Venezuela’s Conscience

Arturo Uslar Pietri

In his 94 years of life, Arturo Uslar Pietri wore many hats. A novelist, historian, poet, broadcaster, and politician, he stood up to the big oil companies that he felt were taking over his country. He was also a passionate advocate for his people. He “was possibly the best president Venezuela never had,” wrote London’s Guardian newspaper of the writer and humanitarian, who died in Caracas on Feb. 26.

Uslar Pietri was born in 1906 to a German-descended father and a Creole mother. After graduating with a doctorate in political science in 1929, he made a splash on the literary scene at the age of 25, when he published his novel Las Lanzas Coloradas (The Red Lances). Set during Simón Bolívar’s 1812-14 campaigns to liberate Venezuela from Spain, Las Lanzas Coloradas broke new ground by featuring a hero of mixed race and introducing elements of magical realism. “Uslar warned us, and strengthened us, against the dark impulses of literary chauvinism,” wrote Mexican author Carlos Fuentes in Mexico City’s Reforma.

Other novels followed, including, in 1947, El Camino de El Dorado (The Road from El Dorado), written while Uslar Pietri was living in exile in New York. The Nobel Prize narrowly eluded him, but the eminent writer won Spain’s Principe de Asturias Prize for Letters in 1990 and Venezuela’s Gallegos International Prize for the Novel in 1991.

Uslar Pietri’s political career was equally distinguished. He served as Venezuela’s minister of education (1939-41), finance minister (1943), foreign minister (1945), and as a senator from Caracas (1958-73). In 1963, he ran for president under the Democratic National Front banner but was defeated. Though he retired from politics in 1973, he continued to exert influence as a political commentator. He was particularly outspoken about the dangers of over-reliance on the oil industry, once referring to his country as “Saudi Venezuela.”

“He intellectual guide, a teacher of his fellow citizens,” wrote Fernando Sánchez Zinny in Argentina’s La Nación. Venezuelan Defense Minister José Vicente Rangel called Uslar Pietri “a warning voice,” and said, “If he had been listened to, we’d have avoided many failures.”