Darlene Rivas. Missionary Capitalist: Nelson Rockefeller in Venezuela. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. xiv + 290 pp. $23.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8078-5350-4; $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-2684-3.
Reviewed by George W. Schuyler (Department of History, University of Central Arkansas)
Published on H-LatAm (April, 2003)
Sowing Capitalism in Venezuela
Sowing Capitalism in Venezuela
The late Brad Burns argued that we cannot truly understand modern Latin America unless we recognize its persistent and at times desperate struggle for development. Darlene Rivas's book Missionary Capitalist: Nelson Rockefeller in Venezuela illuminates important aspects of this struggle. She examines the efforts of Nelson Rockefeller to promote capitalist development in oil-rich Venezuela from the late 1930s to the 1950s. The book is organized chronologically, with seven chapters and a conclusion, each chapter focusing on a particular aspect of Rockefeller's involvement with Venezuela, including his service in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. It is an extensively researched and well-written story, based on a wide variety of public and private sources, both U.S. and Venezuelan.
Scholars have usually interpreted U.S.-Latin American relations in terms of economic or security issues, emphasizing conflict and power differences. Rivas believes that such approaches are not sufficient. Humanitarian and moral impulses, as well as the ideas and actions of private persons, have also influenced inter-American relations. Moreover, Latin Americans have not been passive participants but active agents in shaping the interplay between Latin Americans and North Americans. Rivas thus seeks to broaden our understanding of the multifaceted and complex nature of this relationship.
After World War II, Latin America sought development in the context of an East-West competition for influence in the developing world. The United States feared that economic distress would open doors to communist penetration. It was an article of faith that free enterprise would be a dynamic agent of social change and that market capitalism could far surpass socialism in improving people's lives.
Nelson Rockefeller's views about development were strongly influenced by his mother's social concerns and his religious beliefs, as well as by the domestic and international climate of the 1930s. When he visited Venezuela in 1937, shortly after an oil workers' strike, he became convinced that Standard Oil and other corporations should turn their attention to workers' welfare. He believed passionately in the power of capitalism to improve people's lives and optimistically asserted that capitalists must be "socially responsible," at home and abroad. Brimming with enthusiasm and self-confidence, the privileged young Rockefeller assumed that the many as well as the few would benefit from capitalist development. He sought to demonstrate this in Venezuela by establishing modern businesses, especially agricultural enterprises, that would be profitable and meet Venezuela^Òs acute need for greater food production and better distribution.
Rockefeller painfully learned, however, that enthusiasm, self-confidence, and capital were insufficient to generate economic development. His efforts foundered. He and his advisors, several of whom were college classmates or business colleagues with limited Spanish or experience in Venezuela, failed to consider whether American capitalist techniques and agricultural methods were appropriate for a largely illiterate and impoverished rural population which lacked the skills, technical support, equipment, transportation, and marketing necessary for successful modern agricultural enterprises. They assumed that methods that worked on highly productive North American farms would quickly prove successful in tropical Venezuela.
Within Venezuela, Rockefeller's initiatives became enmeshed in local political and economic debates. The Acci=n Democr=tica Party, which ruled Venezuela from 1945 to 1948, distrusted Venezuelan capitalists and embarked on state-led development. The A.D. government invested public funds in some of Rockefeller's projects but was criticized by economic nationalists and the business community who sought to restrict and regulate foreign investment that might compete with their own interests. The Federaci=n de C=maras de Comercio, Venezuela's principal business organization, strongly opposed the government's policies, arguing that a "modern democratic state is not able nor must it dedicate itself to activities that are reserved to the individual" (p. 107).
Rockefeller and his team did not understand the political and economic climate in Venezuela during the 1940s and 1950s. Neither did they appreciate the difficulties or appropriateness of transplanting a kind of socially-oriented capitalism that was seldom practiced in the United States into a country still emerging from nearly three decades of iron-fisted dictatorship. Assuming that Venezuelan farmers had little to offer in terms of improving agricultural production, they brought in expensive consultants and managers, knowledgeable about scientific, industrial agriculture, but with little familiarity with the needs of Venezuelan farmers or the crops and production techniques that fit Venezuelan soils. Similarly, American fishing and food distribution techniques could not easily be adapted to traditional Venezuelan methods. Venezuelan capitalists, accustomed to low-risk, high-profit investments, showed little enthusiasm for investing in the Rockefeller enterprises. Consequently, his development projects--which included a modern hotel and initiated farm and fishery operations as well as milk production, food processing, and distribution businesses--were only partially successful. Although some of these succeeded in earning a profit after several years of losses, others collapsed and disillusioned investors pulled out.
Nelson Rockefeller never doubted the power of capitalism to do good and to improve people's lives. But his enthusiasm and certainty in the superiority of American-style capitalism seems to have blinded him (as it did many others) to the fact that development prescriptions must fit the conditions of a particular country.
Darlene Rivas's book places Nelson Rockefeller's efforts to create modern and socially responsible capitalism in Venezuela within the context of inter-American relations. She demonstrates the complexity of the inter-American relationship and why scholars should consider individual as well as public influences. She also illuminates why development efforts in Latin America and elsewhere have often stumbled. Her book is a valuable addition to the historiography of the United States and Latin America.
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George W. Schuyler. Review of Rivas, Darlene, Missionary Capitalist: Nelson Rockefeller in Venezuela.
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