Introduction
Oil, Culture, and Society
Mmilitary
ass mobilizations for and against the government, a failed
coup in April 2002, a lockout and strike engi-
neered by oil company managers and opposition forces in Decem-
ber 2002, sporadic acts of violence in 2004 to promote instability,
and an unsuccessful presidential recall—all these have exposed pro-
found divisions within Venezuelan society. The presence of deep-
seated political and social fissures challenges the view of Venezuela
as a “model democracy” able to avoid the crippling instability and
divisions that have beset other Latin American nations.1 And the
class, political, and even racial polarization that has surfaced since
the election of President Hugo Chávez Frías can be traced in part
to very different visions of the nation and society that evolved from
protracted experience with the oil industry.2
The oil industry remains the central component of the Venezu­
elan economy and has been a decisive factor in the evolution  of  so­
cial and class structures since its development in the early twentieth
century. Venezuelan élites and middle classes expected that oil
would transform the country on many levels, introducing modern
technology, fomenting economic development, breaking the stran-
glehold of the old landed élite, encouraging new democratic politi-
cal forces, stimulating the growth of the middle class, and creating
an efficient workforce.3 The actions of the foreign oil companies
that operated in Venezuela played out on a vast stage. They reorga-
nized physical space, determined national policy, transformed the
lives of employees, and in the end influenced the perspective of
generations of Venezuelans. Oil, to cite the historian and former
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