Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Behind the Citgo Sign

One benefit of the extreme traffic delays caused by Winter Storm Saturn on a Friday back in March was that I had a lot of time to listen to the radio in our own trusty Saturn as I alternately slid, slogged, and sat between our home and our daughter's school. I now write in October, as I discover this article in my "draft" folder. I was prompted to look for it as I read an excellent student paper on Venezuela. It is a coincidence that world attention will soon be on a stadium that sits just below the Citgo sign in Boston!

In addition to a lovely story about the Iditarod, I heard this thought-provoking piece about the recently departed and scarcely mourned president of Venezuela.


Whenever I think about Venezuela, my first thought is of a friend we had in college, with whom my future wife Pam was able to visit the country in 1986, when its economy was prospering and its politics were of no great interest. Unlike many of its neighbors, Venezuela had tilted neither very far left nor very far right at that time, so I actually knew very little about it at the time. I often wonder what our friend's middle-class family thinks of all the changes since Chavez came to power in 1999, and whether they are even still in Venezuela.

My second thought about Venezuela is always of Jimmy Stewart mispronouncing its name in the 1946 classic It's a Wonderful Life. As he thumbs through a stack of notices for possible adventures abroad, he mentions Ven-zuh-WHALE-uh oil fields.

A Boston Icon, based
in Caracas
Pam's visit to Venezuela came four decades after this cinematic nugget, and we hardly even noticed the country's purchase of a 50-percent stake in Citgo that year. In between, Venezuela had helped to found OPEC as a way to gain some influence over the rate at which oil was being exploited, and thereby increase its share of the wealth in the core that was being built by the depletion of oil in the periphery. Its purchase of a retail network allowed for vertical integration to capture an even greater portion of the wealth generated by its oil. In  2000, one of the first achievements of the newly elected Chavez was to purchase the remaining shares of Citgo, making a familiar U.S. brand part of Venezuela's national patrimony.

This January, I was in Nicaragua in the days leading up to Chavez' latest inauguration, and speculation about his longevity -- including the possibility that he was already dead -- intensified. It was during this time that Julia Sweig wrote a cogent analysis of the Chavez period for The Atlantic, in which she observes that:
The 14 years of his tenure coincided with a consensus across the continent favoring socially inclusive economic growth, democratic representation, and independence from the U.S. national security and foreign policy priorities of the previous century. 
In the United States, opposition to Chavez at the highest levels of government was thoroughly bipartisan, further evidence that in their acceptance of the status quo in the world economic order that was established at a hotel in New Hampshire so long ago.

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