Photo: Cantabriaindustrial retrieved

Before reading Memoria ciudadana, I didn’t know who Gustavo Coronel was. I don’t follow his blog Las Armas de Coronel, much less read El petróleo viene de la luna, the first part of his memoirs. So at first, I was lost dipping into his life in 1983, just out of PDVSA and invited as a fellow in Harvard University, eventually working for the Inter-American Development Bank.

It’s not until 1989, in a meeting with then president Carlos Andrés Pérez, when you start to understand the mentality that defines the man, when he said to CAP: “I want to work in the public sector, preferably in a rundown entity.”

His experience is quite valuable and it’s really the main draw of the book. During his time at CVG, for example, he witnesses the problem of a public enterprise that’s too large to be manageable but, at the same time, too important to be dismantled.

Having worked in key positions at PDVSA, CVG and the Puerto Cabello docks—the latter two told in Memoria Ciudadana—his insight in the inner workings of Venezuelan bureaucracy is key to understand the root of many of today’s vices in what appeared to be the successful state-owned companies of the time.

During his time at CVG, for example, he witnesses the problem of a public enterprise that’s too large to be manageable but, at the same time, too important to be dismantled.

The book becomes engrossing early on, when it reaches the 90s, particularly in 1998, when Hugo Chávez is running for president and Coronel finds himself in the campaign trail, as a team member for his rival, former Carabobo governor Henrique Salas Römer. As Coronel puts it, “The country yearned for a radical change… and it got it.”

From the beginning, Coronel saw the signs of today’s tragedy. The approval of the 1999 Constitution, the autonomy loss of the Central Bank and PDVSA, the early corruption scandals, the growing personality cult, the Bolivarian Circles and the introduction of Pre-Military Training in schools are just some of the omens.

Like many Venezuelans who opposed the Bolivarian Revolution since its inception, he becomes a defenseless witness in the dismantling of the country’s democratic institutions, not understanding the complicity of otherwise intelligent, laborious, upstanding citizens in an authoritarian regime that would cause everyone else’s ruin.

He writes, for instance, that “if I, a simple citizen, was capable of seeing the Venezuelan tragedy and all its horrifying outreach in the second year of the chavista regime, why didn’t the opposition leadership? Was it ignorance?  Cowardice? Indifference? Or collaborationism?”

“if I, a simple citizen, was capable of seeing the Venezuelan tragedy and all its horrifying outreach in the second year of the chavista regime, why didn’t the opposition leadership?”

For then on, the book is a personal chronology of the chavismo years that most Caracas Chronicles’ readers are familiar with. As an autobiography, it’s frankly not a very engaging read, and for those who have lived through it, it can be very painful. As a reference book—or maybe as a witness account—it’s a necessary resource to understand, step by step, the long, convoluted route that led to Venezuela’s current situation with the advantage of its chronological order.

Probably, its most important contribution is how Coronel manages, with facts and data, to dismount the myth of a Venezuela running fine and dandy under Chávez, despite the government’s authoritarian bent.

The book has other flaws; the content itself, fine as it is, could have benefited from an editor with a clearer criteria about what’s important and what’s not, unafraid to cut out some of the most superfluous passages.

The book seems, at times, somewhat disorganized and redundant, going on tangents that range from civic formation or mangoes in Carabobo. A related issue is with tone, particularly in the middle and latter parts, going for instance from the suitcase scandal in Argentina to a delightful Thanksgiving poem. Or starting with the attack of the Mariperez Synagogue to describe the memory of a trip to New York City, without a proper literary transition.

Another thing I had a problem with was grasping the author’s vision of Venezuela beyond calls of “good civics,” which is set aside once chavismo enters to scene. One is tempted to say that Coronel, who undoubtedly has a profound bond and dedication to the country, is frustrated about the Venezuelan people.

One is tempted to say that Coronel, who undoubtedly has a profound bond and dedication to the country, is frustrated about the Venezuelan people.

This is understandable, and it’s shared by many fellow nationals, inside and outside the country. He writes, near the end, that “the true escape from poverty is empowering the poor so they can become producers, citizens, society’s integrated contributors, and not parasites. Chávez didn’t do this. Only civic education that introduces an attitude change can achieve this.”

One infers his vision is influenced by American and Nordic notions of individual freedom and personal responsibility, particularly on his thoughts about Sabana del Medio. Yet these ideas answer to a particular evolution bound to a historical and social contexts that were not present in Venezuela and most of Latin America, leaving room to debate on exactly how realistic or achievable this vision is.

Coronel frames himself as a simple citizen but, of course, a simple citizen isn’t offered a job by the president or is invited by Harvard University as a fellow. He’s an opinionated professional who, during his whole life, focused to improve as much as he could the world around him. In the final part of the book, he rightfully regrets the little care history has with the generation of men and women who helped build the Venezuelan oil industry, yet he hopes that their work, the legacy of an entire generation, helps to build a future Venezuela. Maybe even a new Venezuelan miracle.

