IS VENEZUELA THINKABLE? 2. USLAR PIETRI THE GREAT STRATEGY AND OIL

IS VENEZUELA THINKABLE? 2. USLAR PIETRI THE GREAT STRATEGY AND OIL

One of the recurring guidelines of the tradition of thought devoted to the political economy of oil in Venezuela is that its spiritual status usually accompanies the oscillation of the economic cycle. During the Venezuelan oil century, rentier income booms generally recycled optimistic views, while declines produced from time to time the return of moralizing arguments. In Arturo Uslar Pietri’s thought, we find this paradox synthesized, whereas in his discourse the factual plane is always pessimistic and moralizing, while the normative plane is naively optimistic and voluntarist. This disjointed multiplicity between the factual and the normative Uslar is perhaps the reason why its “casandrismo” rests in the collective memory of a country incapable of integrating for a century the fatal consequences of its economic-social structure being supported by a valued natural resource in the world market that is not the product of national labor and the beneficial consequences that this possibility had for national development, shortening the rugged places of the (never finished) original accumulation.

In the 1940s, Uslar wrote a text of profound relevance to think about the country’s political-economic crossroads, which, perhaps, is only pertinent if we let go of the erratic and nostalgic thinker who rests behind the slogan of “sowing oil” and who it adapts so perfectly to the complacent memories that it suffices to think of Venezuela as the impossibility of a possibility. In The Theme of Living History [1] Uslar wonders about the fundamental reason that determines “at all times and under any circumstances national action.” “Sense of direction”, “themes of collective action”, “higher ends”, “supreme strategic objective” are the meanings with which Uslar populates the forest to which he wants to call us: “Venezuela needs to acquire the notion of fundamental facts that govern their destiny ”. Uslar’s question in the 1940s is our question in the twilight of the Venezuelan oil century: what are the fundamental and simple reasons that determine the government of the homeland and the relationship with other States, both at the economic level capitalist world-economy as in the modern interstate system?

The example of Uslar to explain to us the need for (what will later be known as) the Great National Strategy cannot be other than that of the hegemonic power that in those days left the chairman of the Modern World-System: “In all hours England has had the inalterable notion of its interest and its course ”. As a theorist of world-historical hegemonies, avant la lettre concludes: “world trade, maritime dominance, and continental balance so that there is no hegemony in Europe.”

In the case of Venezuela, the theme of living history, that is, the Great Strategy, cannot be other than oil. “Oil is the fundamental and basic fact of the Venezuelan destiny (…) Everything is conditioned, determined, directed by oil.” Uslar is certainly correct. However, in his characteristic and constitutive search to exercise as a moralizing conscience of the country, Uslar leaves unanswered and explains the reason why oil exercises as an efficient cause of Venezuelan life.

II

The modern world is made up of three interrelated spheres. The first sphere is the international division of labor in which goods are produced in search of profit. This is where the modern world-economy is determined to be capitalist. The second sphere is the modern interstate system in which the different States find accommodation between chaos and the order that accompanies the secular dynamic of the rise and fall of the hegemonic powers. The third sphere is geoculture where, basically, the ideological and cultural debate that accompanies the secular dynamics that occurred in the first and second spheres takes place. The geographical shift of the hegemonic power from the Old to the New World, from Great Britain to the United States, had profound consequences for Venezuela. The country inserted itself into the dynamics of the systemic cycle of US accumulation as a provider of a key input for the new energy-intensive production processes and means of production. In this way, the shape of the political and economic arrangements for the country, both intrastate and interstate, was synthesized in the merchandise oil.

In the 20th century, oil was the power that founded Venezuela’s domestic and foreign policy. The political, economic, diplomatic and military power of and in Venezuela emerged from the oil industry. Hence, the crux of the Great National Strategy has been the maximization of oil income or international oil income. The geopolitical relevance of Venezuela was born in April 1810 to reach a surprising military apogee just fourteen years later when on December 9, 1824, the departure of the Bourbon Ferdinand VII of South America was sealed in the Battle of Ayacucho. Henceforth, cainism annihilated in the cradle any geopolitical importance of the nascent republics, being consumed by endless civil wars in the midst of a global context marked by British pax and English free trade imperialism. It was the Zumaque and Barroso events that changed the solipsistic reality of a country submerged in relative stagnation, few export plantation niches and geographic dispersion, suddenly introducing it into the systemic cycle of American accumulation. From the Zumaque explosion, through the creation of OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) in 1960, to the nationalization of the oil industry in 1976, the geopolitical power of Venezuela was always in crescendo.

Oil allowed the country to participate in the rebellion against the European world that erupted from the end of World War II. The strategy elaborated by Juan Pabló Pérez Alfonzo from the experience of the Texas Railroad Commission proved successful so that the oil countries located in the Third World enjoyed a share of the global surplus value in the form of an international rent paid to the owner of the oil. However, what was not said about this type of insertion in the capitalist world-economy was always that its success was determined by a constitutive failure. Being a successful oil country was contradictory to being a successful country according to the productivity criteria that govern the global economy; increasing rentier income was inconsistent with eliminating income dependency.

