October 3, 2008

The Suicidal Dream of Becoming an Immense Parasite that Feeds off of our Oil

Esta gran proporción de riqueza de origen destructivo crecerá sin duda alguna el día en que los impuestos mineros se hagan más justos y remunerativos, hasta acercarse al sueño suicida de algunos ingenuos que ven como el ideal de la hacienda venezolana llegar a pagar la totalidad del Presupuesto con la sola renta de minas, lo que habría de traducir más simplemente así: llegar a hacer de Venezuela un país improductivo y ocioso, un inmenso parásito del petróleo, nadando en una abundancia momentánea y corruptora.
-Arturo Uslar Pietri, 1936
Quico says: Sembrar el petróleo - "sowing our oil" - is the central cliché of Venezuelan public life. Used, misused and abused by governments of the left, right and center virtually since the day it was penned, the phrase has been progressively drained of its content, slowly coming to mean pretty much the opposite of what Uslar Pietri had in mind in those heady days right after Gómez's death.

It takes going back and reading the chillingly prophetic essay the phrase originally came from - an exercise all Venezuelan public figures should be required by law to undertake at least once a year - to quite grasp that "sembrar el petróleo" is more a statement about morals than economics!

For Uslar Pietri, the real issue wasn't what oil dependence would do to our wallets; it was what it would do to our souls. Diversifying our economy was a means to the end of inoculating our society's moral fiber against the fecklessness and depravity that comes from unhinging consumption from hard work.
The great portion of our wealth of non-renewable origins shall doubtlessly grow once our mining taxes become fairer, and bring us closer to the suicidal dream of some ingenues who hope one day to pay for the whole of the national budget with mining rents alone, which we could restate more or less as: to one day make Venezuela an idle and unproductive country, an immense parasite feeding off of our oil, swimming in a momentary and corrupting abundance.
It's in this passage that it comes through most clearly, but the entire piece is only superficially about economics. Dig down just a bit and you see that Uslar's real game is to use economic categories to illuminate questions of morality. (Indeed, he turned out to be far more competent as a moralist than as an economist: the relevant metric for petro-dependence turned out to be oil's share of exports, not of government revenue.)

Uslar's essay stands as a stark warning about the corrosive influence of the petrostate: a buzzword that hadn't yet been coined for a condition we hadn't yet experienced, but that Uslar Pietri could see clearly just over the horizon.

It's interesting to speculate what might have been if "el sueño suicida de convertirnos en un inmenso parasito del petróleo" had become the take-away cliché from that piece, instead of that other one.

Because for much of the following 72 years, Venezuelan governments have taken turns missing Uslar's central point. One after the other, they've interpreted the call to sow the oil as a justification for dumping oil money into a succession of boondoggles requiring a never-ending infusion of petrodollars to stay afloat, a practice that entrenches the corrupting petro-dependence Uslar wanted to protect us from.

The results were clear from the start: a society where values like thrift, industry, and prudence come to seem quaintly out-of-place, the schoolmarmish admonitions of prudes who haven't the faintest clue how the copper is really beaten around here.

What's sad is how the grand old man's bon mot ended up being turned in against itself, used to give a patina of respectability precisely to the kinds of parasitic accommodations he was so keen to forestall. The irony is that now we have realized the suicidal dream of becoming an enormous parasite that feeds off of our oil, and we've done it under the banner of sowing the oil.

For eight decades, we've done little but plumb the depths of Uslar Pietri's greatest fear: not that oil would make us poorer, but that it would make us worse.