Archive for July 24th, 2005

To sow the oil 1961 (Validity of a slogan) by Arturo Uslar Pietri

July 24, 2005

While I
was away Jorge posted the translation I left of Arturo Uslar Pietri’s 1936
article “To sow the oil”, 25 years later Uslar himself revisited his original
article in an article entitled “To sow the oil 1961 (Validity of a watch
word)”, which I translated below and which seems to be as valid today as then:

To sow the
oil 1961 (Validity of a slogan)
by Arturo Uslar Pietri

In the
first semester of 1936 I was collaborating with the daily newspaper “Ahora” and
I would frequently write its Editorials. It was a full time for opinion
journalism and publications would make an effort to direct and enlighten the
criteria of the readers. It was a feverish time for analysis, a time for examining
our conscience, of looking for a direction for a country that had just left the
longest dictatorship of its history and which, full of hope and doubts, of
impatience and fears, of ignorance and faith, wanted to heal itself of its ills
and establish a democracy where there would be an abundance of goods.

We began
to discover the true physiognomy of the country. A physiognomy which was not
the beautiful and conventional one that had been the legacy of the old literary
geographers, of a land full of abundance, copious and generous, full of
accessible richness which, like a sleeping beauty, had been separated from its
true destiny by the spell of the Governments of strength, but that would wake
up more splendorous than ever with the exorcism of freedom. The physiognomy
that was beginning to reveal itself, as a result of the first serious
investigations, was that of a poor country, backwards and full of obstacles for
progress. The so called “necessity census” became fashionable, which were
unending catalogs of all of those things that we had lacked: hospitals, school,
aqueducts, roads, sewers, parks, silos. Without forgetting the bust of Bolivar
for the square and the renovation of the ruinous temple of each town. The
country was beginning to realize that it lacked almost everything, that what it
had was insufficient or inadequate and that the resources which it had were out
of proportion with the magnitude of the requirements and the sciences.

The only
talk was about problems. The word problem became fashionable. There were
education problems, there was a health problem, there was a transportation
problem, that of agriculture, of the currency, of the organization of labor, of
municipal autonomy, of the federal system.

We were
three million Venezuelans, in large majority badly fed, badly dressed, badly
housed, a large fraction of which had its capacity for a useful life diminished
by ignorance, by malaria, by parasites, by isolation. Confronting these needs
we counted on resources which were disproportionably limited. It was estimated
that it was thousands of million what was needed to invest in order to
radically modify that unfavorable state of things and the more the census of
needs grew, the more pitiful, by contrast, that the credit account appeared. A
million sacks of coffee and some ten thousand tons of cocoa per year were the
traditional products for export. We also had oil and its production had reached
the volume, which appeared then to be large, of 154 thousand barrels of oil a
day. We had imports that amounted to 211 million bolivars and an effective
national budget of roughly some 180 million bolivars.

that small budget the estimates of what was needed for schools, hospitals and roads
that the country needed, grew like the silhouettes of giants. It was a David-like
enterprise to try to win over with those weapons that Goliath of problems that
rose threatenly in the path to our progress.

There appeared
then the “arbitristas”. People with more imagination than science, enthused
like the Quixote by some simple idea which, according to them, needed to be
applied to magically achieve the transformation of the country. There were
thoughts of loans, of monetary manipulations, of obscure financial formulas and
even of a semi secret plan by which we could end up making use of unlimited
amounts of money.

There was
not yet any school of economic sciences and there were very few Venezuelans
that had devoted themselves with some seriousness to the study of economics.

that confusing anguished panorama I wrote an editorial that was published on
July 14th. 1936 in the daily “Ahora” (Year I, # 183)

In it, in
an effort to see it in the most objective and simple manner I pointed out some
fundamental facts. That the traditional agricultural and cattle production of
our soils had not only not increased, but was showing a trend towards
diminishing and that a large part of the resources that we could make use of,
originated from destructive and non reproductive ideas. The destructive
activity of mining and oil, the destructive activity of beefwood or other wood

From this
simple fact, one derives a very simple consequence. We had to develop in Venezuela a
simple economy. We had to develop in Venezuela a productive and
renewable economy that could grow and advance with the country, instead of
shrinking and in that way develop the transient wealth of mining activities:
“It is necessary to get out the most income from the mines to totally invest it
in aid, facilities and stimulus to agriculture, breeding and national
industries.” That is, take to the maximum mining income and devote the totality
of its provenance to the creation of our own economy in a “true act of national

To put it
in more simple language and make it dramatically attractive it occurred to me
to synthesize that in one single phrase that could be converted into a
watchword for a national crusade, in the slogan and creed of the Venezuelan
action. It was then that I proposed “as watchword for our economic policy: to
sow the oil”. That same phrase became the title of the editorial.

