Name: Randall Robinson
Date: August 1, 2018
Circumstance: Phone call. Mr. Robinson was in Oklahoma. I called from Silver Spring, Maryland.
Age at time of Interview: 62
Details: Mr. Robinson was brought to my attention by another one of my interviewees, Steven Marzuola. As someone who lived in multiple oil areas (including in nearby Trinidad), Mr. Robinson lived outside of camp confines, within a community that could far more accurately be described as “Venezuelan.” He offered a new perspective on the comparatively opulent lives of US workers in the camp, as well as many interesting anecdotes.
Randall Robinson, center, with the other kids from his barrio, including his brothers.
Trent Kannegieter (TK): Thank you for talking with me for a little bit today. You’ve told me that your dad was a general manager for Texaco, and you lived in Venezuela from 1963 to 1972.
Randall Robinson (RR): That’s correct. Nine years: seven in Maracaibo, that’s the oil capital of Venezuela, and two in the capital.
TK: How old were you?
RR: I moved down there when I was starting first grade. So I attended first and second grade at an American school that was set up in Caracas that I believe is probably still in existence today. It was called Campo Alegre, and that was an elementary, middle, and high school. Then my family moved to Maracaibo and I attended there from the third through the ninth grade. Then I finished my education at a prep school called the Hill School in Pennsylvania before returning to college in Oklahoma.
TK: So, you were from Oklahoma originally?
RR: Yes, both of my parents were native Oklahomans.
TK: When you were in Caracas did that have to do with Texaco as well?
RR: Yes. My father was employed by Texaco for his entire career.
TK: You mentioned in your email that you didn’t live in an oil camp. Where did you live?
RR: In the early, primitive days of oil drilling in Venezuela (and most foreign lands for that matter), the oil companies would build residential camps for their employees. Particularly for the foreign workers. In some of the better more well-established drilling activities, it was no longer imperative to live in the employer provided housing. You could live in the established town’s housing. In Maracaibo, the residential oil camps were set up long before the Robinson family arrived; they were thriving communities in the 1940s and 1950s. But by the time we arrived, decades into the oil drilling in Maracaibo, Maracaibo was a city of two million with plenty of housing, so we lived in the city itself. We weren’t required to live in an oil camp.
TK: Do you know how that happened? Do you know why people stopped thinking that the oil camp was the only residential option?
RR: I’ll give you an unrelated example. After we left Venezuela, we moved to Trinidad in the West Indies. We lived in the southern part of that island where they had a classic oil camp set up. All of the houses were pretty much identical, the were interspersed throughout the area, and there had been security guards when the camp was fully operational. But, generally, it became less necessary to live in that type of housing when the oil project was better developed. For example, when we moved to Trinidad, we did live in housing that was provided in an oil camp, but it was not like it was in the heyday when it was like a full residential community. The one we lived in in Trinidad even had a country club house and swimming pool. The distinction that I was trying to make was during the nine years we lived in Venezuela, while many of my friends continued to live in oil camps ~ or what were formerly recognized as oil camps, my experience was no different than what it was if you were to move down to a foreign capital today.
TK: That’s interesting to me. You said your father was the General Manager, so he was fairly high up in the organization.
RR: Yes. The seven years we were in Maracaibo, he headed the operation in that city. That was a big job because that is where the majority of the oil production was taking place. Lake Maracaibo where the oil reserves existed under the shallow, freshwater lake.
TK: Since your father was from Oklahoma, how did he become involved in Venezuela in the first place?
RR: My dad was a graduate of Oklahoma State University, what was then known as Oklahoma A&M in Stillwater, OK. He hired on with Texaco straight out of college and had a number of assignments at domestic Texaco facilities before receiving his first overseas assignment in Venezuela. Again, we lived two years in Caracas where he prepared for the promotion he received to serve as General Manager in Maracaibo.
TK: Was the community you lived in filled with the elites or leaders of industry in Venezuela?
RR: We lived in an ordinary middle-class home with ordinary Venezuelan neighbors. I think there was a physician who lived next door, but really just common everyday folks.
TK: I’ve found that many who lived in the oil camps did not socialize with Venezuelans. How often did you interact with native Venezuelans?
RR: We daily interacted with Venezuelans, since we lived among them. I played with the Venezuelan children that lived in my neighborhood. So, we had our friends, and there were also American families who lived in our neighborhood. WE were particularly drawn to kids with whom we shared a language, but the interactions with locals were inevitable. A benefit of living among the locals rather than being segregated into oil camps which were pretty much exclusively for the Americans or foreign workers.
TK: Was Campo Alegre a public school?
RR: No, it was a private school that was formed probably by the oil companies for the Americans living overseas. Many of the oil companies were regularly involved in the creation of schools for the American school children which were sent overseas. There were several oil companies which jointly established the school that we attended in Maracaibo.
TK: When you went there was it exclusively American?
RR: Yes, but there were some Venezuelans who were successful in getting their children admitted there as well. Recognizing the benefit to their children in learning fluent English and being immersed in American culture. One of my best friends down there was a Venezuelan whose father was an obstetrician at the local hospital. His father had obtained his medical training in the United States, and he wanted to prepare his children to have similar opportunities if they were so inclined.
