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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.Caracas Chronicles is 100% reader-supported. Support independent Venezuelan journalism by making a donation.