Venezuela And The Venezuelans
( Originally Published Early 1912 )
AT Cumaná, in the middle east of Venezuela, is the oldest European settlement in America. The town was founded in 1512 by the Spaniards, but was abandoned when the pugnacious Indians refused to be immediately converted and enslaved, so that Panama, founded in 1519, has been the oldest continuous habitation. But Cumaná was reinvested, and for almost four centuries it has watched the forces of the Western World trying to penetrate the tough crust of tradition brought over by the Spanish along with their search for gold. Past the island of Trinidad, along this coast, Columbus made his third voyage in 1498, and undoubtedly his first glimpse of the mainland, if not the only place where he set foot, was near Cumaná in Venezuela. Las Casas, the one true friend of the Indian, and alas ! the reputed father of American slavery, was a priest in Cumaná.
The settlements grew and flourished in the valleys; Maracaibo was founded in 1529, and thereafter were planted interior cities as far as the slope of the Andes at San Cristobal in 1561, but always it was El Dorado that lured. These cities nestling among brown hills, formed the Spanish Main, and when the baroneted pirates of England and Holland were not engaged in the spiderish pastime of capturing galleons with Pacific treasures, they enjoyed themselves by landing on the coast and sacking the seemingly secure abodes of those who collected gold nearer at hand. Not a league of the two hundred miles east and west of the Silla but has history of battle and wreck, and sunken treasure; not a valley with its cathedral spire but can tell of sack, ambuscade, slaughter, and buried pieces of eight.
The Indians, driven to despair by the pious cruelties of the conquerors, revolted when they could stand no more; the mestizos, ignored by the overlords of purer blood, revolted when with indignity they were denied the exercise of those very rights which the government of Spain had put on paper for their benefit. The whole colony of Nueva Granada revolted against the mother country when every promise had been denied them, and decency in foreign rule had ceased to be even a phrase in the council of Sevilla.
From the earliest times to the beginning of the nineteenth century Spain had only exploited her colonies; her rulers knew nothing of them except that those who did not die there came home rich after some years of a government clerkship. Misrule and revolt were as familiar in the New Spain as they were in the Old—and then the separation came.
Caracas—Venezuela—is the cradle of South American liberty. Bolivar, Miranda, and Sucre are three truly noble heroes; yet Bolivar died a disappointed man, Miranda's life ended in a Spanish prison, and Sucre was assassinated after serving three new nations honorably and well. The only practical inheritance they have given to liberty is license and revolt. The lesson Spain had not learned and which Spanish America is so slow to learn, is the simple one of obedience to law. From the day that Bolivar aroused the revolutionary forces in 1810 till the separation of Venezuela from Nueva Granada, history records fighting, dictatorships, and rebellion. There was righteousness in it, too, because the Spanish royalists violated their treaties and so abused the patriots, who were eager to accept a decent peace, that revolt was the only resort.
The first constitution of 1820, for the countries known as Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela, was a replica of that of the United States, with a more centralized government. This was soon broken by the military authority of Bolivar himself. Bolivar quarreled with Peru and Ecuador—a logical consequence of the enormous extent of the region his ambition and popularity had placed under his nominal control. The Captain General of Caracas grew jealous of Bogota (Colombia) and in 1829 threatened to withdraw from the federation. Quito did withdraw, and when Bolivar died, in 1830, the inchoate mass fell to pieces, leaving the three nations as we now know them—Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela.
Venezuela dates its independence as a fighting nation from 1831. Paez was its first president. Since then, seventy-six intervening years have seen fifty-two revolutions and twenty-six presidencies, some-times called constitutional, sometimes provisional, with a cheerful intermixture of liberators, restorers and dictators for good measures. In this brief chapter we can not follow Venezuela's fortunes of war, rebellion, and intrigue that involved the past three generations. We might give a list of the revolutions and their leaders, but this would be useless unless we could enter into a consideration of the deeper forces that underlay this chaos of militarism out of which came the growth of a people. Besides, there is something more interesting than the past history of this nation and something that we need to know more about, and that is the contemporary life of the Venezuelans. And so for a brief space let us turn our attention to the Venezuela of today, which is still old Spain—the Spain of Washington Irving eighty years and more ago. She has as much beauty, her people have the same Andalusian charm, and she can show as much romance and intricate diplomacy, or as many primitive inns as existed beyond the Pyrenees before guide-books were bound in red.