TK: You mentioned being inculcated with American culture in these schools. Especially since you went to high school in the US and lived in the US for much of your later life, I’m wondering how you thought the American culture existed within Venezuela?
RR: American life in Venezuela was a microcosm of the best things you could experience if you lived in the United States. The advantage was the cost of living; it was ridiculously inexpensive to live there. As a consequence, people had many of the conveniences that were only available to the well-to-do or extremely affluent in here in the United States. For example, we belonged to country clubs. People belonged to yacht clubs. Everyone had domestic servants that worked in their homes. People didn’t cut their own yards; they had lawn care. They had services and conveniences that would have been beyond the financial reach of most people in the States. Keep in mind we were middle class families at the time. We all perceived ourselves, I think, as being of the same socio-economic class; which was middle class. Our parents were not earning fortunes working overseas, but they were able to save a lot of money because their cost of living was so low. We enjoyed many advantages that we would not have been able to afford if we had been living in the States.
TK: Staying with that theme of differences in culture, how did you spend your free time or what extracurricular activities were available to you as a student in Venezuela? Sports or scouting or other activities?
RR: I was a boy scout in Maracaibo. Our boy scout troop was almost entirely American. It was a wonderful opportunity. Venezuela is geographically diverse. There are beaches and mountains and everything in between. We went on lots of camp outs in diverse and exotic locations within the region where we lived. It was a fantastic scouting experience. You had asked earlier about social activities. I think most of our socializing were amongst ourselves, meaning amongst the American expatriates who were living overseas. Our social activities were planned around school, which was almost entirely an American student population. Activities involving our parents occurred, and our parents had many social activities amongst themselves. I’m not suggesting that there weren’t social exchanges between Americans and our Venezuelan hosts, but I am suggesting that most of the cohesiveness of the American community living overseas existed because of the activities and time spent in that community.
TK: That brings up something else. When people talked of political life or cultural life, what was likely to become a discussion point? What I’m thinking, when you discussed politics or current events, would you talk about Venezuelan stuff or American stuff?
RR: Probably half and half. When the students were burning tires in the streets and creating civil disturbances which would halt transportation and keep us from school, it’s pretty inevitable that you’re going to discuss those kind of things. We were aware of local politics to an extent because when local protests would break out, we were aware of what was going on. We were admittedly isolated news-wise from what was going on in the United States. We did have access then to short wave or ham radios and newspapers that were flown in from the United States. We did were aware of what was happening in the United States, but we probably didn’t follow it as closely as we would have if we were living within the country. Keep in mind, my response is within the framework of an adolescent who probably was not that mindful of current events.
TK: Did you know anyone who was brought up in the public school system in Venezuela?
RR: I don’t think so. My youngest brother attended a Catholic school when he was Pre-K where he rapidly picked up Spanish. I didn’t socialize with kids outside our school system.
TK: You mentioned the Catholic schools. What was religious life?
RR: In Maracaibo which had a population of 2 million at the time, it’s 5 or 6million now. In Maracaibo there were two English options: a Baptist church and an interdenominational church called Christ Church. Many of the families being from Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana were Baptist. If you were Catholic, you attended the Venezuelan churches where masses were still conducted in Latin.
TK: Were the Protestants a large group?
RR: Not especially large. The church we attended had a good size congregation, maybe 300-500 families.
TK: You’re originally from Oklahoma. Because this was an oil town, did you feel there was a Southern (US) culture brought down?
RR: Definitely. Most of the people we encountered down there were from TX, LA or OK. That encompassed most of the oil workers. There were others, but it seemed like the majority of the families were from the South. You brought your culture with you, or the lack thereof.
TK: I’m wondering how that manifested? Was the cooking style Southern? Or
RR: I remember a lot of Venezuelan food. Of course, we ate hamburgers and spaghetti like kids in the States, but we also were introduced to local specialties/delicacies. It was a Southern culture but liberally influenced by our surroundings.
TK: That makes sense. Also, I want to ask about the transition when you returned to the United States for high school. When you were in Pennsylvania, what stuck out to you as the differences? Were there times when you felt especially well prepared or underprepared?
RR: I had a good English teacher that gave me a good background for the liberal arts education that ultimately, I pursued. It was a profound transition for me. Both educationally and socially at the time. I left home at 15 to attend boarding school. The reason for that was my parents had just been transferred to Trinidad in the West Indies. They had a British educational system there that my parents didn’t feel would prepare me for an American college. Not wanting to impose on relatives, grandparents, and the like, I attended this boarding school in Pennsylvania. It was a wonderful boys’ school, founded in 1866. It’s co-ed now, and it still provides an excellent education. I benefitted from a good background in liberal arts.
You asked about the transition, in Venezuela, I was a big fish in a small pond. Although our school in Venezuela was larger, student population wise, than the smaller prep school. I moved from being well-recognized in the student body to anonymity at the Hill School. I blended in at the Hill School and didn’t really stand out in any way. That was a big transition for me personally; I was suddenly in an academically much more competitive pool. While I might have been a stand out student academically in Maracaibo, I was an ordinary student amongst a group of academically gifted students. I never perceived that I stood out academically, athletically or socially at The Hill School. That was a pretty big transition. And then the transition of not living at home anymore with your parents, but instead living in a boarding school environment, that’s about as big of a change as you can put on the doorstep.
