Venezuelan
population grew exponentially faster than the middle
and upper classes, placing burdens on both the private
and public sectors. Thus many Venezuelans either were
unable to move into the middle class or dropped out
I am told that large numbers of the now second and third
generation Italian, Spanish and Portuguese immigrants
decided to return to their mother countries, as their
monies evaporated through inflation and opportunities
in Europe grew, especially for someone with even a modest
Dollar nest egg to invest and the New World’s
entrepreneurial spirit which they had learned and taken
advantage off in Venezuela.
The middle class Venezuelans? My real experience with
that group came through my high school days in Caracas
and work in the oil fields. As far as I am concerned,
the quality of a Venezuelan driller and roughneck was
on par with that of his counterpart from Texas and Oklahoma.
On the other hand, due to the laws governing the employment
of Venezuelans by the foreign companies, you would have
a Venezuelan tool pusher on the rig, usually wearing
a white liqui-liqui suit and with manicured
nails, that is: When he was around. He usually would
not be in the way, as the rig also would have an American
toolpusher as a back-up!
In my dealings with Venezuelans at all levels, I found
them to be good people with a nice sense of humor, especially
in the Andes where they were exceptionally admirable
Considering that the country had lived through a century
or more of civil wars, golpes de estado and dictatorships,
it is amazing that any kind of civic institutions, behavior
and responsibility had survived. Traditionally some
local war lord, usually from the Andes, would march
on Caracas and take over for a number of years. The
last of course was Juán Vicente Gomez whose thirty
year reign at least produced stability for the country.
The last of these caudillos was of course Perez Jimenez
who – despite the brutal police state imposed
by his henchman Pedro Estrada and his Seguridad
Nacionál – did invest the country’s
resources in its infrastructure.
Some of these monuments to PJ have lasted until now,
for instance the Caracas-LaGuaira Autopista that unfortunately
now is out of service due to a collapsed viaduct, but
also White Elephants such as the cylindrical Hotel
Humbolt on top mount Ávila –
complete with skating rink – and the cable car
going up there. When PJ was deposed, he was planning
a direct route through mount Ávila via a tunnel
to Maiquetía, right through the mountain! Somewhat
like the Russian Czar’s arrow straight railroad
from St.Petersburg to Moscow, that still exists.
Then followed the forty years of functioning albeit
imperfect democracy and then came ex-Colonel Hugo Chávez.
Interesting that after his unsuccessful coup attempt
in 1992 he was court martialed and sent to jail. That
in itself proved something about the maturity of Venezuelan
democracy! In the “Good Old Days” he would
have been “Shot while trying to escape”
or if of a “good family” locked up for awhile
and then exiled to France or some other comfortable
One significant thing about Chávez in the Venezuelan
context is his ethnicity and social background. He is
not a white criollo, but a mestizo from Barinas, son
of a school teacher. A product of the newly democratic
Venezuelan military that for the first time in the country’s
history had accepted that the military should be subordinate
to the civilian government, he decided that the civilians
did not know what they were doing and that he –
a military man – should set things straight. The
old fashioned way.
He has the following of the great majority of the Venezuelan
poor “lower classes”, what Juán Perón
called his “shirtless ones”, the descamisados,
if for no other reason because for the first time ever
they are being promised a future. It is questionable
whether he and his system are the ones to deliver, but
at least the promise has been made. He was elected to
office legitimately and in a recall referendum kept
in office – for as long as anyone can foresee.
The traditional movers and shakers in Venezuela have
never really caught on to the Henry Ford principle:
You must pay the worker enough to buy a Ford
It all belongs to them.
Despite Venezuelan democracy being in a crisis, the
opposition parties till this day have not been able
to unite around a credible program or candidate to oppose
colonel Chávez and until they do, he will indeed
be President for Life.
His propaganda is simple: Help the people the old fashioned
“machine” way: With visible cash while playing
on Venezuelan patriotism and xenophobia by blaming the
gringos for everything wrong in the country.
He flies around the world in his presidential
– not even PJ had a presidential airplane –
he flew into exile from La Carlota to Miami in a Venezuelan
Air Force C-54
- but cannot keep the highways in and out of Caracas
or Mérida in repair.
He has jailed some of the senior military officers,
but given raises to the rest – his contemporaries
from the Caracas military academy.
On the other hand he has purchased 100,000 AK-47s
from Russia to equip his “reserves”,
actually a militia, sort of like Saddam Hussein’s
Fedayeen Hussein. One can speculate that at
least some regular army officers might take time out
from their leisure activities in the Círculo
Militar in Caracas to wonder what these armed peoples’
reserves might be up to, never mind how many of the
AK-47s end up in “armies of liberation”
in other parts of Latin American, adding to Colonel
Chávez’ image of himself as the new “Libertador”!