It was
launched as a warning shout and as a call to reason. I thought that if people
could penetrate the sense of that simple and almost paradoxical phrase, it
could turn itself into the starting point of a great transformation of the
country. “What do we need to do? Everyone seemed to ask. The simple and
concrete answer that it occurred to me was “To sow the oil”. It had the
obscurity and peptic contradiction of a sibilic oracle. The Sibila of the Venezuelan
destiny could tell all of us one day the same thing “Sow the oil”. In the most
literal of senses it could appear to be a magic ritual” take the dark and foul
smelling substance that sprouts from the drilling towers and that flows heavily
and viscously through the oil pipelines, to turn it into furrows and convert
them into harvest. In this way the black and inert oil could be turned into millions
of irrigated and sowed hectares, into fat herds, into chimneys of factories,
into rotation of axles of transmission into the happy crackle of motors.

It seemed
like a magical formula, but it was the most precise synthesis of a realistic
economic policy. We were not going to sow the black oil in the furrows of the
farmland, like witches in a Walpurgis Night, but we were going to turn oil into
money and invest the money in a healthy and growing economy.

I wrote
that phrase and stayed, with quiet emotion, waiting for the launching of the
call. I thought it would have the virtue of waking and shaking everyone up. Among
the uproar of the voices that raise themselves with contradictory offers and
claims, it did not seem but one more voice lost in the clamoring without truce.
There were some spoken comments and very few written ones.

could have remained there, without other consequences, but words also have
their destiny. They don’t die with the sound that enunciates them, but acquire
their own life and begin their adventure and their action. There are no truly
useless words nor can anyone be sure that what one has said will die.

The phrase
“To sow the oil” was born and as much of a meaning it had a destiny. From the
page of the newspaper it had already jumped to minds and opinions. It began to
be repeated. It later appeared in papers. It broke out in the oratory of
popular meetings. When, in 1938, the Free School of Economic and social
sciences was founded, it had turned itself almost into a proverb. When, in
1946, the Venezuelan Development Corporation was founded, it was adopted as its

It had
already entirely escaped me by then. Many of the people who repeated and
invoked it, had no idea of who may have created it. I, on the other hand, felt
that in this way, the notion that it had turned itself into an anonymous and
collective expression, allowed it to fulfill better its own destiny. It had
been forged to awaken the collective conscience and insofar as it was becoming
a popular phrase, it was on its safest way of reaching its goal.

There were
those that attributed it to someone else. Few wanted to recognize it as mine. Venezuela,
which has demonstrated, in general, to be generous in recognizing its intellectuals,
has been, sometimes, somewhat parsimonious and reticent with me. I don’t want
to elucidate the causes now, juts point it out. Either they did not recognize
me as the author of the phrase or they tried to find a different one that was
not me. Its paternity has been attributed most frequently to Alberto Adriani.
It was an intelligent attribution. Adriani, dead in the prime of his capacity
to serve, was a man of clear mind and practical sense that had the passion to
get Venezuela
moving in a heroic fight against backwardness. The idea that the phrase
expressed coincided in many points with his way of understanding the paths to
the economic development of Venezuela.
However, the phrase was not his, nor does it appear in any of his writings or
statements, nor any person has attributed it to him that heard him say it, and
if, for the good of the country, his fertile life had been extended, he would
have been the first one to deny the attribution.

This is
all for the anecdote. An anecdote that, the truth be said does not lack
interest and significance. The fact that matters to point out for me, for now,
is that the slogan “To sow the oil” is having its first quarter of a century

We could
ask now if it has been useful and if it still preserves its validity for
today’s Venezuela.

current country is much different from that one that saw the appearance of the
editorial in the “Ahora” daily on June 1st. 1936. The population has
doubled since then, Malaria has disappeared, the rate of illiteracy has been
reduced, a large number of roads, buildings and public services have been
built, infant mortality has decreased, the average life of a Venezuelan has
increased, there has been industrial development, the budget has grown 35 times
and what the state used to spend in one year, is now spent in ten days.

All of
this means that the economic capability of the country has grown and this has
been possible, fundamentally, by virtue of the development of oil activity. The
154,000 daily barrels of production of 1936 have reached, in a continuous
ascent, the three million barrels a day, approximately, that we have reached at
present. From this source, and not from any other, has originated the move up
of all the other indices in our economy.

the basic terms of the problem have not changed substantially since 1936. If
oil activity represented then one third of national income, today, directly or
indirectly, it represents more. It ahs grown, instead of diminishing our oil
dependency, and the proportion of destructive activity in our economic complex
has not diminished.

If the
advise ‘To sow the oil”, launched in 1936, had been efficiently converted in a
true national policy, we would have today a Venezuela which would be much
richer and much more independent of oil. If we had invested directly in
economic development, loans for production, equipment and supplies, technical
education and colonization, the dozens of thousands of millions of bolivars
that oil income have produced in these twenty five years, we would be today one
of the most prosperous, rich and independent countries of the world.

it was not done that way, or only a small part was it done. From 1936 to 1939,
the increase in oil income was scant. In 1939, the Second World War created
obstacles and deviations for the economic development of Venezuela. Nevertheless,
the time of waiting and tension was taken advantage of to make a profound
review of oil policy which culminated with the reform of 1943, In this way,
Venezuela insured for itself, after the war, the largest oil income it had ever
known in its history and one of the largest that any country has ever derived
from a single activity.

