A central figure in twentieth century Latin American letters, Arturo Uslar Pietri was born in Caracas in 1906. Although his name is not as familiar to American and European readers as are the writers of the Boom (Fuentes, Vargas Llosa, et al), Uslar Pietri’s death in 2001 left an irreplaceable gap in Venezuelan cultural and political life. Uslar Pietri first came to prominence with the publication of his novel Las lanzas coloradas in 1931. Throughout his long career, he published poetry, fiction, and essays, while also serving as a minister in various administrations, and working as a teacher and journalist.
After completing doctoral studies in Political Science at the Universidad Central de Venezuela, Uslar Pietri spent several years in Paris, working as a cultural attaché for the Venezuelan embassy, in the late 1920s and early 1930s. It was during this period in France that Uslar Pietri befriended Miguel Angel Asturias and Alejo Carpentier. The three writers spent many hours discussing each other’s work, alongside their hopes and ideas for the literature of their respective countries, and for Latin America as a region. These conversations led to some of the first theories about what Uslar Pietri would later call, in one of his essays of the late 1940s, “el realismo magico.”
Their initial theories about “realismo magico” were influenced as much by the French surrealists as by an interest in how the concept of mestizaje in the Americas could be developed within Latin American literature. Uslar Pietri would return to the theme of mestizaje throughout his career, seeing it as a central aspect of Venezuelan culture.
In 1936, Uslar Pietri published an essay called “Sembrar el petroleo” (To Plant Oil), in which he advised the Venezuelan government to invest the profits from the recently-discovered oil fields, so that Venezuela could establish a solid financial structure. Over the decades, this essay was frequently cited but its concept was never fully adhered to by any Venezuelan president.
In 1948, while teaching at Columbia University, Uslar Pietri published an excellent critical history of Venezuelan letters, Letras y hombres de Venezuela. From that year until 1998, Uslar Pietri wrote a weekly newspaper column for El Nacional. He also hosted a series of television lecture shows that offered interpretations of Venezuelan history and literature for a general audience. I remember, as a child, flipping through the TV channels sometimes and wondering who the boring, old man sitting at a desk and talking interminably might be. Uslar Pietri’s now-famous opening words for each show were always: “Bienvenidos, mis amigos invisibles…” (Welcome, my invisible friends…).
Toward the end of 2000, two years into Hugo Chavez’s presidency, the poet and critic Rafael Arráiz Lucca, interviewed Uslar Pietri at his home in the La Florida neighborhood of Caracas. This turned out to be Uslar Pietri’s final interview, and it was eventually published as: Rafael Arráiz Lucca, Arturo Uslar Pietri: Ajuste de cuentas (Caracas: Los Libros de El Nacional, 2001). Below are excerpts from that interview.
The pessimistic tone of Uslar Pietri’s commentary on Venezuela’s current crisis should be read within the context of his battle against cancer at the time. However, his critiques do carry the weight of an entire lifetime spent in the effort to build a Venezuelan literature and culture. At 94, Uslar Pietri continued to challenge his fellow Venezuelans to live up to the highest of standards.
“I went to Paris in 1929 and I stayed there, fortunately, during four and a half years that were very important to me. I discovered the world, I left a Venezuela that was very backwards, isolated, very ignorant, and I was let loose amidst that feast, like Hemingway described it. A feast during a very rich period, what they now call the interwar years, the period of surrealism, of the Russian revolution, a very productive period full of innovations, of motivations. It was the moment when Sartre appeared.
The journey was epic. The ship left from the port of La Guaira, touched down in Carúpano, then in Trinidad, Barbados, Martinique, where it took on coal and the steam would fill up with dust, then through Guadalupe, until we finally reached Le Havre twelve days later. In those ships, that shook so much, there was always a little orchestra and people danced.”
“To be honest, I was very lucky because when I arrived in New York as an exile, there was a very unique man, a Spaniard, Don Federico de Onís, who had been a very distinguished figure at Spanish universities, and who in that period was the Chair of the Spanish Department at Columbia. I arrived without resources, to see what I could do, and at one point I even considered going to Argentina. But as soon as de Onís heard that I was there, he called me and offered me the job at the university, so I ended up staying in New York. I began by teaching summer courses on Venezuelan literature and I later became a part of the department. Germán Arciniegas was there, and we developed a life-long friendship. Once I was settled, then Isabel and our sons arrived, we lived in Riverside, and I would walk to the university. I shared a cubicle with no less than Don Tomás Navarro, one of Spain’s greatest philologists, and this was wonderful for me, since I was lucky enough to develop a friendship with that respected, learned man.
RAL: During your years abroad, did you ever consider staying in the States permanently, or did you always plan on returning to Venezuela?
AUP: Always. I never considered expatriating myself, never. I remember when I ran into José Rafael Pocaterra, who was living in Canada and working as a journalist and teacher, he said to me: ‘But Arturo, haven’t you thought about settling in the United States? There’s a country where your children are going to thrive, it’s a powerful and well-organized country.’ No, José Rafael, I answered him, I dream of returning to Venezuela.”
