Tag Archives: transnationality

Colossus on the Hudson: Monuments of Global Kitsch

Plans to erect a quite cartoonish rendering of fifteen-century navigator Christopher Columbus on the banks of the Hudson River not only stripped the Genoese credited with “discovering” America of historical context: it deployed the royal emissary who discovered the continent beside a development constructed by Donald Trump, the property developer who would become United States President. The monumental Columbus–projected to be far larger than any statue in the Western Hemisphere–was less of an image of contact, than a heroic image of the appropriation of the New World, an odd switch in signification from the statue rising in New York harbor, holding a torch celebrating enlightenment by the global advance of Republicanism the French government in 1893, and even upstaging it with an icon of appropriation.

This Columbus, towering and monumental in relation to Manhattan, seemed almost able to assimilate the entire continent to his supremacy. The statue, never built next to Manhattan, but eventually erected on an island where Columbus set foot, appears an invitation to an exercise in masochism in the idiom of kitsch. The navigator seems far less situated in a credible historical context, than assimilated to a new mass culture of spectacle of colonization that compresses space in global space in its claims to global authority. The statue confirms the illusion of an independent actor in space, removed from any network of royal funding, international finance, the recycled image cast in Moscow dramatizes the hoary historical myth of imposing control over space single handedly–as if erasing all acknowledgement of human dignity or a colonial context.

Cristobal Colon in “The Birth of the New World” Monument in Arecibo (PR)/Lynmaris Chardon

The supremacism of Columbus’ gesture as he steers a ship on an historic rotary wheel with aplomb by one hand is an amalgam of global authority and the aesthetics of kitsch that begs for more detailed examination than it has received. Standing now at the edges of American territoriality in Puerto Rico, the monumental statue designed for the quincentenary of Columbus’ first voyage is a marginalized but potent marker of transatlantic exchange, reduced to a totem of global power and destiny.

The promised hope of placing the statue on Trump’s planned properties must have appealed to the magnate for its apparent absorption of the entire continent by a figure, gargantuan and larger than life as he sought more impressive buildings that would cement his status on an imaginary global stage. The real estate promoter, who seems to have taken it as a calling card for his own sense of personal majesty, a made-to-order monument that had, in fact, been shopped around already to American Presidents, would be welcomed onto the reclaimed land he had convinced the mayor to rezone as residential, over the objections of then-Assemblyman Jerry Nadler, not on a column, as the World’s Fair monument built to Columbus in Barcelona in 1888 of 60 meters, or the image of pillar on which Columbus stands in New York, cast in Rome for the Italian American community, hands on hip, seventy feet above the city looking to New York Harbor of 1892 where immigrant streams were arriving, but a monument that would be imposed on the far west side of Manhattan, towering above the Hudson River, hailing the land of which he assumed mastery by virtue of royal authority, an apparently freestanding statue imposing absolute mastery of space on observers, gesturing with magisterial obliviousness to his surroundings.

Of course, he looked as if he had stepped out of a comic strip, as much as a , in keeping with the cartoon-like statues of the Georgian sculptor Zurab Tseretelli, who had already accompanied Boris Yeltsin to Washington, DC to present the statue in miniature to President Bill Clinton, before Trump seems to have been offered this image that must have pleased him much as a monumental compliment on his sense of his own grandeur as a builder, a monument that he imagined might be identified with his name in the future as it dominated the skyline unlike any of the buildings he constructed or enhanced by lending his name, including Trump Tower, as a figure that, in Trump fashion, both transgressed the law and asserted it.

This Columbus was, after all, not only a kitsch figure but a father figure of the nation that Trump was being invited to assimilate to his development. As much as the notion of discovery and world-making was a Renaissance trope and trick in trade, staking claims for the Spanish King within previously uncharted territory, deploying a “Doctrine of Discovery” to justify setting foot in new worlds, the statue announces the victory of a new globalism financier by underwater financial currents, laundered funds, and foreign backers that aspired to total authrity. Its position materialized how the historical Columbus claimed, on October 16, 1492, that indigenous subjects would make good servants as subjects of the throne of Castile, appropriating their identity as a way o taking possession of the island of Haiti where he first disembarked, proclaiming its possession to an audience of few, “by proclamation and with the royal standard unfurled.” In stock phrases that vividly cemented unfurling a royal standard to the act of taking possession five renamed five islands–San Salvador, Santa María de Concepción, Ferdinanda and Isabella–as an act of discovery, the statue raising one hand like Augustus over a different island seems a transnational salutation of confident appropriation, unlike any other global monument to Columbus, and far greater in size. The pedestal held a cartoonish map unscrolled at its base, atop which travel miniature ships, in an odd hybrid of the windrogse of a portolan chart, graticule of a Mercator map, and GPS screen in its current home.

