The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
Mariano Picón Salas, the great Venezuelan writer, once said that Venezuela did not enter the twentieth century until the death of the iron-fisted dictator Juan Vicente Gómez in December 1935. Until then, ours was a semi-feudal, semi-colonial country still living in the nineteenth century. Thus, it was only after a delay of three and a half decades that Venezuela entered into the century of the most unforeseen changes and most radical revolutions.
The death of General Gómez shook the country to its foundations and set it on the road to the attainment of social rights and needs which had been denied by a backward social structure rooted in Spanish colonial tradition. It was in awareness of this that the newly born political parties and their leaders met the challenge of the times and started on a long and difficult journey that, in spite of some splendid successes, has not yet fully satisfied the just and reasonable aspirations of the Venezuelan people.
My close connection with the Venezuelan labor movement dates from those years, and in the intervening three decades of continuous and unflagging struggle the movement has succeeded in creating the powerful Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (C.T.V.), with nearly 4,000 unions representing over 1,500,000 rural and urban workers. The C.T.V. has always been a bulwark of constitutional government in Venezuela, in part at least because the three- year democratic régime of 1945-48 and the régimes since 1959 have considered the material and cultural well-being of the working masses a central objective and the basic reason for the democratic revolution which our country is at present undergoing.
Unfortunately, just as Venezuela arrived late to the twentieth century in a social sense, she was also tardy in joining the current of modern economic development which today offers such immense possibilities.
Venezuela has been prodigiously blessed by nature. Her petroleum, so essential to the industrialized countries of the Western world, in peace as well as in war, gives the country strategic importance as the producer of a vitally important raw material. This explains to some extent why Venezuela, while trying to combine democratic freedoms with social change in order to improve the people's standard of living and reconcile the interests of workers and employers, is being attacked from the outside. It explains why, as we eagerly search for our own road to political and economic development, conspiracies of obvious foreign origin try to prevent the consolidation of a democratic system and try to destroy a legitimate government which will not allow international totalitarianism to gain its objectives.
There are various reasons why our adversaries consider Venezuela of first strategic importance. From a geographical point of view, it is the doorway to South America and easily accessible; its coastline of over 1,300 miles makes the Caribbean a Venezuelan sea. From a political and economic standpoint (considered together because they complement each other), it is important because we are carrying out a revolution—the Venezuelan Revolution—whose successes cannot be acknowledged by certain people without admitting their own mistakes in choosing the violent and destructive path of totalitarianism. The Venezuelan Revolution is a revolution of free men; our entire educational system is devoted to teaching the more than two million children and young people attending our schools to act as free citizens of a democratic country and not as fanatics of a dogma that dehumanizes and destroys.
Venezuela has responded and will respond with courage and decisiveness against the international Communist conspiracy, because her sovereignty and her future as a developing country are at stake. However, in the effort to counteract this international conspiracy, we are spending much energy and many resources which under normal conditions should be devoted to the direct benefit of the unjustly treated masses. Our political history does not differ greatly from that of any other Latin American country; instability characterized our society for many years. Only one democratically elected president, my predecessor and old comrade of many battles, Rómulo Betancourt, has been able to complete his term in office. This means that the danger of the traditional golpe is still evident, because its promoters, though weakened by repeated failure, still dream of revenge. This danger would have been eliminated by now had not the Communist threat arisen—basically the same, but with a new dress. And totalitarianism of both right and left is giving ample proof of having undertaken a war against the democratic stability of Venezuela and the stability of Latin America as a whole.
The first duty of the democratic revolution being conducted by free Venezuelans is to survive and consolidate its position, while still trying to meet the people's demand for dynamism and speed. This necessarily means that much effort and treasure are diverted to maintaining stability, without which the process of change will be endangered. In terms of foreign policy, this explains the insistence of our government that the Organization of American States effectively strengthen and protect representative government. We know from our own costly experience the meaning of totalitarian dictatorships of one type or another. We are convinced that Latin America will not attain integrated economic development nor achieve social stability unless it increases the direct participation of its people in the solution of national problems. The totalitarian menace is not directed against just one country because of its political and economic situation, but against all countries.
The Venezuelan Government asked the O.A.S. to condemn the Cuban Government for unprovoked aggression against my country and its institutions, and to impose sanctions. At our request the Ninth Meeting of Ministers of Foreign Relations met and approved various resolutions, with important results for the continent. The aggressive régime of Fidel Castro was punished by economic, diplomatic and commercial sanctions for endangering the peace of the entire hemisphere. If, instead of exporting conspiracies and war, Cuba would respect the rights of others (which according to Juarez's maxim is the basis of peace) and did not systematically violate the principle of nonintervention, then continental friendship, coöperation and solidarity could work effectively toward the solution of the hemisphere's complex problems.
