Darlene Rivas, Missionary Capitalist: Nelson Rockefeller in Venezuela.. The University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
Some 7 or 8 weeks ago I underwent major heart surgery.
A steady recovery ensued and now my condition improves by the day, thank you.
Resting at home as a postoperative patient I decided to follow doctor's orders, take it easy and catch up on long overdue reading.
I have a weakness for music and biographies so I enjoyed reading again, after a few years, Mr. Laurent de Wilde's book on the great Thelonius Monk's life and work.
Mr. de Wilde, a professional jazz pianist as well as a gifted writer, was born in the U.S. of French parents. His 1993 album Open Changes won the Django Reinhardt award. His book on Monk's contributions to modern music is both brilliant and original: a bold insider's view that weaves together biography and criticism. I went through most of its pages while listening to Monk's music and I can say it was an exhilarating (and quite healing) experience.
I was also enthralled by Larry McMurtry's compelling book on Crazy Horse, the Sioux warrior dead almost 130 years ago. It is a true literary achievement to look back at a legendary figure, so hazy and out of reach as most Aboriginal American legendary characters are, and bring him to life in a most eloquent prose.
Just then, a book on Nelson Rockefeller came home with the morning mail along with a get-well card from a friend of mine who emigrated to Canada long time ago. Neither the title—that at first shocked me as somewhat hagiographic, not to say puerilely sentimental—or the cover design—which showed a PR picture of Mr. Rockefeller in his forties, helping out a Venezuelan peasant old man to plow a patch of land—were in any way inviting.
Compared with the extraordinary, lively books mentioned above, the story of Mr. Nelson Rockefeller's involvement in our region during the late 1940s did not announce itself interesting.
Yet the friend who presented me with Darlene Rivas' Missionary Capitalist: Nelson Rockefeller in Venezuela1 knew better. The minute I finished to read the introduction I knew that, despite my deep-seated Latin American prejudices regarding Rockefeller, I was about to immerse in a most enlightening book about US and Latin America relationships during the last century.
Most reviews of Rivas' book point out the almost total lack of scholarship on Rockefeller's involvement with Latin America during the years preceding WWII and long after it was over. Rivas draws on a mass of Rockefeller's documents only recently available to any researcher's scrutiny.
Her chief contention is that Rockefeller, at least as far as Latin America is concerned, "was not some stereotypical and cartoonish robber baron hiding behind a mask of liberal Republicanism".
In this highly commendable and readable book, Rivas departs from conventional wisdoms and interpretations on U.S-Latin American relationship. In a quite successful attempt to place her subject—an emblematic American capitalist and Cold Warrior—in the center of current scholarship on US-Latin American relations, she seems to follow Nick Cullather's suggestion that it is high time "to historicize development".
[Mr. Cullather is an Indiana University's historian of United States foreign relations who dwells in American ventures in nation-building.]
Rivas emphasizes the fact that, long before WWII, economic development in the region was a basic interest of both US and Latin American modernizers.
Commenting the impulse given by the Franklin Roosevelt administration and the progressive American community, she asserts that "Rockefeller and his coworkers's experiences demonstrate that the long dominant materialist/structuralist interpretation of US-Latin American relations in diplomatic history is insufficient."2 Moreover, she affirms that the weakness of these interpretations, mostly focused on U.S. motivations and actions, lies in the neglecting of "two fundamental characteristics of U.S.-Latin American relations—the significance of Latin Americans and private actors in the shaping of these relations."3
Rivas's account of Rockefeller's intricate ventures in both Brazilian and Venezuelan economic development challenge the history of U.S.-Latin American relations, usually viewed merely as a fateful conflict of interests and a perennial bullying of Latin Americans into U.S. models.
To be sure, both scholars and general public are suspicious when it comes to appraise Rockefeller's deeds in Latin America—or elsewhere—mostly because of his family's real and imaginary wealth and political clout.
While never oblivious of her subject's ability to stand with one foot on h¡gh-ranking Federal Administration's posts and another on Latin American economic and political elite's venues, Rivas makes a solid case in favor of Rockefeller as a very persuasive, though ultimately failed, individual agent in U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America.
The bulk of Rivas' book converge in a stretch of almost 20 years' time, from the late 30's to the early 50's, and most of the action is set in Venezuela and Brazil.
This were years of global disruptions and local dislocations that took a grievous and long-lasting toll in Latin American economies. Following the demise of the export-led models prevailing in the region since the late 19th century through the first decades of the 20th century, Latin America experienced a growing role of the state that was accompanied by a momentous drive towards industrialization. Those were the years that gave birth to all sorts of 20th century's nationalisms and populist political movements.
As a Venezuelan, Rivas' book kept throwing at me many household names, such as some of Caracas's most cherished landmarks of which origins I had not the faintest idea until I read her book.