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20 COMMENTS

  1. Sounds like something I would want to read, except the negative review here scares me, and I doubt it’s available in English anyway.

    If available, maybe I would give it a shot. My take on it might be different, and I really don’t know about any other “comprehensive” books or other media on Chavismo.

    Oliver Stone doesn’t count.

    • Hi Ira

      If you haven’t read “Comandante: Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela” by Rory Carroll, I highly recommend it. Easily the best english language book that captures the madness, corruption, and incompetence at the core of Chavismo, with many interviews and stories illustrating the larger narrative of how a cultlike movement led by an economically illiterate megalomaniac steadily degraded the country’s economy, institutions, and discourse.

      Excerpt of a review from WaPo: “Carroll shows how Chavez’s shoddy understanding and willful manipulation of the economy ended by raining misery on the very people he meant to save. We see, in this vivid narrative, a government that is Shakespearean in its failings. By 2000, one year after Chavez was installed, a campaign everyone could believe in — rout the corrupt! elevate the poor! invigorate the nation! — had produced a clone of Cuba’s faltering communist state… [a] deeply informative, sprightly chronicle of Venezuela’s dizzying journey under its Comandante”

  2. “One infers his vision is influenced by American and Nordic notions of individual freedom and personal responsibility, particularly on his thoughts about Sabana del Medio. Yet these ideas answer to a particular evolution bound to a historical and social contexts that were not present in Venezuela and most of Latin America, leaving room to debate on exactly how realistic or achievable this vision is.”

    Some Latin Americans seem to have gotten it right, at least back in the day. Maybe there is hope.

    “You’re a good-looking boy: you’ve big, broad shoulders. But he’s a man. And it takes more than big, broad shoulders to make a man.”

    María Cristina Estela Marcela Jurado García, aka: Katy Jurado, playing Helen Ramirez in “High Noon,” 1952

  3. “One is tempted to say that Coronel, who undoubtedly has a profound bond and dedication to the country, is frustrated about the Venezuelan people.”

    Rightfully so. Who can be proud of such a massively ignorant and immensely corrupt/complicit populace?

    “This is understandable, and it’s shared by many fellow nationals, inside and outside the country. He writes, near the end, that “the true escape from poverty is empowering the poor so they can become producers, citizens, society’s integrated contributors, and not parasites. Chávez didn’t do this. Only civic education that introduces an attitude change can achieve this.”

    Education yes, what I’ve written countless times on these blogs. But not just vague “civic” education. That sounds like patriotic/nationalistic crap for retarded zombies. REAL education is what is required. And that means teaching people how to think for themselves, analyse situations with critical vision, form their own opinions, interpret tons of information available these days and draw their own well-informed conclusions. That’s education. Not just regurgitation a few simple math equations or the names of stupid “national heroes”. Not just speaking proper Spanish, also some basic English, at least. Informed pueblo people with critical thinking of their own. That’s the education that identified Chavista crap a mile away and rejects retarded populism or “socialism” crap. That’s the education that promotes moral values, working character, self improvement, as opposed to gobielno hala bolas, beggars and thieves – which is what most of our disgraceful “pueblo”people are, let’s face it. That’s what created and sustains the Chavistoide disaster.

    “One infers his vision is influenced by American and Nordic notions of individual freedom and personal responsibility, particularly on his thoughts about Sabana del Medio. Yet these ideas answer to a particular evolution bound to a historical and social contexts that were not present in Venezuela and most of Latin America, leaving room to debate on exactly how realistic or achievable this vision is.”

    Tough to achieve, indeed. Tough to re-wire and educate and entire generations of brain-washed, lazy, corrupt, clueless, ignorant indians. (El Pueblo). Tough to instill half-decent moral values in broken families with ignorant mothers having 10 kids off 5 different fathers. Certainly something no MUDcrap ‘transition government” can do, no Capriles shitty government can do. It would require very tough measures, strict laws, harsh punishment for all pueblo-criminals, yes, millions of them, mandatory education, REAL education as described above. Singapore style, at the very least.

    Too bad there are no Marcos Perez Jimenezes around when you really need them. Unfortunately, that’s what it would take to properly educate and control the Kleptozuelan messed-up populace, at this point. Too ignorant, too corrupt. Only carrots and sticks would work, and it would take many, many years to start building some real character and a better population. Because they are no good, in general. That’s why they produced and maintain Chavismo.

