Monday, August 03, 2009

Book review: Polar launches its complete geography of Venezuela

On occasion I run into an intellectual construct that truly excites me. During my last trip to Caracas I finally met what I had been waiting for long, a follow up to the paradigm setting "Diccionario de Historia de Venezuela" [DHV] (1).

The new "Geo Venezuela" starts where DHV stops, with the historical maps of Venezuela to move then into the description of all that comprise the physical reality of Venezuela. It is not complete yet as only the first Volumes have been edited and published from a total of a promised 9 to which I understand a sort of Atlas will be added (2).

The DHV has become the reference book for anyone writing about Venezuela and wishing to have a factual and accurate account of the different names, events and places that made Venezuelan history. As an historical dictionary it is unmatched and represents one of the cultural highlights of Venezuela intellectual creation even if it is an austere set of 4 encyclopedic books. Written in the 80ies and 90ies, at a time of general foreboding as to the future of Venezuela, I suppose it was also meant as a record of all that defined us as a people before history swept over us to destroy our past through active demolition or simple neglect and "oubli". As such with the arrival of Chavez in 1999 that premonition came to pass since almost from the start chavismo has been busy rewriting Venezuelan history, distorting it and changing names. I wonder if today it would still be possible to write again the DHV with the same criteria of objectivity that prevailed then.

But the DHV suffered of a major flaw; if it had a lot of tables in its last volume, it lacked a map section, something that this blogger deems essential in any history book, even written in a dictionary form. I was hoping all these years, thinking about that almost whenever I used the DHV, that Fundacion Polar would remediate this lack. They did, not all, but they did.

The new Geo Venezuela will carry all the maps you can think of, national and regional, political and geographical, with many pictures to back the description and even Audubon like drawings of plants and animals.

The opus index promises us 7 sections in 9 volumes covering historical geography, physical and natural resources, human activities and settlement, regional diversity, a cultural geography with a yet unpublished volume for "geo-strategy and integration", something put very much in fashion in these recent years, except that we can expect Fundacion Polar writers to offer us practical aspects of this integration rather than the wishful thinking in vogue at Miraflores Palace. The general index is on the left side and you can click for a larger picture, as you can do on all other pictures of this post. I apologize that the quality is not as good as I wished it to be because my scanner is of awkward use with books, and the thin paper of the edition allows for a background sometimes difficult to clean up.

Each volume consists of individual major chapters written by different authors, many of them well known top specialists in their fields, and I am sure none of them an unknown first timer (this is my way to admit that I have not heard of all of them). I have purchased only the first two volumes because, well, they are expensive and I will need to work out my shelves space to include Geo Venezuela next to my DHV. Thus, for the rest of this blog entry I will review only volume 1, which is the only one of the volumes to be divided in two parties, while perhaps being the thinner of the lot. However I can assure you that volume 2 is equally fascinating and that starting next month I will purchase the other ones, tome by tome, so as to give me plenty of time to peruse them at leisure.

Volume 1 starts with a one page introduction written by the president of Fundacion Polar, Leonor Gimenez de Mendoza, whose place is guaranteed in Venezuelan cultural history for the initiative she took with DHV and Geo. I am going to translate below the middle paragraph because it says it all.
If we accept, as Braudel says, that geography is the first chapter of History, which in in a way it is a very obvious truth, thus this geographical opus is a work that was awaiting us for a long time, possibly since the very moment we decided to face the making of the DHV.
And a later paragraph
To gain the development that we are destined to, we need the conscientious study of what we are and what we have. That was the fundamental reason that accompanied us to defeat the natural roadblocks that come up when one faces a work of the magnitude of this one.
This way she set tone, without any ambiguity and great ambition.

As it should be the first chapter, written by Simon Alberto Consalvi, of the series is dedicated to those giants, or lesser lights, who have penned and drawn the first descriptions of Venezuela, a long obscure colony of Spain which came into prominence with its cacao commerce that allowed for the education of a generation of Illustrated Venezuelans who drove the independence of almost half of South America. Foremost, of course, were Alexander von Humboldt whose patronymic can be found everywhere, from the second highest mountain of Venezuela to the maker and unmaker of El Niño off Peru's shores and Agustin Codazzi who made the first realistic maps of Venezuela shortly after independence.

The book then enters into matter, trying to describe the geography of Venezuela when Columbus encountered it. For this, exquisite maps are united to pictures of native objects, pictures of country side and the like. The more interesting part perhaps for me was the description on how the settlement of Venezuela progressed and I am sharing with you some of the maps and graphs of the book.