Take Hotel Avila, for instance. Designed by Wallacer. K. "Wally" Harrison, a talented American architect and one of Rockefeller's collaborators, Hotel Avila was built in the the aftermath of WWII at the foot of the high, wet forest mountain that separates Venezuela's capital city from the sea. Its ballroom by the pool was for nearly six decades Caracas's Carnival epicenter. Today, it still is a fashionable yet nostalgic after-hours rendezvous. Something much less perishable has happened within Venezuela's markedly idiomatic Caribbean Spanish.
"Rockefeller emphasis on the production of basis foods for his own projects, grounded in his Venezuelan experience, was somewhat unusual", rightly says Rivas towards the final chapters of her book. So successful was Rockefeller's bolstering of basic goods massive consumption that it left a indelible print in our culture.
Take the word cada, for instance. It evolved from the acronym C.A.D.A.(Compaía Anónima Distribuidora de Alimentos). That is "Food Distributors Company." Though literally meaning "each one", cada has unmistakably become the Venezuelan word for supermarket, much in the same way that, back in the 50s, tencén came to be the Spanish Cuban word for 5-and-10 ten cent store.
Arguably, both Hotel Avila and C.A.D.A, though originally set up in association with local entrepreneurs, were no more than Rockefeller's quite successful commercial interests.
That is why Rivas's narrative of Rockefeller's failure to foster various local governmental agencies' alliance with private initiative in an effort to showcase the benefits of "people's capitalism" is altogether illustrative of the shortcomings that still haunt Latin America and keep insuring its backwardness.
¿The time? The late 1940s, when a civilian left-of-center revolutionary government, brought about by a radical nationalist military coup, rules Venezuela. Fish production is the goal for both the Acción Democratica populist ruling party and Rockefeller. If properly tapped, fish could make an abundant source of protein for the poor population. The government strives to furnish a modern fishing industry—joint venture called PESCA (acronym of "Pesquerias Caribe; i.e., "Caribbean Fisheries" ) bankrolled by Venezuela's huge oil revenues and with the aid of US technicians provided by Rockefeller. Allow me to quote in extenso from Rivas' book.
To improve production of fishing, [PESCAS's officials] planned to build a pier at Puerto la Cruz [a large Eastern Venezuela's boomtown that still harbors important oil industry marine facilities] and construct an ice plant and a freezing plant. To improve distribution, they planned four fish markets in Caracas. To speed production of fishing, they proposed bringing four fishing boats from the United States. The government's concern over the food crisis resulted in the emergency purchase of a refrigerated barge to make and store ice. A tug has to be purchased to tow the barge. The government and the [Rockefeller] company agreed to finance the emergency program, knowing it represented losses.
After purchasing two boats and the barge, the company began limited operations. Employees set up the company in primitive conditions, living in Quonset huts in Isla Margarita. Progress was slow. They experienced numerous delays in receiving necessary materials such as pipes for the piers. They forgot to consider that [in Margarita island] there was no water supply. They never assembled a marine railroad the company purchased for repairing boats. There was no tide, so the water was not deep enough to get the boats on the cradles to bring them up for repairs.
At first, the fishing company combined North American and Venezuelan crews. The two groups could not communicate because they did not speak the same language, and they disagreed on the best method of fishing. Long lines, small hooks? Short lines, large hooks? Some individuals took the disagreement as a competition. Francis Taylor, a fishing company owner from Florida hired to provide expertise for the company (and a stockholder in it), optimistically reported that Venezuelans using the American method caught more fish, but Taylor reported problems with the U.S. fishermen. The success of the "American method" must have been short-lived. To comply with the requirements of the Venezuelan law, the company sought Venezuelan captains for the boats. Eventually, company managers sent home the North American fishermen. In part this was due to cost and poor production, but cultural differences also affected the decision. As Rockefeller later explained it, "We tried to impose American methods on a local situation and even if they had not been adapted to the local people, which they weren't, more seriously they weren't adapted to the local fish [emphasis mine], so that we got the resentment and resistance of the people and we didn't attract the fish".4
The whole episode seems to be taken from any of William Easterly's books on the futility of a certain kind of foreign aid in the Third World.
One of Rivas's conclusions, which I find easy to share, is that, Barry Goldwater and the Attica's riots notwithstanding, Rockefeller proved prescient in that "he discerned [in Latin America, as early as the late 30's] a growing emphasis on modernization and economic development and, more generally, on what today are referred to as North-South issues. He saw the 'developing nations' of the world emerging as vital actors in international relations. He may have overestimated their potential power and influence, but he recognized that it would increase. He also understood that the importance of these regions transcended Soviet-American confrontation."5
* Ibsen Martinez is a columnist, journalist, and award-winning playwright from Caracas, Venezuela. His writings have appeared in El Nuevo Herald, Miami, Letras Libres, Madrid, and El Pais in Madrid. Since 1995, he has written a weekly column for El Nacional.
For more articles by Ibsen Martinez, see the Archive.