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Books

Jason Fargo looks at Crude Nation: How Oil Riches Ruined Venezuela by Raúl Gallegos; Sarah Edwards reviews Fever Dream by Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin.

In this issue:
Crude Nation

"Crude Nation: How Oil Riches Ruined Venezuela"

Jason Fargo

Raúl Gallegos traces the roots of Venezuela's current collapse along the lines of its oil-laden history.

This article is adapted from AQ's special issue on the U.S.-Mexico relationship. To receive AQ at home, subscribe here.

The story of Venezuela is one of Latin America’s most tragic. Home to massive oil resources, and once considered the region’s wealthiest country, Venezuela is today a nation in self-inflicted collapse.

The ruling chavista movement — named for former President Hugo Chávez, who rose to power in 1999 on promises to share the country’s oil wealth more equitably with low-income Venezuelans — has presided over mind-blowing levels of corruption and economic malfeasance. While high-ranking chavistas and well-connected people who can get their hands on scarce dollars at preferential rates have become massively wealthy, most Venezuelans today suffer under an economic crisis that is almost unprecedented in a nation at peace.

The regime’s opponents blame chavismo — and in particular President Nicolás Maduro, who took over following Chávez’s death from cancer in 2013 — for the current disaster. Yet Raúl Gallegos, in his new book Crude Nation, argues that the crisis’ roots go back as far as 1914, when Venezuela’s first major commercial oil well, Zumaque, went into production.

Since Zumaque, oil has become Venezuela’s lifeblood. Today, it accounts for over 90 percent of all the foreign exchange the country earns. In his book, Gallegos argues that Venezuela’s near complete dependence on cyclical oil revenues has disfigured not only the country’s economy, but its political development and national character. The potential for easy riches when oil prices are high, he said, has led both governments and citizens to take a short-term view, wantonly spending oil money without planning for the future. When crude prices inevitably decline and the cash stops flowing, Venezuela plunges into economic chaos and political instability.

In Gallegos’ view, chavistas are not a uniquely evil and venal band of incompetents (as opponents would have the world believe). Rather, he sees the current regime as “a blip in a long history of larger-than-life leaders who promised to use oil to quickly turn Venezuela into a modern, powerful nation, only to disappoint voters in the end.”

Gallegos, a senior analyst at consulting firm Control Risks, is a former Caracas correspondent for Dow Jones Newswires and the Wall Street Journal. His impressive reporting skills are evident throughout the book, as he presents a range of interviews with colorful personalities from all walks of life to illustrate the everyday absurdities of today’s Venezuela. Gallegos’ subjects range from a retired policeman hoarding food in his cupboards, to a high-end plastic surgeon struggling to get around foreign-exchange controls so he can import breast implants. To his credit, Gallegos depicts each individual with empathy and respect, even when it comes to diehard regime supporters.

Gallegos clearly knows Venezuela inside and out, and the way he draws parallels between the current crisis and similar episodes in the past is enlightening. His overview of Venezuelan political and economic history since Zumaque, although brief, bolsters the author’s thesis that today’s problems cannot be blamed solely on chavismo. Yet the book is less strong when it comes to offering suggestions for how Venezuela might right itself and end the recurring crises that its oil dependence produces.

The author does present some worthy ideas, such as establishing a rainy-day fund to save a portion of oil revenues, and ending subsidies that force state oil company Petróleos de Venezuela to sell gasoline domestically for less than the cost of production. But other suggestions, such as giving a portion of oil wealth to citizens via a cash dividend and instituting mandatory economics education to teach Venezuelans how to handle money, are less realistic. Furthermore, all those possible improvements presuppose a government that actually wants reform, and chavismo has shown little intention of altering its current course.

Despite that shortcoming, Gallegos’ book provides an excellent summary of today’s Venezuela, and a solid explanation of the historical trends that have produced the country’s ongoing tragedy. As the author wrote: “Venezuela can teach us all an important lesson: too much money poorly managed can be worse than not having any money at all.”

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Fargo is Latin America team leader at Energy Intelligence in New York. He writes regularly about oil and gas projects and energy policy throughout the region.


"Fever Dream"

Sarah Edwards

The latest novel from Argentine author Samanta Schweblin explores motherhood, illness and ecological violence.

This article is adapted from AQ's special issue on the U.S.-Mexico relationship. To receive AQ at home, subscribe here.

“Haunting” is one of those literary descriptors that are applied perhaps a bit too liberally: We might read about illness or lost love, shipwrecks or close encounters, and find the term is as close as we can get to describing our resulting unease.

The feeling you are left with after reading Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin’s debut novel, Fever Dream, is not quite one of being haunted, but rather of being trapped: Schweblin has created a universe steeped in ecological violence from which she will not easily allow us to escape.

We first meet our protagonist, Amanda, as she lies dying in a rural clinic far from her home in Buenos Aires. Neither her husband nor her young daughter are with her. Instead, David, a friend’s child, is sitting beside her — though he does not seem very childlike. When David speaks, we are meant to understand that his rote, emotionless sentences are not normal. Nothing in this situation is.

David urges Amanda to provide an oral history of her vacation, to retrace her steps to the exact moment she became sick. The novel, masterfully translated by Megan McDowell, maintains this structure throughout: a story recalled through dialogue between the dispassionate David (it’s hinted that he might be a hallucination), and the sympathetic and deeply felt character of Amanda.

Amanda describes a day she spent with David’s mother, Carla, in which Carla confessed that David isn’t really her child: He was poisoned by drinking from a river, and in order to exorcise the poison from his body, a local doctor also exorcised his soul. Carla believes that the remaining David, the David-shell, has changed. He now speaks like a 40-year old computer technician, calls her by her first name, and routinely kills and buries local animals. He has been, you might say, haunted.

This is in part a very keen novel about the anxiety of motherhood. Amanda, who is extremely protective of her young daughter, Nina, obsessively references in her conversation with David the idea of a “rescue distance,” or the amount of time it will take to reach her daughter if necessary. (If Nina falls in a pool, is Amanda close enough to jump in and rescue her?) Feeling the increasing “tightening” of that rescue distance, Amanda decides to end her vacation early and take Nina home. Of course, by then it’s too late. Their departure is interrupted by the illness of David’s mother and the mysterious “worms” that are presumably its source.

With technical and lyrical skill, Schweblin has set her characters into a real-life haunting landscape. For the past two decades, aerial pesticides have been routinely sprayed in rural Argentina, a practice connected with birth defects, miscarriages, and neurological and fertility problems. While Schweblin never directly names the pesticides as the poison that threatens Amanda, it’s not a difficult conjecture to make. After Amanda hears Carla’s story, she becomes aware that many of the local children suffer from congenital anomalies. The whole town, in fact, seems caught in a drugged stupor.

It is easy to nurture a blithe cognitive dissonance about our suicidal planetary behavior. Fever Dream disrupts that dissonance. As Schweblin quietly reminds us, “rescue distance” only works when you are trying to protect the people you love from very precise dangers: an aggressive dog, a loose nail, a closing subway door. When you live in a world in which everything has, at last, been contaminated, there is no rescuing left to be done.

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Edwards is a freelance writer based in New York


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