What sort of map underlay its presentation to Donald J. Trump on behalf of the Russian people in 1997, in ways that unexpectedly would make the realtor a new figure on a global stage not only of real estate, but the new global networks of appropriating funds by money laundering, offshore tax evasion, as a cover for the escalation of widespread illegality in Russia of bribery, criminality, poaching, and organized crime. A decade after Trump’s first attempts to develop real estate in Moscow, and a decade before Trump began to depend on Russian and former Soviet Union financing for real estate projects in Canada and the United States, by potential money laundering, the kitschy monument Columbus offered a masquerade to grant global legitimacy to Trump and post-Soviet Russian oligarchs on a new global stage, that we can only fully appreciate today. A decade before Donald Trump, Jr. confirmed to investors in Moscow that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of our assets” in 2008, the statue was to arrive as Trump returned from Moscow having announced plans underway to replicate Trump Tower in Moscow, licensing his name to the renovation of the Moskva and Rossiya hotels.

Much of these transactions will long remain shadowy. But the arrival of this ostenttious monument announced Trump’s intension to expand his properties from Manhattan to a global stage, and elevate his new development as a showpiece of a global corporation.

If it is long before the Border Wall, the monument whose delivery Trump obtained quite similarly erases the experience of America’s indigenous inhabitants; its very grandiosity and spectacularity that seemed emulate Trump, if it had been made for him, rather than was, as seems to be the case, a totem that post-Soviet Russia presented to American President George H.W. Bush. Rather than suggest a voyage, or a laborious journey, the massive bronze statuary is distinguished by its immobility, rather than mobility–Columbus was a navigator, after all, and his statuary commemorates this voyage–but cast the fifteenth-century navigator in the form of a triumphal neoclassical icon of authority, on a diminished sort of ship. This imaginary Columbus, in neoclassical robes akin to the Statue of Liberty on nearby federally owned Bedloes Island, but was far removed from the romance and excitement of the voyage imagined by the American illustrator N.C. Wyeth, of adventure of the sea, if the ships were somewhat similar–

N. C. Wyeth, Beyond Uncharted Seas Columbus Finds a New World (1927)

–but rather than mastering the open seas and moving beyond charted seas, is reduced to a statement of flashy and large-limbed grandiosity, less of an adventurer than a standing figure announcing “I am here” in not a belligerent but an almost confrontational triumphal cryptic gesture.

Standing atop a pedestal that would include the map he allegedly followed, rather than mastering the elements, the figure reaches deep into a mixed bag of mythistory to declare it on the shores of the Hudson River in a place where Columbus did not, of course, ever stand, where it would have stood before setting suns, on the shores of Manhattan island. If Wyeth’s majestic illustration was made as a framable print for the National Geographic Society to sell to its members, the exclusive nature of the statue Trump believed its Georgian sculptor, Zurab Tseretelli, wanted installed on his newest New York development, in 1997 primarily marked his status as a developer, and ability to make a good deal with Moscow. The monument made for the presentation for the quincentennial of the “discovery” of America seemed a precedent that proclaimed the victory of the arrival of a unilineal development of a transnational economic development of real estate values, removed from any bearing on global geography, as if to celebrate a triumphal arrival of local capital.erasing all sense of cultural relativism by affirming an image of global triumph that echoed Francis Fukuyama far more than George Washington or Karl Marx. The removed kitsch of this figure of alleged patriotism provided an image of pacification of native peoples, not including any group outside of a global economy of which Trump had then. seemed emblematic.

The statuary was indeed installed in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, and island that Columbus had visited, its impoverished residents of that fishing village on the outer edges of United States territoriality did not have much of a chance to resist and protest its placement, in the manner of residents of San Juan, as those of Miami Beach, Baltimore, Columbus, OH, and Ft. Lauderdale, undoubtedly taken aback by its monstrosity. Two presidents of the United States were justifiably lukewarm in accepting the gift from Moscow; the monument’s ostentatious heroism was a flat-footed poor fit with national traditions of commemorations, portraying the colonizer as a victor. But approaching Trump, during his early trips to develop Moscow properties in the mid-1990s, mirrored Trump’s attraction to both global politics and global properties in fascinating ways. A mirror for his own monumental self-esteem, the massive statue seemed to publicize the development he had planned for the Hudson River lots, a signal of his welcome of an influx of Russian funds, expanded in sales of apartments and condominiums in Trump hotels and developments from New York to Florida, if not a self-styled image of his own international goals.

This improbably towering Colossus on the Hudson, a true monument of global kitsch, would seem a Las Vegas style recycling of Augustus, an imperial gesturing to the nation as if selling an imagined vision of probity, security, and assurance, if it did not also double as a vision of globalism–one less rooted in nation, than transnatinoality, pumped up by foreign funds, rather than steering to the New World: the robed figure that Trump was keen on as taller than the Statue of Liberty would have saluted Manhattan island, in a way the actual Columbus of course never had, but revamped the austere figure of the navigator as a savior, royal emissary from afar, as a New Man for a new era, perhaps recycling Russian images of idealism as much as recuperating American ones. The rotary wheel was not only anachronistic, it suggested a smoothness of travel that is absurd, a mash-up of a yacht owner and a Roman hero who seeks little from his audience by adoring adulation.