Thus the
bases were laid to undertake, in a scale that would have seemed a fable to the Venezuela of
1936, a gigantic program of sowing the oil. At the end of the war the National
Budget did not even reach five hundred million bolivars. If we had then planned
the investment of the increase in income that was going to take place because
of the oil reform, it would have been possible, almost without increasing
bureaucracy or political expenses, to achieve a complete transformation of the
national economy.

To this
end we counted on instruments which were ready and prepared for it, such as the
tax reform of 1942 that allowed a more just redistribution of the national
income via taxes and the agrarian reform that allowed, in a reasonable time,
the end of the large estates and the backwardness of the rural areas.

political events of 1945 blocked this possibility and opened a long period of political
instability and administrative discontinuity.

1946 and 1960 a large part of the oil income was destined to non reproductive
ends, for ornate public works, sumptuous or unjustified investments and to the
excessive growth of the bureaucracy.

the oil wealth was made use of to a certain extent, but in a random way,
incomplete and unplanned The avalanche of money that has gone through this
country brought many transformations and not few advances, but it did not
become the instrument for a coordinated and solid transformation of our
economic and social conditions.

It would
have been necessary to have a clear and well defined concept of what oil should
be in national life. Neither an isolated economic prodigy, nor ordinary income,
neither a field of independent activity propitious to rehearse theories and

That is,
to waste the wealth in investments that are not development, nor consider it as
an industry isolated from the national complex.

A coherent
conception of oil within the framework of Venezuelan life was needed. To
consider oil not as a specific and isolated activity to which one can apply
systems appropriate for exploration and conservation which are ideally perfect,
but more like and instrument for development.

Providence has given Venezuela
an immense wealth underground. Venezuela
is an undeveloped country. Logic would indicate that what we have to do is to
make use of the wealth underground to develop Venezuela in all aspects.

conception of oil as a fundamental and irreplaceable instrument for the
development of the country may not coincide exactly with the requirements of an
oil policy, which considers oil on its won, out of the framework of the
Venezuelan needs and proposes only to find the way to exploit it more
rationally and conserve it for a longer period of time.

To exploit
rationally and make use to the maximum of oil reservoirs is certainly something
which can not be ignored, but postponing and delaying the development of Venezuela in
the name of the convenience of conserving oil for future generations lacks a historical

generations are not going to ask if we left them a lot or little oil
underground, but they are going to launch at us a much more grave and
peremptory question which is no more than this one: Did we make intelligent and
opportune use of oil to build a country?. The tragic implication of that
question is not going to be eluded by our absent shadows or our fuzzy memories
alleging that we tried to make a prudent and rational exploitation.

If England
had not taken advantage when it had the opportunity of its coal richness to
turn rapidly into the first and largest industrial power of the XIX century, it
would be a weak consolation for the British of today to contemplate the very
large mountains of coal, which could have been conserved at the price of no
taking their country to the level of development that it reached.

Oil is
before anything the most powerful instruments for development that Venezuela has.
It should be used and conceived that way. National and world circumstances have
created this possibility. It is our duty to use it and not expose us to, what
may be a conceptual error, the conditions evolve and turn against our interests
and we come to realize it when it is too late and the opportunity has passed us
without forgiveness.

Today much
like yesterday, the investment of the majority of the oil income in economic
development continues to be Venezuela’s
most important need. At the recent Conference, the American Secretary of the
Treasury, Dillon, announced the possible investment over the next ten years of
a sum of approximately twenty billion dollars for the progress of Latin America. This promise was received with approval by
a whole continent of twenty countries with almost two hundred million inhabitants,
because they see in it the possibility of a definitive push in the
transformation of the economic and social conditions of this vast part of the

It calls
us to reflection that, during that same decade, Venezuela, from its own fiscal
resources, will obtain an amount that is not inferior to that one. In effect,
the current level of our budget, at the exchange rate that the Central Bank receives
the currency, can be estimated at a magnitude close to two billion dollars per
year. With such fiscal income, the Venezuelan state should be in the capacity
of promoting the most extraordinary development program that any American country
has ever known.

throughout the years the inadequate orientation of public spending, has
affected an enormous part of those resources in taking care of management costs
that only indirectly stimulate national economic progress.

The truth
is that today as much as yesterday and even with more urgency than yesterday the
statement of the objectives of Venezuelan economic policy, is simple and

We need to
stimulate the production of oil and of the mines up to the highest levels
compatible with world possibilities in terms of prices and volume. We need to maintain
an aggressive competitive and expansive position of the oil and mining industry
established in Venezuela.

From that production,
maintained at the highest level, at the highest prices possible from our
position in world markets we must derive for the state the highest possible share
compatible with the needed stimulus for investment and the development of extractive

That is,
take the oil and mining industries to produce at maximum, with the maximum
benefit for the country.

And then,
consider the funds arising from our share in that industry as if it came from a
loan without interest and term, which needs to be repaid by the increase of the
industrial and agricultural production of the country. That is, the investment
at the maximum level of the oil and mining income in the effective economic
development of Venezuela.

This means
nothing more than sowing the oil which goes to prove and I can not say that it
does not please me, that today, much like twenty years ago; this continues to
be the fundamental slogan for Venezuelan progress