Venezuela resembles Mexico and the Andean republics of South America, differing from her Atlantic sisters in that she still retains as a working-class a large remnant of the aboriginal population which the earliest Spaniards discovered when they landed. The Indians were not agricultural, although they had all facilities for becoming so; and they left no trace of having been stirred into barbarism or a crude civilization, as were the Mexicans and the Peruvians. These Caribs, if they were nothing else, were fighters, and delayed the European attempts at benevolent assimilation. They must have been numerous. They were found everywhere, and even now there are 60;000 unmixed independent Indians and 240,000 who have adopted some semblance of village life—more than remain in Argentine and probably nearly as many as Brazil contains. Upon this primitive stock, uncivilizable by any means within themselves, the Spanish left their stamp. What they did not kill they enslaved. Las Casas, the defender of the Indians, one of the founders, as we have said, of Cumaná, was the instigator of the importation of Africans into Venezuela and the West Indies ; blacks and Indians became mixed, and there was soon a subject race working in the mines, in the fields and the towns.
But Spanish is the dominant stock which has produced the native of Venezuela; he has little blood from elsewhere; neither Italians nor Portuguese have come in sufficient numbers to exert an influence. Germans, when they entered Venezuela, came singly and were absorbed by marriage, or as feeble colonists were lost among themselves. The English, except as ad-venturers or buccaneers, never hankered after Venezuela as they did for Uruguay and Argentina and parts of Brazil, nor did the French attempt any conquest or settlement beyond their tiny islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. The ingredients are altogether Spanish, Indian, and African. This rather pure Castilian stock spread farther and farther westward, avoiding the coast (contrary to the Brazilian habit), settling deeper inland as far south as Merida (1558), always seeking gold, but absorbing a certain content from the beauties of the mountains, and deriving profits from agriculture and pasturage when they could not discover precious metals. They differ from the Mexicans, who found riches at hand. The Venezuelans had to be modest in their foundations ; the luxurious cathedrals of the City of Mexico and Tula are not duplicated, nor could they populate towns of the greatness of Zacatecas and Guanajuato; El Dorado eluded them, so they had to remain agriculturists. When coffee was introduced in 1784, they were ready for country life, and since then they have become reconciled, rugged and free. Not having been so beloved by Spain as the gold-bearing colonies of Mexico and Peru, they had less intercourse with the world in general, and their Spanish traits remain quite untarnished. "Quien dice España dice todo" (Spain is the whole thing). "Venezuela first and last" is the key to their character.
Democracy is the breath of their nostrils, not so much in politics as in conduct, for your Venezuelan is your true democrat. The traveler needs only to read Ford's Gatherings from Spain and our own John Hay's Castilian Days to catch the spirit of the transplanted Iberianism in the New World. The alms-seeker is not a beggar here; he is merely the object upon whom you bestow your good-will and who gives you his blessing, and he loses none of his dignity by the exchange; he carries his cane with the grace of an hidalgo and has as much right to the sunshine and fresh air as the owner of cattle on a thousand hills. Poverty makes no caste distinction ; if the poor man can not offer you a banquet with red wine, he is quite as cordially hospitable with his simple beans, his banana and his cup of coffee; he will take a light from your cigarette or give you one from his, with no thought but that you are both on the same highway, though one may be afoot, the other on horseback. Even in Caracas there is no tinge of servility, and the coachman or the flower-seller instinctively proffers and expects an equality of intercourse, with. no patronage on the one side or humbleness on the other. Caracas is not yet modern, not at all industrially advanced; the old graces, the old ease, the old charm of manners are practiced today. This epitomizes itself into courtesy and kindliness.
A distinguished diplomat, visiting Caracas for the first time and on an unpleasant errand, once exclaimed in his astonishment at the genuine hospitality of his reception, "Are they all so kind; do they really mean it?" He had been brought up in the school where there was a suspected ax-to-grind under all politeness. But in Venezuela there is no undermotive and their kindliness has not crystalized into a form in which punctiliousness is of equal virtue with cordiality. In Spain they use words of welcome which are merely phrases; in Venezuela these have not lost their meaning. "La casa es la suya, señor" (This is your house, sir) is literally true for as long as you wish.
The pride, the honor of a Castilian, goes with this kindliness. It is the honor which John Hay so ridicules, which has impoverished Spain, made the nobility lazy and out of pocket and unable to care for anything beyond the blueness of their blood.
