Missionary Capitalist, Nelson Rockefeller in Venezuela

DARLENE RIVAS:  Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002.


In recent years, many writers have examined the foreign interests of Nelson Rockefeller, as well as those of the larger Rockefeller family. How should one view the historic legacy of the Rockefeller family interests abroad? Shouldone regard Nelson Rockefeller as a self-serving figure, ruthlessly exploiting the Third World and Latin America in order to advance his own narrow business interests? Or, should one see him as an enlightened businessman, generously attempting to lift Latin American countries from poverty? In addressing these questions, scholars have adopted a number of approaches. Some studies, such as Edward Berman's The Influence of the Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller Foundations on American Foreign Policy: TheIdeology of Philanthropy, have dealt with the intersection between Rockefeller interests and wider US hegemony abroad. Other books examine the particular contours of Rockefeller Foundation programs, as in the case of Marcos Cueto's Missionaries of Science, The Rockefeller Foundation and Latin America. Armando Solorzano, for example, suggests that the Rockefeller Foundation, through its public health campaigns in Mexico, was able to reverse anti-US sentiment, while Deborah Fitzgerald examines the cultural dimension of Rockefeller Foundation agricultural programs in Mexico and the export of US agricultural models.

One country which has been neglectedin the literature on Rockefeller has been Venezuela. This is odd, given the enormous importance of Venezuelain terms of Rockefeller's overseas investments. As early as 1936, Rockefeller became involved in Venezuela through his investment in Creole Petroleum, a Venezuelan subsidiary of Standard Oil. Later, in the 1940s and '50s, he organized a number of ambitious development projects in Venezuela. Darlene Rivas, in her new study on Nelson Rockefeller in Venezuela, paints a complex and subtle portrait of the infamous US magnate. An informative book, it is the first to deal systematically with Rockefeller's activities in this South American nation. Her study will appeal not only to US and South American scholars of Nelson Rockefeller, but also to business historians, cultural historians, and scholars interested in US-Latin American relations as a whole. In many ways, Rivas has taken her cue from another recent study, The Rich Neighbor Policy, Rockefeller and Kaiser in Brazil, by Elizabeth Cobbs, which examines Nelson Rockefeller's agricultural programs in Brazil and how they related to the wider objectives of US foreign policy. Like Rivas, Cobbs also looks at the activities of Nelson Rockefeller as a private businessman. Cobbs argues that Nelson Rockefeller represented a particular strain ofAmerican business thought after World War II which recognized that US capitalism had to reconcile with Third World nationalism. Also like Rivas, Cobbs looks at Rockefeller's development programs from an economic and cultural standpoint.

Rivas inclines towards a more complex view of Rockefeller, writing that "Rockefeller was not some stereotypical and cartoonish robber baron hiding behind a mask of liberal Republicanism. The 'missionary capitalist' was full of contradictions--idealistic, ambitious, rash, far-sighted, concerned, callous, empathetic, and detached, among other qualities." These contradictions, Rivas goes on to say, all formed part of a "broader US interest in reforming capitalist behavior and nurtured by the early coldwar." Americans, Rivas states, thought other nations should receive US know-how, in this case respect for dignity of individual workers and farmers, technical expertise, efficiency, and rationality. Rockefeller, then, through his 'missionary' efforts in Venezuela, was only tapping into a broader mood, shared by an elite corporate leadership and later by a broader spectrum of Americans, that stressed 'people-to-people' nation building. It may be true, as Rivas asserts, that Rockefeller considered himself a secular missionary; however, Charlotte Dennett and Gerard Colby have shown in Thy Will Be Done: The Conquest of the Amazon, Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in The Age of Oil that the Rockefeller family long supported evangelical missionaries who had operations in Latin America. It is curious, given the title of her book, that Rivas does not at least attempt a short discussion about this connection.

The new view, which appealed to 'do-gooders' and included business experts as well as applied scientists, preceded the Peace Corps and Alliance for Progress. Traditionally, Rivas states, scholars seeking to explain Latin American-US relations have focused upon over-arching theories such as Dependency or World Systems. Such theories, argues Rivas, are inadequate in attempting to explain Nelson Rockefeller and his work in Venezuela. Though she does not offer an alternative paradigm herself, Rivas argues that the story of Rockefeller in Venezuela suggests a more complex and multi-faceted US-Latin American relationship. Rivas suggests that though Rockefeller tried to extend the liberal US order to Latin America, yet "the hegemony's resources and attention to Latin America were limited, and both motivations for policies and the actual impact of policies were more complex than the current dominant theories would have one believe." More fundamentally, argues Rivas, traditional theories have tended to emphasize the role of the state and US actions while neglecting the role of private actors as well as Latin Americans themselves.

Rivas, who has drawn upon documentation from the Rockefeller archive, does a good job of describing how Rockefeller's economic vision for Latin America dove tailed with political and cultural considerations. Early on, during a trip to Venezuela, Rivas explains, the young Rockefeller observed the fenced-in compounds of Creole, where foreigners lived in isolation from the rest of the population. The company employed few Venezuelan nationals in high positions, and American employees made little effort to learn Spanish. The incident, Rivas goes on to say, left a deep psychological imprint on Rockefeller. In later chapters, the author describes how Rockefeller attempted to mend fences in Latin America and overcome the legacy of companies like Creole. Rockefeller initiated cultural and propaganda programs in Latin America on behalf of US government interests during World War II. Such cultural efforts were complemented by Rockefeller's non-profit development program in Venezuela, the AIA (American International Association), consisting of nutrition and agricultural development programs. Though the AIA ran into political and cultural difficulties in Venezuela, Rivas argues that it did succeed in improving the quality of many Venezuelans' lives. Rivasis somewhat more circumspect about Rockefeller's for profit ventures, that included a fish company, dairy projects, farms, and a food distribution company, which raninto economic problems and were not always culturally attuned to the needs of Venezuelan farmers.

Nikolas Kozloff CUNY, Brooklyn College

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