Thus, in a strange historical paradox that oil countries know very well, at the peak of the country’s geopolitical power, at the point of greatest success of the Great Strategy around oil, Venezuela entered the phase of Decline of the Venezuelan oil century when the overabundance of capital in the 1970s found no profitable investment in the usual saturated avenues of the national economy entering a historic investment and speculation strike, at the same time that labor productivity began a long decline and the transfer of oil income captured by the State via overvaluation of the bolivar and imports became the way to cover up the enormous split that was taking place between consumption and production

III

The thematization of the crisis in Uslar was brought forward three decades at the beginning of the decline phase of the Venezuelan oil century and seven decades before the collapse of the rentier society. This insight was undoubtedly based on the errors on which his analytics stood. It must be remembered that it unhappily characterized oil as “a capital deposited by nature underground” [2]. For him, political crises were natural and perpetual, since he understood them as the loss of the identity of a people with its living history, with its fundamental interests, with its Great Strategy. The key is to understand in spite of collective self-esteem, political demagoguery or self-indulgent hypocrisy, that once Venezuela consummated its rentier insertion in the capitalist world-economy, it lives “with limited sovereignty (…) object of permanent stalking” As Domingo Alberto Rangel expressed it with admirable parrhesia [3]. A crisis in the sense that Uslar gives to the concept is nothing more than the impossibility of a national society to identify with its supreme strategic objective.

From the miserable reality of the decline of the Venezuelan oil century, his words seem to project for a whole century or for two decades according to the choice of the divided nation: “from the echo of all our false theories, and from our absurd struggles, what arises is the painful conviction that we have only known how to be builders of deserts, annihilators of men, palabreros incapable of looking head on at realities ”. Rather, we must look for the contemporary nature of Uslar rather than in the unknown formula of sowing oil in what he proposes to take charge of this decline. “If something remains to be done in this land” he argues “we have to start with a great national act of penance (…) understand that there is a great task (…) Venezuela needs to acquire the notion of the fundamental facts that govern its destiny”.

Oil remains the nucleus from which to think about the order of the homeland and the place that we must occupy in the interstate constellation. However, the first thing to say regarding any national Great Strategy is that we are facing the decline of the way in which Venezuelan society has understood wealth for a century. The decline of the Venezuelan oil century is also the exhaustion of the form of capital accumulation. Going further: the failure of the political and economic ways that have attempted to drive the decline from the 1970s to the present day does not give rise to the belief that the social arrangements of the past can be replicated in the future. Whoever is a prisoner of spiritual cainism and political cadornismo believes so is doomed to strategic or programmatic failure.

Secondly, any National Great Strategy that seeks to reconcile Venezuelan society with itself must start from the fact that we are facing a great reorientation of the center of the global political economy from the North Atlantic to East Asia [4]. One of the neuralgic themes of this reorientation is how the path of labor-intensive and non-labor-intensive development in East Asia will metabolize the legacy of the systemic cycle of energy-intensive and production-intensive US accumulation. We are facing a transition from oil to renewable energies such as the one that occurred from coal to oil in the midst of the decline of British hegemony and the rise of American hegemony. Assuming that the country was able to overcome its war of internal positions that has reached the military phase, either with the triumph of the passive counterrevolution or with that of the active counterrevolution, the world in which it must reintegrate will be in a transition that it will leave our main asset devalued in terms of importance and power.

Having said this, two issues arise that are pertinent to debate. 1. The military power of Venezuela must be oriented to the defense of its sovereignty. Each and every one of the sectors of national life must understand that in the world-modern system the most favorable path for defensive realism is to promote economic and industrial competitiveness and not to hypertrophically grow the armed forces. 2. The diplomatic power and foreign policy of Venezuela must be oriented, first, to promote Latin American programmatic unity as the only way that the region can assert its interests in the global context, second, to promote the programmatic unity of the Global South to promote what we can call the “Bandung spirit”.

In the 1940s Uslar launched his catastrophic prophecy: “… until the boom in oil exploitation lasts. The day that it decreases or declines (…) the moment of one of the most terrifying economic and social catastrophes will have sounded for Venezuela. ” The similarity of the description of that possible crisis with what has passed through our eyes is truly surprising: “The price system will be violently misaligned. Import will decrease along with currencies. The scarce production will not allow solving the problem of hunger and unemployment that will lead to the misery and despair of thousands of beings, with unforeseeable political and social consequences. ” That gradual, recurring and dramatic crisis has been found in Venezuelan society since the 1980s. And it has no solution from the solipsistic thinking matrix – that is, it cannot affirm anything positive for the country if it does not place its group, part or faction at the center of the power of the State – according to which once the malicious Other of politics has been eradicated, it is possible to retake the possibility of the impossible, to sow oil. Faced with the false choice between the passive counterrevolution and the active foreign counterrevolution, the republic must be vindicated as equals.


[1] A. Uslar Pietri, “El tema de la historia viva”, en De una a otra Venezuela, Caracas, Monte Ávila Editores, 1981, p. 17.

[2] A. Uslar Pietri, “Palabras pronunciadas en la instalación de la Escuela Libre de Ciencias Económicas y Sociales”, en Pasión de Venezuela, Suplemento de la Revista BCV, Vol. XX, Nº 2, 2006, p. 32.

[3] D. A. Rangel, Venezuela en tres siglos, Caracas, Mérida editores, 2004, pp. 49-50.

[4] M. Gerig, “Marx en Shanghái, Schumpeter en Shenzhen: El reequilibrio de la economía china y la reorientación de la economía política global”, Cuadernos de Economía Critica, 6 (11), 2019, 65-89. http://sociedadeconomiacritica.org/ojs/index.php/cec/article/view/160/279

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Malfred Gerig

Sociologist from the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) and candidate for Master in Political Science from the Simón Bolívar University (USB). Researcher with an interest in global political economy and political economy of oil.

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