The Venezuela Building: A Peek into the Impacts of Economic Imperialism

Oil, gold, sugar, and salt. These, among other natural resources, were what the designers of the Pan-American Pavilion at the World’s Fair of 1939 chose to highlight about the country of Venezuela. Sharing in their spirit of simplification, I will focus on Oil in my analysis of the building.

Artists created a map of the nation emboldened with the various resources native to the region. Accompanying the image is the hyper-capitalist slogan LAND WITHOUT DEBTS OR TAXES.

This vast mural shows that natural resources were valued above all other Venezuelan contributions to the human race1.

This exhibit is highly instructive to the study of the global energy industry and its impacts on working-class people around the world.

Before we dive deeper, I must provide a little bit of background. For its size, Venezuela is one of the most gifted countries in the world. Seemingly endless oil reserves made the country a premier destination for energy tycoons in the early 20th century2. Three companies, in particular, profited from the rocks far beneath the soil. Royal Dutch Shell, Gulf, and Standard Oil controlled nearly 100% of exported oil by the 1930s3.

Unfortunately, little wealth actually ‘trickled down’ to common Venezuelans. Companies and a small group of elites shared the profits.

In the century since its initial involvement with petroleum, the South American nation has dealt with multiple boom/bust cycles which are intrinsic to non-diverse extractive economies4. Essentially, this means that small shifts in market prices have potentially fatal consequences for local laborers.

This wasn’t, and isn’t, a trend exclusive to petrostates. Nearly a decade before the Fair, working-class Salvadorans were exploited and slaughtered by landholding elites in 1931 when world coffee prices plunged5.

Back to the issue at hand.

Instead of highlighting feats of native excellence or unique political theory, the exhibit creators chose to reflect how the Western World viewed Venezuela – as its gas station. The work is explicit in its meaning: wealthy Venezuelans were aligned with White economic imperialists because it benefited them.

Drilling.

Mining.

The exportation of anything they could get their hands on.

This was their vision of the future. This was, and is, their ideal Venezuela. Of course, they wouldn’t be the ones suffering from staggering inequality or sharp economic declines; but, as is so often revealed when examining the capitalist’s utopia – that doesn’t matter to them, one bit.

-Bryce Nelson

References

  1. Wurts, Richard. Mural on the interior of the Venezuela Building, 1940.
  2. “Venezuela,” Studycountry.com. https://www.studycountry.com/guide/VE-history.htm. 2021. Accessed 27 Nov. 2021.
  3. Cheatham, Amelia. “Venezuela: the Rise and Fall of a Petrostate,” Council on Foreign Relations, 22 Jan. 2021. Accessed 27 Nov. 2021.
  4. Kiger, Patrick J. “How Venezuela Fell From the Richest Country in South America into Crisis,” History.com, https://www.history.com/news/venezuela-chavez-maduro-crisis. Accessed 27 Nov. 2021.
  5. Lovato, Roberto. Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas. HarperCollins Publishers, 2020, New York.

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