Another Spanish trait, even more evident here than elsewhere in Latin America, is the love of militarism. They take great pride in titles, these democratic Venezuelans ; generals are thick in Caracas, or would be if they did not have to flee to exile, while judges and doctors are plentiful. This signifies that it is easier to hold office, to decree a new constitution and to organize a revolt, than it is to work patiently from year to year, watching crops, improving agriculture and following the markets. The Spaniard was born to command, to ride a horse—is he not a caballero?—and to build—republics; yet he can not acquire the routine life by which alone material progress is accomplished. When coffee sold much higher than it does now in Venezuela, the country was rich in consequence; when, shortly before and after our Civil War, cotton and sugar were exported from Venezuela, money was plentiful and ,Caracas was called Little Athens. But that was luck quite as much as industry, so when luck departed, industry died also. They can talk of work, but the Venezuelans do not know how to work. Their talk, too, is inherited along with their literature, and both lead them into that exuberant language which so abuses and, I am sorry to say, disgusts the Anglo-Saxon. It is only verbiage ; it is chivalry gone to seed. Their culture is Spanish, theoretic, idealistic. Nowhere else, unless it be in Bogota, can such delightful society be found or such poetic conversation be enjoyed, as in Caracas.
I went one afternoon to a tertulia in the house of a modest family in Caracas. The ladies, young and old, acted as hostesses and served the light refreshments as informally and as daintily as would be done in England. Some of them had been to school in England, France, or the United States, and the conversation was indifferently carried on in Spanish, French, or English. After the usual small talk about the weather, music at the opera, and the game of baseball, which at present is the fashionable outdoor amusement of the young men of Caracas, we drifted unconsciously into a comparison of national literatures, and I was impressed by the remarkable familiarity shown by these ladies with our poets. Poe seemed particularly to have touched the melancholy temperament of the Spanish, but other poets and novelists were mentioned with such freedom that I had to confess my ignorance about some of them. I went away feeling that in culture and profound appreciation of many of the deeper emotions of the human soul, an American could learn much from the simpler aristocracy of Venezuela. The dress, the manners, the elegance of diction and suavity of con-duct, would be admired in any capital of Europe; here in America it seems artificial, however charming. The family life, too, when it retains its old-fashioned savor, is intimate and quite patriarchal, though I fear that recently it has become tainted by fin de siecle cynicism ; but in the country on the café fincas or large haciendas the simple life can be found in as pure a state as in Old or New England.
These conditions will not at first be noticed by the stranger, especially if he does not speak Spanish and is unacquainted with the mother country. His observation will be chiefly attracted by the neglected streets, the quiet life, the lack of the hustle and noise by which he usually gauges a country's activity. If he goes to Valencia or Cumaná or up on the mountain in Tachira to San Cristobal, his first impression is one of decay, though here, too, he will find the same manners and the same philosophy. He can not fail, how-ever, to be struck by the courtesy and kindliness of the people, high and low. The culture will pertain to the aristocracy, the other characteristics are general, even to the lowest peon.
As he descends the social scale the traveler notices more and more negro blood, and the student will declare that within recent years this miscegenation has increased; it is difficult to draw today the line between mestizo, that is, half-Spanish and half-Indian, and negrito, in whose veins there is African blood. Yet this impurity is evident only near the seaports, diminishing farther inland; it seems therefore to differentiate these people from those in Spain who still preserve their race unalloyed since they mixed with the Moor. The Venezuelan peasant is the democrat, though he have a touch of the conquered in him; and if one word describes him it will be "docile." He has been led since he was conquered, and is still subject to the commands of the aristocracy and guided by the ambitions of those superior to him; he has never known another impulse. He is no fool; he is no more stolid than is the Spaniard; his wit may not be violent, but he can take a joke and give one with true Celtic enjoyment.
There is an old but good anecdote of a priest, recruited from the peasant class, who was driving over one of the mule-paths so pathetically called a royal road. He himself had been a muleteer in his youth, but his sacred office seemed to compel him to protest against the language commonly used in profane life to encourage the steps of the lagging beast. At last he said to the driver : "Not so much, my son," referring rather to the words than to the severity of the untiring whip in the hands of his guide. "Let me try my way," he said at last ; and the driver gladly relinquished his whip and his function to his superior, of whose early expertness he had often heard. But the good father forgot his office as he warmed to his work, and the old zeal of whip and tongue came back to him. He plied both with a vigor born of thorough training, but his muleteer, who imagined that he had assumed sacerdotal authority when he changed his seat, in his turn murmured : "Not so much, Padre mio, not so much." The father saw the joke and the reproof, but he answered with a sigh, "Ah, but it was good while it lasted !"