Our absolute rejection of unilateral intervention in any form or for any purpose explains our position on the Dominican issue. On April 28, before the U.S. Marines landed, I addressed a communication to the Latin American heads of state proposing "an urgent meeting of the Council of the Organization of American States in order to examine the grave situation existing in the Dominican Republic, with a view to finding ways to put an end to the bloodshed in the sister nation" and "to impede the establishment of a dictatorship of any kind that could bring even greater misfortune and suffering to the martyred Dominican people." I had no sooner sent this communication than armed forces of the United States landed in Dominican territory, and I again addressed myself to the same heads of states and to President Johnson, denouncing the landings as "a violation of the principle of nonintervention as embodied in the Charter of the Organization of American States," and asking support for the convening of "an urgent consultative meeting of the ministers of foreign affairs to examine the situation and to apply the measures deemed necessary in accordance with the provisions of the Charter of the Organization of American States and inter- American treaties."
Such actions as the one in the Dominican Republic tend to revive the era of unilateral intervention, which one supposed had been left far behind by the evolution of international life. They place in serious jeopardy the principles and essential norms that constitute the legal basis of the O.A.S. As a result of our request, the O.A.S. is taking action as these lines are written, but so slowly and in so leisurely a fashion that its prestige and authority are suffering considerably. Venezuela, I repeat, will not countenance unilateral intervention. We favor multilateral or collective action when necessary to guarantee or reëstablish the democratic basis of member states, or to oppose subversive activities from abroad that threaten the security and independence of any American state. Such was the case when the Soviet Union established missiles on Cuban territory, clearly threatening the peace and security of the hemisphere. And today we adhere to the same attitude regarding the situation in the Dominican Republic. It is a constructive attitude, because with a high sense of responsibility and of continental solidarity we are earnestly looking for the best solution that will be in the interest of the Dominican Republic and of the Organization of American States. Each member, and indeed the inter-American system as a whole, faces a hard and decisive test.
Our foreign policy is not limited to the inter-American field. We believe in international coöperation and attach particular importance to the Organization of Petroleum-Exporting Countries (O.P.E.C.), since the defense of world prices of our primary export product is so intimately linked with our development.
I want to emphasize that Venezuela has never been opposed to protection of an industry as vital as that of oil. What Venezuela objects to is the way in which protection has been applied by the United States; it just does not seem to us consistent with the proclaimed principle of hemispheric solidarity. In contrast to the products of other nations in the hemisphere, Venezuela's main export is discriminated against by a quota system imposed by the United States to subsidize its domestic oil industry. As a result, we have suffered considerable economic losses at the same time that we have had to fight a decline in prices. Since the quota system was put into effect, we have lost hundreds of millions of dollars which are indispensable for the economic and social development of the country in such critical fields as housing, education and youth and infant care.
We attach so much importance to petroleum because it is our principal source of wealth and the basic support of our development. It is wealth that belongs as much to future generations as to the present, yet because it is a non-renewable resource, its real value will be measured by the degree to which it allows us to create a modern industrial-agricultural economy. In 1964, petroleum production increased by nearly 5 percent, but the decline in prices continued, falling by nearly 3 percent, so that the net gain was minimal.
Frankly, loans and credits are not as desirable as fair prices. Discrimination by the United States and the unjustified deterioration in prices for our petroleum led us to take a strong position at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development held in Geneva last year. We firmly believe that in international trade, nations in a position similar to that of Venezuela are victims of injustice. In view of the bonds of friendship that link the United States and Venezuela, it is hard for our people to understand how a country as powerful as the United States can ignore our just demands. Venezuela is pressing these demands in a friendly and persistent manner because of our determination to solve the acute problems of economic development. Happily, there are indications that the U.S. Government is becoming more receptive, and that this one black mark in our otherwise cordial relations may soon be removed.
President Kennedy once described Latin America as "the most critical area in the world." In these days, attitudes of indifference or discrimination do not meet the gravity of the situation in our continent, where the systematic deterioration of prices of our basic raw materials has contributed to the impoverishment of Latin America and has been an obstruction to its development—all of which plays into the hands of our adversaries.
Venezuela is a rich country. No one will deny it. But our needs for change are so great that their fulfillment requires a vast outlay. The Venezuela of today does not resemble in any way the feudal country which Juan Vicente Gómez left at his death in 1935. The very extent of our wealth increases the impact of its unequal distribution. While it is true that our income per capita is the highest in Latin America, this does not mean that the current, regular resources of the state are sufficient in themselves for the task of repairing injustices and inequalities. If our social problems are not solved, they will provoke a crisis of incalculable consequences.
Associated with these social or structural problems is the population explosion. A tolerable rate of population increase is between 1½ and 2 percent annually; Venezuela's is between 3½ and 4 percent. Today, more than half of all Venezuelans are under the age of 20. Their demands for a place in schools and universities, industry and society, have the force of an avalanche. Industrial development, agrarian reform and mass education are therefore necessities that cannot be postponed.