The first one is about the early discovery of Venezuela which shows clearly that it was one of the earliest areas of the Americas to be explored before Spain lost interest for Venezuela once the empires of Mexico and the Inca were found and destroyed. Note by the way in red, the expedition of Amerigo Vespucci who accidentally would give his name to the new continent from observations he did mainly from Venezuela, including Venezuela's name.

We can also see a map of the first looting of Venezuela, the expedition of Guerra and Niño in 1499. This fascinating map tells us how a small ship touched Venezuela in many a place and got whatever it could find, from live monkeys to river gold. A perfect premonition of what would be Venezuelan history to these days when characters like the Cabello and Chacon clans are properly looting all what they can from the public treasury. Then as today it was qualified "trade" when in fact it was done through the superiority of weapons or the abuse of law.

What we can retain from these two maps is that by the first year of the XVI century Spaniards had already a good idea of the Venezuelan shores, the first continental area to be duly explored, something often lost even by serious historians who think that only the US has the right to call itself America, when it can aspire at best to the label of NORTH America. America is one, from Prudhoe Bay to Ushuai. OK, sorry for this small rant.

Next I would like to show you some of the maps of the first settlements of Venezuela. But let's start first by what was the general division of the social constructs existing in the indigenous population. I liked very much this next map because in its simplicity it kills some of the chavista racial propaganda that we are suffering today. See, chavismo has that mythic vision that the natives before Columbus arrival were walking around naked, in loving peace and living off a few fish they caught and some fruits and manioc they dug. Nothing further from the truth. If indeed Venezuelan natives had no society organized as in Mexico or Peru, it still had two general areas as indicated in the map: an area of structured and hierarchical societies, and another area of "egalitarian" societies, those which naturally happen in sparsely settled area where a nomadic way of life is the norm. We can imagine that in the light green area conflict already existed as proto states were evolving. But certainly in the "egalitarian" darker green areas conflict must have existed. After all, the reports of cannibalism in Venezuela, true or not, ritual or not, we might never know for sure, come from this area.

Whatever the case might be, one thing is certain, culturally the Venezuelan natives were divided into two general cultural areas and to this day we can still feel that division as it influenced the racial mix that would follow discovery.

For the settlement of the country I have chosen three maps, the general foundation of "cities in Western Venezuela, the expansion in Eastern Venezuela and the state of settlement in Eastern Venezuela when independence came (and what Humboldt found a very few years before independence wars started).

In this first map you can observe three directions of settlement for the Western part of Venezuela. From the Eastern part, explored first, came some occasional forays into the Western part of the country (in blue). That Western part had two focus of settlement. The first one from Coro to El Tocuyo and then farther, to Caracas (in red). The Andean settlement came from what is today Colombia (in yellow).

It is easy to guess the effects of culture and ethnic mix since these "conquistadors"/settlers came with a varied mix of help. For example those who came from Colombia brought the Chibchas. Those who came from the East brought Carib and later black slaves. Those who came from Coro and El Tocuyo, well, they carried all sorts of people to every corner. Adding this mix to the existing division of native cultural areas you can start understanding much better the current cultural divisions of Venezuela, from the Zuliano to the Guayanes, another distinction that chavismo is hard at work trying to erase, in particular in Zulia for which cultural specificity Chavez has the deafest of hears.

The fact remains that all through our history there were always the elites from Barquisimeto to Caracas distinct from the ones from the Andes and they only started to mix to some extent when the Andes folks took over in 1899 (3). It is to be noted that both elites had always significant misgivings for the Llanero groups which were the last ones to be "settled" by the Spaniards, and from where Chavez comes. Never mind the historical figures of Boves and Paez.

The next two charts are specific to the settlement of the Eastern part of the country. The first one illustrates the slow penetration of the area, limited at first to the shores. As long as pearls were available the shores thrived, but once the "placeres" were exhausted of their oysters and gold was found in Mexico, that area was sort of forgotten. Still, its strategic importance at guarding the Southern entry of the Caribbean, and the exploitation of salt pans at Araya slowly brought it back to life and to colonization. In fact Cumana and Araya show the most impressive fortifications of Venezuela since they defended Araya salt pans from the greed of Dutch sailors in particular. Note also that Trinidad was settled first by French and Spaniards but that for many reasons the settlement was never strong enough and allowed the English eventually to take over.

The next map is the human occupation at the eve of the Independence Wars, what Humboldt found when he landed in Cumana. This map fulfills my heart desires since it describes very well the reality of the area then. You can see clearly that there was no major cities, which were the major settlements, which were the communication roads for trade (and later such as military campaigns). This map is perhaps the best way to understand why Bolivar run to the Eastern part of Venezuela when the Second Republic felt to Boves, but also why Bolivar understood that the Independence of Venezuela needed to restart from that area, far enough from Spaniard control then as they were too busy trying to retain the bigger pieces of their crumbling colonial Empire.

