Demystifying a Country in Crisis

By learning how they learned

This page will provide information on the background of Venezuela, the early story of Venezuelan oil camp education, and answers to the essential question: Why collect these histories to begin with?

 

Venezuela's Current Crisis

It’s hard to exaggerate the scope of the crisis in Venezuela today. Hyperinflation has so diminished the Bolivar’s value that store clerks gauge the value of the money by weighing it. The price of a standard bundle of groceries has risen to equal three months of an average Venezuelan salary. Last year alone, Venezuelans lost on average nineteen pounds due to food shortages. People have called it the “Maduro Diet,” in reference to the current president. The Bolivar’s impotence has even stopped hospitals from acquiring sufficient drugs and blood for lifesaving operations.

 

The Reason? Oil Overdependence

The short-term reason for this all-out economic collapse is fairly clear. Equipped with some of the world’s largest oil reserves, Venezuela failed to diversify. By the 1970s, over 85% of the country’s federal budget was powered by oil. At times, this percentage climbed to upwards of 95%. While oil revenues bankrolled decades of wealth, when prices fell, the GDP followed. Soon, one of the most prosperous states in Latin America all but collapsed.

 

“Oil is fantastic and induces fantasies. The announcement that Venezuela was an oil country created the illusion of a miracle; it created, in practice, a culture of miracles.”

Fernando Coronil, The Magical State: Nature, Money, and Modernity in Venezuela

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But We Need to Investigate Further

While this is usually where the analysis ends, we need to push further. We cannot be satisfied with the answer that “oil overdependence caused the crisis." Instead, we must look far further back.  The real question is why and how rentier dependence took hold in the first place.

After all, some of the world’s largest petroleum producers, the United States included, still diversify their revenue streams. How was the oil industry able to take root in Venezuela in the first place? What influences and institutions facilitated its rise? The average US understanding traces this failure of rentier dependence back to Hugo Chávez’s 1998 ascendance. However, this idea ignores decades of crucial decision-making.

 

Oil's Prominence Was Far from a Foregone Conclusion

Early in its development, even the industry's very existence in the country wasn't certain.

When oil companies first came to Venezuela in the early 20th century, they encountered a native population so averse to the brutal structures of early industrial capitalism that labor revolts became frequent. By 1936, strikes had grown so large that they threatened to derail operations altogether.

 

Oil's Response: 
Transform its Communities

Unable to do business amidst such forceful opposition, oil companies faced the challenge of cultivating a population more receptive to their authority. They began a campaign to weaken labor solidarity and improve attitudes about US executives by manipulating the cultural dynamics inside their insular residential oil camp communities. Part of this involved dividing the workforce; they segregated everything from housing to wages along lines of race, nationality, and gender. However, another facet of the plan was offering new services. By providing its own schools, hospitals, even social events like frequent movie nights, the camp and its fixtures became an indespensible part of its residents' lives.

 

"We must convince the Venezuelan people in all walks of life that the Standard Oil Company and American interests in general… have a real concern for the general economic and social welfare of the country.”

- Nelson Rockefeller, Letter to Creole President Henry Edward Linam (1937)

 

These Camps Helped Set the Tone for Venezuela's Modernization

These plans worked. Oil's labor forces became less volatile, allowing the camps to survive and oil profits to drive Venezuela's budget for almost a century since. New amenities compelled Venezuela's most qualified employees to work for US oil. Also, as the local elite interacted with oil executives and company camps, the models they created inspired broader institutions. For example, the Escuela Nueva movement, which transformed Venezuelan education in the 1940s, championed a curriculum that was extremely similar to that of the camps' staff schools. 

The Figure Above

Relationship between nonpetroleum exports and petroleum exports (nonrentistic), 1920-45

(Source: Coronil, The Magical State)

KEY:      Black = Petroleum Exports           Striped = Nonpetroleum Exports​

 

Research Obstacles

Why we need projects like this to further our inquiry

Better understanding these camps is crucial to understanding modern Venezuela. However, even historians who are interested in doing more struggle with the fact that few firsthand accounts from the period remain. (Perhaps aware of the impact of the impact of journalists as early as Ida Tarbell had on oil, records have been periodically destroyed since Venezuelan oil's inception. In my research lone, I have discovered such practices catalogued as early as the 1930's and into the 21st century.) Moreover, due to the volatile nature of modern Venezuela, those that do exist are often inaccessible.

 

“P.S. Now that I’ve finished this letter, I don’t know quite what to do with it. All letters are censored so I’ll have to try and get it posted at Aruba or Curacao.”

Bill Vincent, a British man working as a security guard for Gulf oil company, in a letter to his parents, smuggled out of Venezuela years after his writing it (1935)

 

Oral Histories

The Best Source: Those Who Lived Through It

However, perhaps the best source available is far from a library. Most US citizens who lived in the oil camps ​and saw these factors develop firsthand have never recorded their stories. Some scholars have done interviews with these people. However, since these interviews are often not transcribed or otherwise made available to the public, this prevents other scholars from building off of their work, forcing them to collect an entirely new set of sources. 

​​Moreover, the people who lived through these changes are quickly leaving us. A reunion of oil workers who lived in these camps that occurred in 2000 attracted over 300, a majority from the first generation to work there. By 2018, only a handful of this original generation remain. Nevertheless, their stories remain untold. 

 
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Why This Project

This project is a response to these challenges. It seeks to compile as many oral histories as possible, particularly focusing on people who spent time in oil camps and education in Venezuela. By making these testaments public, I hope to encourage broader research on these institutions. I hope these oral histories will be able to be used like similar collections that have informed our better-known stories, from World War II to the Jim Crow Deep South.

I have greatly enjoyed getting to know these endlessly fascinating and incredibly kind people. I hope you enjoy their stories too. ​

 

Continue Discovering This Site

Discover the stories of the oil school alumni and those they shared their communities with by clicking the button below. If you are interested in further reading about Venezuela and residential camps, or if you want to contact the project, check out the Further Reading and Contact pages, respectively. 

 

©2018 by Trent Kannegieter. Special thanks to the Friedman Family Travel Grant and Fellowship for making this research possible.

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Escuelas Petroleras:

A Venezuelan History Project

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