“Someone should do a study of how Venezuelans have conceived Venezuela. In colonial times this was a very poor country, a country that didn’t produce hardly anything, and after independence it continued being a poor country, a country of adventurers, of searchers of El Dorado, of mines. This region didn’t even have a name until very late. This was referred to as Tierra Firme until the name arrived quite late, that curious name, which is completely a pejorative term, it’s the name of the little Venice, the ridiculous Venice. This was, during most of the colonial period, Tierra Firme, the first dry land that they came across.
RAL: The natives called it Paria and Macarapana.
AUP: On the coast they did. Remember, there was no generic name, since there was no internal unity and there was never any indigenous organization here. This didn’t have a name or a center, it was populated by various tribes, all in different stages of development; some war-like tribes, like the Caribs, or some agriculturally-based tribes. This was not Mexico, nor Peru, and it wasn’t even at the level of what could be found in Bogota.”
“RAL: Do you think that we could identify collective virtues among Venezuelans?
AUP: I think we have very few virtues, in the traditional sense of the word. Of course, it’s not that we’re a herd of inept people or imbeciles, or bad people, but instead, that we’ve never truly cultivated collective virtues. We’ve been very dispersed, very individualistic, people of uprisings. Compare Venezuelan history, for instance, with that of our neighbors. It was truly almost impossible for Venezuelans not to commit so many foolish endeavors. The situation in the Venezuelan twentieth century has been extraordinarily unusual and corrupting, the situation of a poor country, with widespread underdevelopment and ignorance, which suddenly has an immensely wealthy State, and whose wealth is not the result of a nation’s work. […] Since independence, Venezuela has not had a managerial class. We’ve had people who catch bits and pieces from various places and who have tried to do what they can. We are very immature and superficial as a people. A mountain of resources fell on this country and we were not capable of using them wisely. One has to remember that we’ve only had a center since relatively recently. Remember that the actual structure of Venezuela, with Caracas as a center, was only consolidated during the generation that forged our independence. […]
RAL: Have we always been an improvised, disordered country?
AUP: This has been a very peculiar country, with contradictions. It is very unpredictable and it lacks a skeleton. The day when we write about Venezuelan history after the discovery of oil is going to be very frightening. This is one of the most significant and unexplainable historic events of any Latin American country. No other country was rained upon so suddenly by massive riches, the equivalent of six or seven Marshall Plans.
This is an immature country without a brain and without a managerial class.
RAL: In a state of permanent adolescence?
AUP: I wouldn’t dare call this a form of adolescence, since adolescence implies a process of maturing and I don’t see any symptoms of that here. In fact, it would seem as though we are condemned to inhabit this limbo, this falsification of history and events, which is curious. And yet, this is a country that has done important things and that has provided important figures. This is the country of [Simón] Bolívar and of [Andres] Bello, but none of that seems to have survived. We’ve always had the tendency to substitute for reality, to see things in another manner. I believe that we have not investigated fully enough the image of Venezuela, which has always been a false image and an image of thirsty wealth and a search for the magical. Since the search for El Dorado, not much work has been accomplished here. We haven’t colonized the region, instead we’ve simply occupied it.”
“AUP: He is delirious, extremely ignorant, and he says anything that comes to his mind. What a disgrace, the country can’t seem to move forward. […] That man speaks with an arrogance and a sense of entitlement that are incredible. Certain phrases that he’s heard have stuck to him, such as “savage liberalism.” This fills him with happiness. There is no such thing as “savage liberalism,” because liberalism is the flower of civilization, the ability to tolerate difference.”
“I am not an optimist, I am very pessimistic. It’s just that one cannot see what will happen in Venezuela. From the point of view of chance, anything could happen. But from the point of view of a more or less logical development, it’s unclear, there are no proposals for Venezuela. There are no political parties, the supposed leaders that we have are second rate, and we are very corrupted. We can’t compare ourselves to neighboring countries. We can’t be compared to Colombia, nor to Peru itself, not to mention Argentina, Uruguay or Brazil, which is immense. I’m very distressed by what is happening to this country. This is a very evil moment, full of dangers, with tons and tons of money floating around and no orientation. Education here is a disaster, the political sphere is frightening, there is no debate, the country is heading nowhere, without a destiny, without a managerial class, with only adventurers, eccentrics, and improvisers. Now we’re speaking of revolution, but curiously enough the idea of revolution has already disappeared from the map. At this moment there is not a single revolutionary power left on the planet, except in Venezuela, of course, and in Cuba. The tragic thing about our situation is the level of those that govern us. I was listening to Chávez on Sunday. What a bunch of nonsense he spoke, and spoken with such selfishness, such arrogance. This is a very unlucky country. It would have been very hard for things to be any different, because this country has always been poor and underdeveloped. It has always been isolated, full of instability, of coups, of what they call revolutions, and besides all that the immense oil wealth appeared in the State’s hands, creating a total distortion. If someone dared to undertake a study about the idea of revolution in Venezuela, we would see that what the idea has cost us, what it has meant to us, what it contains, and what it expresses is pitiful. I tell you, I am in a very bad state of mind, I have no hopes, I exist as though I’m in Dante’s Inferno. We have nothing to hold on to here. It’s sad to see a country without a managerial class. An improvised and improvisational country. To think what this country might have been like with its mountain of resources, if only the government had had a bit of common sense.”