“The transgressions of the Venezuelan regime, it seems, will be tolerated no further by the nations of the world.”
The New York Times reported that the United Kingdom and Germany intend to cooperate in enforcing a naval blockade on the Caribbean nation. These nations intend to force the government into an agreement to settle the damages caused to their own national citizens such as imprisonment, seizure of property, and the default on debt compromises and prior contracts by the nation of Venezuela.
“The landing of marines has begun,” further reported the New York Times, “The Venezuelan fleet was captured.” However, despite the enforcement of an embargo, the national government continues resisting and has called “for the Venezuelan people to take up arms.” This may appear, perhaps a shocking development but, it is understandable given the economic, social, and political crisis that the country is facing after years of conflict and instability.
However, what may surprise the reader is that all this occurred not today, but in 1902 and 1903. Yes, 118 years ago, several European nations embargoed the nation because of President Castro’s refusal to pay reparations over damages caused to foreign citizens and the default on debt obligations incurred by previous governments. The crisis culminated peacefully with the intervention and mediation of the US, which helped the parties reach an agreement where Venezuela would pay the outstanding debts and reparations.
What is incredible in retrospect is that it seems that the nation is beginning the 21st century in the same manner as the 20th century: unstable, broke, on the verge of collapse and in poor international standing. Is Venezuela frozen in time?
It is said that we live in a dream. Yet it seems that Latin America, and certainly Venezuela, lives in a nightmare from which there is no awakening. Lewis Carroll wrote:
“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run twice as fast as that!”
The same seems to be the case in Latin America, where we must all run as fast as we can to stay in the same place. It is common to hear in Venezuela that when God created the region, he bestowed upon it all the natural beauty, mineral wealth, fertile lands, and talented people. Nevertheless, concerned that this was not fair to the other nations of the world, he made sure to curse the region with incompetent governments so we could never really exploit our gifts.
Growing up in Venezuela, I would ask why is such a mineral-rich nation is so poor, so dangerous and life so precarious. The typical answer was that through enigmatic twists of fate, the country had fallen in the hands of malicious political leadership that wasted our vast resources and squandered the decades of development enjoyed during the 20th century.
There was bewilderment, on the one hand, a sort of disbelief, as to how such a wealthy nation could be administered so poorly, and resignation on the other, a sort of acceptance that this was our curse and there was nothing that could be done in the end.
As I continued to research, I stumbled on the works of prominent Venezuelan thinker Arturo Úslar Pietri. It seemed to me that he was aware of all of the nation’s woes as far back as 1935. The obstacles, challenges, and issues that the country faces now are simply reiterations of structural problems that are caused by the interaction of a small and rural economy with a modern and profitable oil industry.
These issues have not been tackled; we were able to ignore them thanks to the profitability of our oil sector. It is now when we seem to return to the Venezuela of 1902 that we can perhaps try and solve these issues anew. To do so, we must not ignore the lessons of those before us as their ideas and mistakes will be our guide.
Arturo Úslar Pietri said that our fundamental problem is that we do not understand who we are as a region, what we want to achieve, or what is our place in the world. He wrote: “this question, this sort of ontological distress, has conditioned the nature of Hispanic America and is precisely one of its roots. Why ask ourselves so much who we are?
It is a curious thing because that same question does not concern the Africans, or Asians, at least not in with the degree of anguish that it concerns us, or even the North Americans. This existential concern is very much a product of the cultural interactions of Spanish Europeans, Native Americans, and Africans that came together to create nations that were neither Spanish, nor Native, nor African but rather something new entirely.
The term, “new world”, is sometimes used in the context of European arrogance to describe their idea that the Americas was a new, untouched world filled with “noble savages.. Though perhaps, as Úslar proposes, the term can refer to the world created upon the interaction of these three cultural groups and the influence this had on the “old world” as well.
This new world brought the naturalistic traditions and beliefs of the native cultures together with the “magic pedagogy,” music and dances of the African cultures under the umbrella of western civilization with a Latin based language, catholic religion alongside European commercial and legal structure. It is this unique cultural framework that creates this dissonance and existential stress in the heart of Latin America.
This unique circumstance, however, is also potentially our greatest strength. It places us in the best position to serve as a bridge between the so-called countries of the third world, who have adopted western culture as a tool for economic development, and the western nations who struggle to preserve their prosperity in this brave new world.
Upon the dismantling of the Soviet Block, Latin America, with its resources, human capital, and unique cultural situation, was ideally placed to thrive in a world where ideological conflict was now abandoned in favour of increased global cooperation for economic, technological and social development. Despite this potentially advantageous situation, the region is still plagued with social, political, and economic crises as if frozen in time.
Another concept that Úslar wrote about explains this phenomenon: what he deems “American Time.” It seems that developments that occur in Europe and North America technologically, politically, economically, culturally are not adopted immediately in Latin America and that we seem to have a different notion of time altogether.
We live not only in a different cultural reality but also in a sort of time capsule where the past is re-lived. As Úslar wrote: “There is another aspect beyond the human encounter and the physical environment (…) an American Time.” He goes on to explain that upon confronting the new cultural reality and daunting natural obstacles, the western culture the Spaniards brought, during the colonial process, regressed and manifested itself as it would have centuries before.
This “American Time” continues to have relevant implications in the political sphere as he writes: “when the imported model fails, the American world answers clumsily, but genuinely and without hesitation, and provides a caudillo or “strongman.” This was Latin America, and certainly Venezuela, in the 19th century, where the ideas of the French Revolution were tried and failed. In response, the only native Latin American form of governance emerged: Caudillismo.
Now, as the 21st century begins, it seems that we find ourselves in a similar situation. Given our unique circumstance, the models imported from the left and the right seemed largely to have failed and caused massive suffering, misery, and restriction of freedoms along the way.
Nevertheless, not having answered the question ourselves as to what we need as a region, we were in the middle of an ideological struggle that resulted in many Latin Americans being killed or becoming the killers. In reality, in Latin America, it is nearly impossible to speak of a right-wing ideology when most of our countries inherited, and preserve in their constitutional texts, the notion that the riches of the subsoil belongs to the state.
Additionally, it is hard to sell the idea politically that in a region with as much poverty as Latin America it’s abundant resources owned by the state cannot be used to jumpstart growth and prosperity to level the playing field for those in abject poverty.
Similarly, it is egregious to promote a leftist ideology that facilitates the exploitation by greedy politicians of the region’s natural resources, to then waste them on populist policies that do little to improve the critical social and economic situation.
All this achieves is the allowance of elites to further entrench themselves in power, in the name of the people. In a region that already has a massive government presence inherited from our previous colonial regime, we should instead be attempting to free ourselves from our dependence on natural resources and government micromanagement in order to preserve our democracies.
This is why the imported ideologies have been so damaging to our nations in Latin America. They promote the emergence of leaders that take up one banner or another but produce the same results: incompetent policies and increasingly tyrannical regimes.
Now we observe in the 21st century, because of the failure of ideological models and lack of original alternatives, the caudillos that we thought were left behind in the history books have once again returned with increased sophistication and improved rhetoric to continue crushing and enslaving our nations.
Caudillos are like our shadow, they are tied to us, they are in a way similar to us, and we cannot run away from them. The only solution then is to bring forth more light so that the worlds not all shadows. We must, as a region, find our place in the world and develop unique solutions to our unique problems to bring prosperity to our peoples. If we fail at this, we will continue stumbling in the darkness.
This article is also published on LIBERTATIO’s SUBSTACK see here