TK: Coming from Venezuela to Pennsylvania, did you ever feel like anyone perceived you as being foreign?
RR: I don’t think so. The only thing that made me stick out was my short haircut. I carried the name “Marine” for a long time. The 1970s were a period of really long hair, and my dad didn’t subscribe to that, so I wore a short haircut. But, no, I don’t think I stood out otherwise. We did have other students at the school who had grown up overseas while their parents worked for American companies. We also had a fair number of exchange students. The school sought to have a diverse student body with students from states all across the US and seven or eight foreign countries as well.
TK: You mentioned an idea that I hadn’t considered before. That was the social climate of the 1970s and long hair. I’m wondering, since there wasn’t really a teen age presence in the camps with the high school students headed to US boarding schools, did you even feel the social tide coming in the late 1960s before you left Venezuela? In the camps or in Maracaibo in general?
RR: We did not experience the social protest that was going on in the States, the anti-war effort. The closest we got to experiencing that was when everyone wanted to go see the movie Woodstock. It was a movie portraying the concert, of course. That was about as close as you got to the social protests that were going on in the States. It really didn’t express itself there. There wasn’t any vocal dissent to the war down there. Even though I spent every summer in the United States, I honestly don’t remember it being present other than on the TV screen. Those protests were in the big cities, but it wasn’t happening locally in Oklahoma City or McAllister, OK where I was staying at the time. I felt pretty insulated/isolated from those kind of events which were occurring in the States.
TK: One last question. There’s been much turmoil recently in Venezuela. As someone who has lived there, what misconceptions about Venezuela do you hear in the United States? What common perceptions in the U.S. do you hear which you don’t think are true?
RR: Venezuela is probably the clearest example of what happens when a prosperous nation falls into the lure of socialism. What they call democratic socialism is really not any different than the mantra that Bernie Sanders was preaching in our last election. It’s a powerful message that has a lot of appeal to the disenfranchised, the poverty-stricken populations, and, of course, in the conflict between the haves and the have-nots. When we moved down there, there was great disparity between the income of the locals and us. As Americans, we were paid middle class salaries, but we were able to live like very affluent people because the standard of living was so low. There was immense poverty surrounding us in Maracaibo. Most people did not live as well as the Americans did. So you saw great, great disparity of wealth in Venezuela which is something that we’ve moved toward in the United States which was not the case in the halcyon days of the 1950s. My concern is that the United States may unwittingly be moving in the direction of this failed experiment that Venezuela embarked upon. When we lived in Venezuela, we enjoyed all the modern conveniences that you would have in any American city, we had access to grocery stores that were overflowing with produce and meats and anything you would need. But now, in Venezuela, people are literally starving to death. I read that the inflation rate has made their money worthless (what money they do have). I read yesterday that the donkey population is dwindling, because people are eating them for sustenance. While we were there, Venezuela was ruled by a decent democracy. When socialism took over, the standard of living for everyone just continued to go down basically. By the time Hugo Chavez was out of office and replaced by Maduro, the fate of Venezuela’s economic survival was probably sealed. As dependent as they are on oil revenues, the price of oil has really hurt them as it has Russia, for example, in terms of the money that they derive from their oil sales. That would be my concern for America is that we look to the example of the chaos and disintegration that is now happening in Venezuela. It’s hard to predict how that situation will repair itself. It will probably require a political sea change that will replace the socialist regime. And my guess is unfortunately it will probably require some military action, probably a coup. It’s virtually impossible to predict what will happen. Today it’s impossible for the local populace. The appeal of that message of socialism is gaining strength in this country, and my greatest fear or concern is that we might elect an avowed socialist that would lead us down a similar economic path to perdition.
TK: I personally do not have any more questions for your right now. I appreciate your time. Is there anything that I can do for you?
RR: Yeah, tell me a little about yourself.
TK: I’m studying history at Yale. I was born and raised in Alabama, near Mobile. My main focus of study is interactions between the United States and Latin America. How modernization helps develop the rest of the world. The research I’ve been doing is about the influence of U.S. oil in Venezuela. My unique contribution to the literature has been how the education in the camp schools ended up transforming both the education system in Venezuela and the helping cultivate a community which allowed the camps to exist in the first place. Obviously, the problem is that there hasn’t been much work done on this. So what I’m doing now is I’m collecting as many stories as I can to make sure that these stories are available to the broader academic community. I’m also hoping to record a podcast about interactions between the United States and Venezuela. The timeline is I’m hoping to assemble these oral histories over the next month. I’m attending the Creole Reunion in Fort Worth in late August.
RR: Good for you!
TK: The community has been terrific. It’s the easiest research I’ve ever done because people are so willing to help and share their stories. This has been really great.
RR: There is a Facebook group called Oil Brats from the Seventies. I’ll send you a link. That would probably be a fertile ground for you to mine.
TK: I hope to develop all of this over the next year and publish some iteration of it. Thank you again.