To finish this sampling of Geo Venezuela two more items. First, a chart of the percentage of Urban Population in Venezuela.

There is no difficulty in interpreting this chart. When oil arrived in the 20ies, not even 20% of Venezuelans lived in urban centers. Today barely 10% still live in the country side, the dramatic breaking point in the switch of Venezuelan society being between 1940 and 1970. We must keep in mind this chart when we hear the Chavez nonsense of a return to the country side. Chavez inherited a country where nearly 90% of the people are urban dwellers. And yet his conservative and reactionary mind makes him see Venezuela as still an agrarian country. As such he has devoted his decade to redraw the country side while the most pressing problems of the 90% urban residents were only too often ignored. The sad part is that the destruction of the rural areas operated through chavista agents will hurt decisively the well being of the 90% that have chosen long ago to live in town. But that is another story.

Finally, and just for the sake of it, the map of what would be the "Capitania General de Venezuela" on a modern topographical map. Think about all what Venezuela has lost due to the ineptitude of its preceding rulers, and wonder about what else will be lost when the chavista nightmare is eventually over.

Observe the interesting detail that the Spaniard had made a rational division of their lands. Venezuela was a smallish settled area near the cost which was in charge of managing two of the major empty zones of the Spanish Empire, the Llanos and Guayana (the other ones being the Mexican North, the Argentinian Pampas and Patagonia, and the Chaco). Even though Venezuela strategic importance for the Spaniard was rising (the prosperous commerce of cacao and cattle products) in their mind Mexico and Peru, with rising Colombia, were the key possessions. The other ones were organized so as to be buffer and protect these regions.

The faithful reader that is still reading must have gathered by now that I am thrilled with this new collection from the Fundacion Polar, for which I am grateful. Yet, I must bring in some criticism.

First I have been surprised at a rather lax editing. I have found spelling mistakes more often than expected, and in Spanish it is rather difficult to have spelling mistakes if you have an average editor. Perhaps with all the political problems of today, and because the Polar Group, and its foundation, are a target of chavismo which will nationalize it any time soon, they decided to rush the work and wait for a possible second edition to fix all the little problems. It is certain that if the state were to take over Polar, such a book could not be edited anymore with the necessary objectivity, certainly not inside Venezuela. As such I will advise that whomever can afford it to get it as soon as you can, or at least the volumes that interest you. I know I will, and that I will use it extensively as support material for future blog entries.

The second criticism is that there are also silly mistakes in the maps, such as colors that do not match between the legend and the map itself. This, in my opinion, and perhaps because of my scientific education, is rather unacceptable. You can find an example in the Eastern map at the time of Humboldt when the green triangle of the map do not match the green triangle of the legend. And this is a minor error as I saw graver ones.

A third criticism is the lack of general index in each volume. I do understand that creating an index for such a genre is rather difficult and there is probably a general index planned for the end. But still, if a glossary of terms could be included at the end of each chapter (an excellent initiative) an effort should have been made to include a small index of the major terms and geographical areas discussed in that volume. Not to mention and index of maps, always welcome and rarely offered in general.

Still, I cannot tell you how delighted I have been this week reading random chapters of the two first volumes. Yes, random chapters as you need not read the whole thing linearly, even though I suppose it would be advisable.

However when everything is said and done, these books succeed for that rare quality in scholarly material: the narrative and material offered eventually make you dream of what Venezuela was and could be, make you want to travel and visit all the places you read about. This precious quality eventually will make you realize more than ever that the place where you grew up and live is always more than the sum of its parts.

A big BRAVO! for the Fundacion Polar, for showing us that all is not lost yet in Venezuela.

--- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- ---

1) Diccionario de Historia de Venezuela
Fundacion Polar 1989, 1997
ISBN 980-6397-37-1

2) Geo Venezuela
Fundacion Polar 2007 and on
ISBN 978-980-379-165-0

3) Elites is a very dangerous word to use in such narrative. All of the Venezuelan elites were relatively poor compared to the elite group of other LatAm countries since the Venezuelan cultural elite was devastated during the Independence Wars, from which they never recovered. All through the XIX century elite is best applied to the groups that hold power rather than wealth since wealth was land and the people who worked your land. Only when the easy money of oil came a change came in the way Venezuelan elites were formed and lived. Perhaps it would be better to use the word "caste" to describe Venezuela elite, if it were not that the constant historical upheavals of Independence, Federal war and Castro/Gomez reigns never allowed for a social caste system to establish permanently. Venezuela is perhaps the most socially mobile country of South America, no matter what Chavez would like us to believe.

-The end-

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