Agrarian reform, for example, is one of the most serious problems and one in which the experience of others does not help much. The lack of technicians and the haste with which solutions must be found sometimes result in failures. Nevertheless, since 1959, the National Agrarian Institute has distributed 1,465,000 hectares to nearly 80,000 peasant families. This land was taken either from the public domain or from private owners, with compensation. Many mistakes committed at the beginning have by now been overcome. The dispersion of settlements, for instance, has been avoided and whenever possible they are integrated in large simple projects. At the end of last year, the government turned over to the National Agrarian Institute all the idle lands in the public domain in those states where large investments in infrastructure—highways, aqueducts, hospitals and schools—made distribution of this land feasible. Moreover, it is fertile land, good for all kinds of cultivation. This measure has vastly speeded up the process of agrarian reform and has brought about a substantial modification of the structure of land tenure in Venezuela.
But land by itself will not solve the problem of the peasants, nor bring them into the national economy. Therefore, land reform is complemented by financial and technical assistance and the construction of permanent irrigation systems. With these measures the government hopes to realize an integrated agrarian reform that will also include housing, education, health, feeder roads, marketing systems and guaranteed minimum prices for agricultural produce. This year, the sum of 195,000,000 bolivars (about $42,500,000) has been set aside for agricultural credits and 14 irrigation systems are under construction. When completed, the area under permanent irrigation will amount to 200,000 hectares. Another 150,000 peasant families are to be relocated on their own land. Once this is accomplished, we will have come close to a definite solution of Venezuela's agrarian problem.
While pushing agrarian reform, we have started an ambitious and vast industrialization plan designed, as I have said, to transform an oil economy into a modern diversified economy. To reduce our high rate of unemployment, 400,000 new jobs must be created in the next four years, most of them to provide a living for the 80,000 workers that annually join the labor market. One of the paradoxes of our economy is that the petroleum industry, which produces over 70 percent of the government's income and contributes approximately one-fifth of the gross national product, employs scarcely 1.3 percent of the working population because of the advanced technology in this field. Although petroleum will continue to be the pivot of the country's economy during the remaining four years of my constitutional term as President, we shall continue to see the agricultural and industrial sectors develop their own capacity to generate wealth. This obviously will have a multiplier effect on the entire Venezuelan economy. Meanwhile, the high purchasing power of our currency and the lack of restrictions against the importation of capital have caused a concentration of capital in nonproductive activities, which aggravates the employment problem. Because of all this, the creation of new sources of work is, and will continue to be, a central objective of my government.
It is a happy coincidence for me that I come from Bolivar State, the prodigious Venezuelan Guiana, and that I am the President of the Republic precisely at the time when that area is being envisaged as the most important industrial center of Latin America. This eastern region around the mouth of the Orinoco has not only vast wealth in such basic resources as iron, but also an inexhaustible potential for electric energy. In 1967, we will complete the first stage of the Guri Dam on the Caroni River with an initial capacity of 650,000 kilowatts. This can be increased to 1,750,000 kilowatts as industrial demand mounts, and with further development of the Guri Dam system the capacity can be raised to 6,000,000 kilowatts.
Besides the expansion and integration of the Orinoco Steel Mill and the Venezuelan Petrochemical Institute, both owned by the state, the government contemplates the promotion of vast programs related to the chemical, petrochemical and metal industries, which will provide employment for thousands of laborers and require an investment of hundreds of millions of bolivars. At least two-thirds of the over-all plan should be carried out by private capital, both domestic and foreign. Already a number of projects are in various stages of development and their location has been in accordance with the principle of industrial decentralization. Venezuela offers great opportunities in the metallurgical and petrochemical industries and we hope to develop large markets for them, particularly in Latin America. This will be facilitated by our joining the Latin American Free Trade Association.
State participation in the country's economic development does not imply a disregard for the importance of private enterprise, and even less does it mean a desire to compete with it. The government values and respects private industry, and is seeking only a better distribution of income and national wealth. The need for this is obvious, particularly in view of the imbalance in the sources of our wealth. We believe that the public and the private sectors constitute a single unit concerned with the rapid and harmonious growth of our economy.
We are thus building the foundations of a democracy which is conscious of its social mission. We place emphasis on the social content of our régime because without it all efforts to achieve dynamic change would be in vain. And in spite of the threats posed and the aggression to which we are subjected, all Venezuelans—civilian or military, entrepreneur or worker, university student or technician—are, without loss of liberty, realizing the fruits of revolutionary change. Though we may have made a late entrance into the twentieth century, we now live in the serene conviction that we will arrive on time at the threshold of the twenty-first.