If the peon could be removed from the influence of the priesthood and given that true liberty for which he has always been so ready to fight, there would be much hope for him; if he were stirred by a tide of migration which would threaten him with extinction if he did not work, he would enjoy his country as he sings about it; for, contrary to superficial judgment, the Venezuelan is not lazy ; he simply does not know how to work. He must be impelled by some exterior force. The Jamaica negro is lazy, the southern black is lazy; most residents of the tropics are indolent, but some will work of themselves if they are only shown how. The Venezolano is now as the Mexican was fifty years ago—inert.
This is applicable not only to the lower peasant class, but to the whole nation. There may be certain energies displayed at times and a mental or even physical activity latent, but there is no mainspring; the whole nation is unproductive, overcome by the sterility of the artistic temperament. Their civilization is worn out.
I am making no exhaustive comparison between their civilization and our own, or between that of Brazil and Argentina. Our own has defects ; we might be better off if we lost the vices of commercialism and replaced them by Latin graces, yet ours breathes of the twentieth century, while their civilization is on dead models. If no substitution is possible, ours is still better because we produce; the habits of production we insist on, trusting that the faults will be checked; they in Venezuela are sterile; with the richest land in the world, they import. foodstuffs to feed their scanty wants.
Over both aristocracy and peasantry has fallen the Moorish-Spanish mantle of fatalism; since revolution and lawlessness have always been, they assert that therefore they must always be. The non sequitur of the argument-does not strike them, for out of it grows a certain content which we can not understand. Ambition is not toward accomplishing more—they are satisfied that their country has produced a Bolivar; beyond this, imagination can not go except in their oratory. This shows all the bloom of Castilian poetry. Their country is great and glorious, their deeds immortal, their generals conquerors and heroes, their battles the clash of Titans ; but most of it is mere oratory, however beautiful and classic.
Their civilization is finer than ours, less gross, less sordid; or, to use a word which brings out the feature of greatest importance, less material, therefore unproductive. It is a relic of the time when an aristocracy was real and deported itself as such, when culture be-longed to the upper class and labor to the lower, when breeding and pedigree signified everything, and politics was the sport of those who held the office for the sake of the money it brought and the power it gave. But it is a civilization obsolescent if not dead. We see the same in Spain today, where it has withered for fifty years; in Italy, where it is giving place to a sturdier culture whose sign is deeds, not words ; in our own South, where oratory and southern chivalry were coexistent. But in this South, as well as in Mexico, it is receding before the activity of that civilization which materially develops a country for the man who works, although it may appear for a time to crush out the more delicate instincts of a race by the struggle to give nourishment to both body and brain.
Venezuela, strange to say, with her nearness to the eastern world and her early start in history, is the last to yield to the forces of industrialism. In fact, she has not yet yielded and may not yield for years to come. The ethnographic rule of Humboldt that "the accidents of climate and configuration are felt in all their force only among a race of men . . . who receive some exterior impulse," can, at the end as well as at the beginning of her life, be applied to Venezuela. Her people are of healthy stock; they are not irredeemably tuberculous, and, preserving the temperate habits of the Latins, have escaped the dangers from alcohol which threatens to destroy the West Andean natives. If the Venezuelans have one vice it is gambling; but that, while discouraging thrift, never impoverishes a race; they love the excitement of the hazard, whether at the card-table of an aristocratic club, the official lotteries supported by church and state, or the crap games of the village urchins; and they still love the bull-fight. In Caracas the quadrilla is as ceremonious as at Madrid ; but Mexico has not abandoned bullfights, and we admit that her virtues have carried her safely beyond medievalism.
Thus the unavoidable comparison comes up again. Mexico, too, was Old Spain before Diaz, foreign capital and American enterprise changed her from a land of gilded romance into an enterprising, producing nation, recognizing the need of material industrialism. So it must be with Venezuela. Her agricultural riches can never be exhausted, but they must be drawn out by foreign brains, northern money and perhaps by Teutonic energy.