Chávez’ friendship with Fidél Castro
also plays into the image of the anti-yánqui
liberator. He can provide Cuba with money and Cuba in
turn can send teachers and physicians to Venezuela to
take care of the descamisados. Now, that
is where the traditional rulers of the country are
extremely vulnerable, as that is probably the one area
where they have failed in their responsibilities over
the last 195 years of feudal rule.
As for the US, we need the oil and despite Chávez’
saber rattling, oil is fungible. Chávez &
Co. cannot drink the stuff, so once it is on the world
market we will get what we need, although undoubtedly
the oil companies will make sure that they are well
paid for it – including Chávez’ own
I doubt that Chávez can reach as reasonable an
agreement with the Chinese as he can with the US, if
his plan is to ship Venezuela’s oil there. I suspect
that China will be a more hard-nosed trading partner
than the US ever was and that any deals reached will
have sub-clauses that we cannot even imagine.
Never mind that Iran and its oil are a lot closer to
China than Venezuela!
Bottom line: Chávez still needs the money to
keep his Airbus flying to
Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia, to buy weapons from his
newly found friends in Russia and China and to rub the
yanquis noses in it by making nice with Fidel!
So unless either Chávez’ government - or
ours - makes a really stupid mistake, the tightrope
act will continue for awhile.
All one can say is that Venezuela and its people deserve
better than what they are getting now! That, of course,
would not be the first time in their history.
& acordados amigos del Colegio
de San José de Mérida
y del Liceo Andrés Bello
Antes de todo, me tienen que perdonar
mi castellano, que después de
tantos años ya está bastante
corrupto. Sería una desgrácia
enorme sí el Padre Barrenechea
SJ que pasó tantas horas entrenandome
en esa bella idioma en un enfuerzo para
el examen de equivalencia en el liceo
de Mérida leía esto!
Durante los años desde entonces
he aprendido y olvidado Italiano y Portugués,
así que me tienen que perdonar.
Bien, así será.
Desde cuando salí la última
vez de Venezuela, muchas cosas han cambiado,
y no siempre para lo mejór. Mis
observaciones muy subyuntivas dependen
de lo que leo en El Universál
y El Nacionál todos
los dias por via del “web”
y de lo que hé oído de
amigos durante los años.
Hablando de los periódicos, es
interesante que hoy parece mucho lo
que pasaba en los años de Péres
Jimnez: Lo importante es lo que no aparezca
Beisból es importante, pero otras
cosas occurren en el mundo – y
Mis pensamientos van a los amigos de
entonces: Carlos Rivas “Pachondy”,
Roberto Perez Lecuna, los Vernet: Carlos
y Pedro, los hermanos Enrique y Carlos
Urdaneta, Rafael “Calderita”
Urdaneta, Bernardo Suarez y muchisimos
otros ademas los que ya no están
con nosostros: Jorge Olavarría,
Roberto Matute, Francisco de Sales Roche,
P.Carlos Reyna SJ, P.José María
Velaz SJ, Hermano Eduardo Willanzheimer,
Padres Ollaquindia, Barrenechea, Aranzadi,
Ordoñez y Bilbao, profesores
Arconada, Rivero y Paez, siempre: El
Padre Prefecto: Pascasio Oriortúa
SJ y tantos cuyas caras permanecen en
mí corazón, mientras sus
nombres desgracidadamente han sido olvidados.
Al fin del cuarto año del Bachillerato
Carlos Rivas me regaló el libro
de Eduardo Blanco “Venezuela
Héroica” y lo dedicó
a mí así:
“Dedico ésta interesante
narración poética de nuestra
máxima epopeya. Para que su lectura
produzca en tí un sentimiento
de tanta emoción como en qualquiera
de los venezolanos. (Que procuramos
repetír economicamente aquellos
momentos nostálgicos de 'Carabobo')
Este libro hasta hoy ocupa un lugar
de orgullo en los estantes de mi librería.
Aunque Pachondy tenía mas o menos
dieciseis años cuando escribía
éstas frases, su sentimiento
todavía vale, yá que él
és profesor emeritus de química.
Venezuela tiene de todo. Depende de
sus hijos e hijas aprovechar de estos
dones de la naturaleza. Su pueblo no
necesita mas de los Juan Vicente Gomez
ó Marcos Perez Jimenez. El pueblo
venzolano – el Bravo Pueblo
del himno nacionál – tienen
lo que és necesario sín
Acuerdense del 23 de Enero del 1.958
cuando el pueblo pasaba por las calles
de Caracas cantando el himno nacional,
cargando los grandes cuadros vacíos
que antes habian contenido los retratos
del tirano caído!
Su amigo de siempre
“El gocho gringo y dinamarqués”
Branford, Connecticut. El 13. de Marzo