In 1799 the biogeographer Alexander Humboldt landed at Cumana, on the Caribbean coast of what is now Venezuela, in the millisphere I call Caracas.
At Cumana he observed, bubbling to the surface of the sea, a transparent yellow fluid, which the locals called "the devil's excrement" - Humboldt was over one of the largest oil reserves on earth. It would be over half a century before the kerosene lamp was invented and before the first oil well was drilled, in Pennsylvania.
Until his forced landing at Cumana, Humboldt had no plans to explore South America, but, since he was there, he decided to establish whether the Orinoco River connected to the Amazon River system, collecting plant specimens as he went. While waiting for the rainy season to end, in Caracas, he found the upright willow which bears his name (Salix humboldtiana).
Humboldt speculated that: "thus does the physical environment shape not only the vegetation of a region, but also the character of the human settlers." At the time of Humboldt's visit Caracas was a deeply divided city - racially, socially and politically - and the city would soon take the lead in the revolt against Spain. Today Caracas is still a divided city,
the elite, mostly white, live on the flat, the poor, mostly Mestizo (mixed race), live in the shantytown "barrios" climbing the surrounding mountains.
It it difficult to establish the exact population of Venezuela (an estimated three million have left in recent years), but at around 30 million, the country can be divided into about four millispheres (Maracaibo, Valencia, Caracas and Orinoco). With three-quarters of the population living within 200 kilometres of the Caribbean, Venezuela is 52 per cent Mestizo, 43 per cent White, 3 per cent Black and 2 per cent Amerindian.
The millisphere of Caracas (over seven million) consists mainly of the Greater Caracas Metropolitan Area (5.9 million) - which includes Venezuela's capital. When Humboldt visited, Caracas had a population of 40,000 and at an altitude of 1000 metres, the climate, he observed, was "well suited to sugarcane, coffee, bananas, pineapples, and even strawberries, grapes, apples and quince." Today, because of Venezuela's dependance on oil-funded food imports, the city can barely feed itself.
After the discovery of oil fields in the early twentieth century Venezuela became a leading oil exporting nation - benefiting mostly the international oil companies and the local elites. The 1980s oil glut led to an external debt crisis, followed in the 1990s by crippling inflation and mass poverty.
In 1999 Venezuela elected Hugo Chavez, a Mestizo from the Orinoco llanos (plains).
Chavez, like many rural Venezuelans, had moved to the city, where he served in the military.
When elected he introduced a populist social welfare program which boosted the economy and he was re-elected, with increased majorities, until his death in 2013. The next president, Nicolas Maduro, was not as charismatic, or honest, and the oil markets and American sanctions worked against him. Venezuela now suffers from high levels of crime, corruption, hyperinflation and scarcities.
Under the "Monroe doctrine", in the early nineteenth century, the US opposed European colonial interests in the Americas; in the twentieth century it interfered in any matter in "their" hemisphere. When Chavez renationalised the Venezuelan oil industry, severed diplomatic ties with Israel, and supplied oil to Cuba the US introduced sanctions. Since being elected, Donald Trump has ratcheted up the sanctions and in 2019 the US blocked all accounts of PDVSA (the Venezuelan state oil producer), and recognised far right opposition politician Juan Guaido as president.
"That [Venezuela] is the country we should go to war with, they have all that oil, and are right on our back door," Trump "joked" in a 2016 election speech. This year Trump gave the job of US envoy to Venezuela to Elliot Abrams, who was one of the architects of the Iraq war, and has experience in finding reasons to invade oil fields. At current rates of extraction, it is estimated that Venezuela has oil reserves that could last for another 250 years.
In January 29th, 2019 the minister of foreign affairs, Winston Peters, said New Zealand will not be recognising Venezuelan opposition leader, Juan Guaido. Donald Trump won't like that.
Fred Frederikse is a self-directed student of human geography. Mapping the Millsphere "a new millenium travel story" can be found at millisphere.blogtown.co.nz