  4. He started working for Shell long before nationalization , he was a young geologist much admired by peers and bosses when the post of head geologist was opened , Shell had a system for identifying people with high potential when young so they would have a chance or reaching the highest levels of management the company being so huge …they were people who read people just by talking to them and their colleagues , when the local management proposed a veteran candidate for the post Shell centre did something very unusual (they usually followed the locals advise) , they asked ‘why dont you give a good second look at Coronel’, he was a top notch professional , had a personality and demenour that made people instantly like him and was totally honest to a degree you seldom find in anyone….., he also had a literary side people found remarkable , he was stationed in Indonesia and sent back articles that explained indonesia to people in a way that made it fascinating , once the top bosses in a big advertising agency saw him in a lift and inmediately offered him a job , he could appear in any advertisement and people would instantly trust and like him ……, of course he rose thru the ranks of Pdvsa and was known to be absolutely rational honest and technical whenever any of the political bosses at the ministry brought up some frivolous political decisions and didnt care what that might do to his career . He was a giant of a man , much admired within Pdvsa by everyone …..he left Pdvsa because the Ministry decided on a foolish transfer of the company he headed to a city of the interior which lacked the means to sustain the work which needed to be done just to please the local pols ….he went to the US and found no difficulty getting hired at the most respected jobs . One thing people dont know is that his effort was decisive in making the nationalization of the Venezuelan oil industry a success , he would shut himself up in a windowless unlighted room with a single lamp illuminating the paper he was reading and spend hours coming up with solutions to countless problems that no body knew how to handle……I have great admiration for Dr Coronel not just for his intellectual brilliance but for his absolutely honest approach to things …..!! This would be a different country if we had 10 men like him and enough people who could appreciate his worth..

  5. I’m glad other people have had positive experiences with https://usabookreviewers.com/ too. To tack on two cents: I’ve had a really great experience with them so far– I’ve had over 60 reviews and 90 ratings. Not sure on my stats yet, but I’m so, so glad I decided to do this!

  6. Just to fact check a bit, the introduction of Pre-Military Training in schools did not happen under Chávez’s government but under Luis Herrera Campins back in 1981.

  7. “This would be a different country if we had 10 men like him and enough people who could appreciate his worth..”

    Right. And that’s precisely the problem. That Venezuela had very, very few men like Gustavo Coronel, and they’re all gone. Heck, the education level, moral values of people like him is what builds great countries. 95% of PDVSA’s local employees were nowhere near as good. Most of them soon became corrupt, if they weren’t already as soon as Chavismo set in. As in every other industry. That’s why Kleptozuela went to hell. The poor quality of its people, at all levels. The abysmal levels of professional proficiency. Once the USA professionals let go, and the locals took over, it all went down the drain. Ineptitude, ignorance, Latino Corruption. FACE IT.

  8. Coronel was not uncomfortable being a long standing member of the Pdvsa tribe and an emblem of its culture because corruption was largely under strict control and if it happened people got thrown out , the systems where there to make it an exceptional ocurrence . What bothered him was the corruption that came in thru the govt making politically motivated decisions that were inept and stupid ………and which affected the running of the industry. Later of course corruption became the normal setting and honesty the exception …….Ortega had a saying ‘ Problem is not the exceptional abuse of the rule but the violation of the rule becoming the custom.’

    I do think that there are more Gustavo Coronel in Venezuela but they have no means of making themselves felt because the climate is so charged with tyranny and ambition and incompetence .

  9. I am very grateful to CC and to Jose Gonzalez Vargas for the review of my latest book: Venezuela 1981-2015, Una Memoria Ciudadana. This book started as a Memoir for the interval 1981-1999, designed to transmit some of my experiences in the international and Venezuelan public serviceand continued, predominantly, as a chronicle of the Chavez nightmare in the interval 1999-2015. I tried to put together this chronicle to save some time and effort for future historians, researchers or curious Venezuelans.
    Much of the task of looking for the information I have done for them. It will not win a Pulitzer prize, I agree, but is a contribution to the collective memory of those years and it responds to my belief that every citizen, the great and te small, should document his,her voyage thrugh life. It has the added atraction of a foreword by my good friend Moises Naím.
    I am very grateful for some of the comments I have read, especially the very generous profile written by Bill Bass. If I have come across to my fellow citizens in a way such as Bill describes it, that makes me feel very successful and exceeds my wildest expectations.
    The book can be accesed, for free, at: http://armasdecoronel.com/portfolio/una-memoria-ciudadana/
    If you have $2.99 or $12.99 to spare, you can get it in Kindle or in hard copy from Amazon, at: https://www.amazon.com/Venezuela-1981-2015-memoria-ciudadana-Spanish/dp/198078390X/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1538664978&sr=1-1-fkmr0&keywords=Venezuela+1981-1985%2C+Una+memoria+ciudadana

  10. Ah Salute to Gustavo Coronel and Bill Bass. They both have inside knowledge that you just don’t get very many places. Fantastic work gentlemen.

  11. Because I believe that PDVSA’s mess began even before Chavez made his entrance, and Gustavo has his memories firmly anchored in those great first PDVSA years during the presidency of General Alfonzo Ravard, we do not always agree… but, that said, he is one of the most straight shooting guys I have known, and I am proud when, forgivingly, he mentions me as a friend.

    And his blog quite often contains glorious remembrances that I share with all my family members… and I assure you, they all love it.

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