The writing of history in Venezuela has often been subordinated to political considerations. Héctor Malavé Mata’s book of historical essays published in Cuba in 1974 appears to fall within the genre of history written with an eye to the current politics of its supporters. The moderate, even tepid tone of his essay on contemporary Venezuela, “The Republic of Petroleum” seems to reflect the detente growing between Havana and Caracas. It would have been inconceivable a few short years ago to publish an essay in Cuba on contemporary Venezuela without mentioning the revolutionary violence which wracked that country during the 1960s and the Cuban encouragement of the revolutionaries. This, however, Malavé Mata has succeeded in doing. A sense of ambivalence rather than hostility seems to condition the author’s attitude toward the contemporary democratic regime.
The author, as one would expect, minimizes the accomplishments of the democratic regime since 1958 stating that, like its predecessors, its policies have led to an inevitable “dependent anti-development.” It is this reviewer’s opinion that the author has failed to prove his assertion. Whatever the faults of the post-1958 democratic reformers of the Democratic Action Party (AD) and the Christian Democratic Party (COPEI) have been, it is nonsense to suggest that they have done little better in defending national interests than nineteenth-century popular warlords (caudillos) such as José Antonio Páez (1830-1846) and Antonio Guzmán Blanco (1872-1887).
A comparison between the failure of a well-intentioned individual such as Gumer-Sindo Torres, Minister of Development 1918-1921, to create a more nationalist petroleum policy under the last of the traditional caudillos, Juan Vicente Gómez (1908-1935), and the notable success contemporary democratic reformers such as Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo have had since 1958, is a case in point.
The author cites uncreative application of import substitution industrialization, overly cautious stance toward the multinational oil companies and governmental inefficiency, and corruption to prove his assertion that the post-1958 democratic developmentalist model has failed and has only created for Venezuela a situation of “new dependency.” Few in Venezuela would today defend these policies. It is debatable, however, given the international and domestic conditions which existed during the first decade of Venezuela’s contemporary democratic experience 1958-1968, that Venezuela’s democratic reformers could have been expected to do much better than they did. The successful imposition of both a reasonably effective democracy and nationalistic development policy during this period required a high level of statecraft. Compared to the tragic failures of Brazilian democracy in 1964 and Chile in 1973, the Venezuelan accomplishment seems remarkable indeed. There is also ample evidence that in the 1970s, Venezuela has been able to embark on a more vigorous, more equitable and more sound version of the democratic developmentalist model.
There are good written critiques of contemporary Venezuelan development policy which utilize the growing body of conceptual and empirical literature of the “dependency theory” school. In this reviewers opinion, this collection of essays is not one of them.