More writings by uncle, John Alldridge. This time he is reporting from South America in 1960 for the Birmingham Evening Mail – Jerry F
A boom city built on oil
So I end as I began. Lying in the sun beside a pool. Listening to the splashes and the ice tinkling on the waiters’ trays and a radio commentary in frantic Spanish of a horse race a thousand miles away in Buenos Aires. Thinking of my Pan American plane back home.
But the setting this time is rather different. The pool belongs to the hotel that towers above me, eight storeys of it, shaped like a Babylonian palace, hanging gardens and all. A hotel where a small single room costs £5 a night.
It is perched on a shelf with its back to a mountain; looking down over the eastern suburbs of a city. An amazing city. Surely one of the most incredible cities in the world.
I am getting to know this skyline pretty well. For three days I have been up here as though on an island in mid-Pacific.
The centre of the city is only 20 minutes’ ride away. But to get there means taking a taxi. There are plenty of taxis — shiny new Cadillacs driven by elegant young men who smoke cigars and sport diamond rings. But each one-way trip costs 15 bolivars. And 15 bolivars are nearly 30s.
There are no buses — or if there are I haven’t seen any. And there are no pavements; and to walk is to court suicide.
So I lie here in the sun, waiting my chance. The next time I see a taxi filling up outside the hotel I’ll be at the head of the queue to buy a share in the ride.
I have seen many boomtowns in my time. But this is my first experience of a Boom City.
Caracas’s boom began just over 10 years ago. The results are frightening. In 10 years a Spanish-provincial city the size of Manchester has turned itself into a roaring ultra-modern metropolis of nearly 1,500,000 people.
Because it lies in a steep valley it has length without breadth. From end to end it is eighteen miles long. And on that golden strip, the most valuable real estate in the world, incredible things have happened.
For instance, there is a university that houses 23,000 students. There is a hospital with nearly three thousand beds. There are great multi-coloured blocks of workers’ flats.
Dominating the business section is a pair of skyscrapers under which the traffic passes like ants between the legs of a giant.
It used to take an hour and a half to reach its port of La Guaira, a tortuous trek across the mountains. Then Italian engineers punched a hole in the mountain and drove in three subways, each the size of the Mersey Tunnel, and now the trip takes half an hour.
Almost every South American city I have visited has been presided over by a giant concrete Christ or Madonna. Caracas prefers a fourteen-storey luxury hotel; a round tower set so high up the mountain that you reach it by cable car.
At night, lit up, it looks like a huge coffee pot floating in space.
All these fantastic things have been paid for by oil. Caracas is built on oil. That is no exaggeration. Touch Venezuela on its soft crust; dent it anywhere near the sea; and oil spurts out. In the Maracaibo basin, the richest oil deposit known to man, the derricks rise from the yellow waters of the lake like a flooded forest.
Two and a half million barrels of oil bubble up from there every day. And for ten years as a steady flow of oil has poured out, an even steadier flow of dollars has poured in — 950 million dollars a year.
Venezuela produces other things — gold, diamonds, pearls, orchids, high-grade iron ore, bauxite. But it is oil that pays the bill. Or 75 per cent of it, anyway.
For a time during the peak of the boom, Venezuela was the only country in the world that had no debts. All thanks to oil.
It is hardly surprising that, carried along on such a tidal wave of prosperity, things have got out of hand.
The evolution of most South American countries seems to follow a familiar pattern. First comes a liberator; then a series of dictators; then, finally, a shaky attempt at democracy. In this hot-tempered, humid climate democracy, always a sickly plant, needs careful nursing.
And in times of crisis these people instinctively turn to the strong man.
Venezuela was liberated in 1819 by a native son, Simon Bolivar, largely with the help of a British legion of Peninsular War veterans recruited in London. He got little thanks for it. He died in Paris, worn out, at 47 and went to his grave in a borrowed shirt.
Now his country has made amends. His lean, melancholy face stares down at you everywhere. The shady Plaza Bolivar — almost all that is left of the old city — is practically holy ground. A whole squad of police is on duty to see that no one insults the liberator’s memory by crossing it in shirt sleeves or carrying a parcel.
After Bolivar, Venezuela, had 50 revolutions in less than a century; then for 27 years it lived under the business-like tyranny of a semi-literate half-breed named Juan Vincente Gomez.
Gomez ran Venezuela as his private state. He owned everything — cattle ranches, sugar plantations, and industrial plants.
He had an estate at Maracay which is still a showplace. There he built himself a private bullring, an exact replica of the one in Seville, and a private road to the sea so that he could escape if things got too hot for him.
The Catfish, as they called him, didn’t drink and didn’t smoke. But he had 80 or 90 illegitimate children, and he was a murderous blackguard.
When students rioted he picked out one in 10 and had them hanged.
Yet I have heard old-timers sigh for the good old days of Gomez.
The wild building spree
One man started by taking in washing – now he owns a chain of dry cleaners
After the war, when the boom first got started and Venezuelans became millionaires overnight, an uneasy attempt was made to experiment with democracy. Then the country was brusquely taken over by another strong man, General Marcos Perez Jimenez.
It was during the Jimenez regime that Caracas went on its wild building spree. Following the lead of its dictator-president, it spent like a drunken sailor.
The Klondike in ’98 was nothing to Caracas in the ‘fifties. Needy emigrants poured in from Europe and began to clean up Tom Tiddler’s Ground.
A Czech who started by taking in washing now owns a chain of dry cleaners. An Italian baker brought over his entire family, put them all to work, lived on a spaghetti diet for a year, and now lives in a fantastic cliff-hanging villa which cost a quarter of a million dollars.
Caracas became a magnet for the whole of Venezuela. Farmers dropped their ploughs, fishermen left their nets and poured into the swelling, swollen capital where oil paid for all, even the very food they ate, almost all of it imported.
As in all booms, prices went sky-high — so high that even today they are still almost astronomical. A bottle of local beer costs five shillings, a cake of American toilet soap half a crown, a local daily paper ls. 6d., a picture postcard a shilling. About the only things that are cheaper here than anywhere else in the world are orchids and a gallon of petrol.
But Caracas, after all, isn’t Venezuela. Caracas can boast the highest annual income per head in Latin America — 800 dollars. But official statistics show the painful unbalance of this oil-rich country. Eighty per cent of families in country and rural areas still earn less than 300 dollars a year.
In the city’s parks and open spaces are some of the worst slums I have seen, and they are only two years old. They are shanty towns, built by squatters who have no work but are still able to live rent-free.
In January, 1958, Jimenez was overthrown in a bloody uprising here in Caracas, in which six hundred died in these fine new streets — all concrete and glass.
In the following December Venezuela had its first free election in 10 years.
The new regime has tried hard to cut down on wildcat spending, to make the country grow enough food to feed itself. It was only just in time.
Experts reckon that there is still enough oil left to last the century out. But last year the price of oil on the world market dropped so sharply that Venezuela, although producing 6 per cent more, actually earned 7 per cent less for its oil than in 1958.
If the price goes on falling — as it could very well do, for at the moment the world has more oil than it needs — then the situation could become very serious, indeed.
Anticipating this, the Government is already threatening to join with Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, which together control 90 per cent of the world’s oil exports, in forcing up the price. Moreover, it is hinting that instead of sharing the profits 60-40 with the foreign oil companies it should control production and export of its own oil.
Now the oil companies have been all through this many times before in many parts of the world. And they can feel the cold wind blowing from Cuba just across the sea.
So they, too, have made their plans. Quietly the new oil-rings are being slipped into Argentina. And big American business houses that planned to stay in Caracas are opening in Brasilia instead.
The English-language newspaper published here, The Daily Journal, is full of advertisements of furniture offered at giveaway prices by foreigners leaving the country. In the smart new suburbs, where a two-bedroomed apartment costs 250 dollars a month, the “To rent” signs are everywhere.
With the happy exception of Chile, no South American country is easy to get into. Each has its own complicated set of rules and regulations.
Argentina wanted to be sure I wasn’t mad. Brazil demanded a certificate from a Justice of the Peace (which had to be witnessed by a Notary Public) that I was of good moral character and behaviour. But Venezuela is far the most difficult to get into and to get out of.
The moment I arrived I was in trouble. It seemed that before I could claim my baggage from Customs I had to have a 20-bolivar stamp on my passport. Now the plane was eight hours late and it was one o’clock in the morning, and the man who issued the stamps had gone home. I would have to come back in the morning, they said. I did some quick mental arithmetic. Three cab rides, plus the price of the stamp, would cost me just over £10. I decided to stay where I was — on a bench in the Customs shed.
Getting out is proving almost as difficult. Before I could leave I had to get a certificate absolving me of payment of income tax, though I had been in the country less than a week. Despite swift red-tape cutting by Pan American, I still had to endure a quick-fire interrogation from a red-headed moppet who couldn’t have been a day older than 20.
What was my salary? Who was paying me? What was I doing in Venezuela, anyway?
Writing articles, I said.
About what? she said. About pretty girls like you. I said, with tremendous old-world charm.
And that tough little bureaucrat had the grace to blush…
Reproduced with permission
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Jerry F 2023