Tsurab Tseretelli, “Birth of.the New World” (2016)
Mandatory Credit: Photo by John Alex Maguire/REX/Shutterstock (5736251i)
‘Birth of a New World’ sculpture by Russian artist Zurab Tsereteli

The monument that was intended as an inauguration of sorts of transatlantic commerce with Russia would have marked the involvement of Trump in a corrupt network of real estate and an expansion of money laundering and international finance that have raised considerable suspicions about President Trump’s representation of national interests. And while the story of the “failed monument” which curiously traveled the world over its two decades of its apparent homelessness, before being erected in Arecibo, in Puerto Rico, shortly before Trump’s inauguration. Offshore of Puerto Rico, in a nearly deserted fishing village, where it has become a source of pride, the statue of Columbus curiously joins an also smaller Statue of Liberty, or a replica of the original, erected in 1918, in mysterious circumstances, that stands downtown. The majesty of the costly project seems to have not diminished after it circulated, seeking homes along the Eastern seaboard before an abandoned Bacardi factory, before running aground in Puerto Rico, where Columbus did set foot in November 19, 1493, on a shore filled with farmlands, and few spectators to admire it, far from San Juan, but near the statue that seems its twin.

Arecibo, PR

As if a competitor to the 1884 gift of the French Republic, in considerably rescued form in her 1918 Arecibo version, the Russian sculpture of nearly 300 feet seems to dominate the space of the lady of law: and if its itinerary that might well be mapped; its symbolics existed in a language of spectacle between Moscow, Manhattan, and The Donald.

If the story leading up to the mooring of Columbus in Puerto Rico in 2016 has been told, the resourcefulness of plans to move the monument across seas, after it was cast in Russian foundries, seems to have a shadow history in remapping global power relations. The strikingly parallel histories of the massive Columbus and the fortunes of the realtor demand to be examined as a history of aesthetics, finance, and the magnification of Trump’s unexpected political career. The aspiration to erect a monumental heroic bronze of the fifteenth-century navigator occurred two years before Trump celebrated his status in the polls for U.S. President for the Reform Party then headed by Jesse Ventura on “Larry King Live!“–announcing polls to champion his possible candidacy with false modesty. “Well, I guess the polls started it. The polls came out, and they said if I ran, I’d do very well,” Trump said as if he wanted to conceal his ambitions or present his election as foregone; “I don’t know, I just don’t even know. I mean, they put people’s name — they put various celebrities’ names in, and I did very well in polls, and, all of a sudden, people started calling . . .”

The turn to embrace his status as a public figure that Trump expressed as a happenstance reflection of the popular will that polls embodied–rather than a sense of public consensus or vote–is an eery aftermath to the ominous predictions that Trump had taken to forecast of impending disasters of the poorly led ship of state, no longer sufficiently respected by allies, or abroad, that had led Trump to style himself as an alternate vision of a politician, “young, dynamic, successful,” as a Democratic sponsor of his hosting of a Congressional dinner in 1987, who was, as John Kerry had praised him, “independent.”

The businessman was calling for reducing the deficit, accelerating nuclear disarmament, and expanding the financial burdens of military allies, leading him to be avidly courted by Republicans and Democrats alike by 1997 and to only surprise some by declaring “I believe that if I run for President, I’d win”–if few knew what party Trump belonged. Yet the specter of his candidacy already haunted the nation.

Garry Trudeau, Doonesbury,/December 6, 1999

The roll-out of this non-political beast, understood primarily through the lens of his own magnificence, was aptly echoed in the grandiosity of a statue of the fifteenth-century navigator who was about to be squirreled into the United States territory as a sign of his own vainglory. Promotion of Columbus promised a point of entrance for the realtor to an image of national identity, uncannily similar in nature to what he later declared in 2015, as an eagerness to defend American interests in a global market. It certainly was, promoted as the largest statue in the western hemisphere, larger not only that the iconic Statue of Liberty, given by the French government in a gesture of solidarity of Republicanism, but a monumental language perhaps both made in Moscow and pure Trump.

Did Trump’s apparent bravado, independence, and daring fit the bill for which Democrats searched as they sought someone “young and who would be good at politics but had never been especially involved in politics before,” as political parties searched for compelling figures to espouse the messages that they believed they delivered, but could be good at messaging. The search for a new image of political leadership seemed to fit Trump by 1990–even if he was presented over fifteen to twenty years later as still coming from outside politics–and made him a likely target of whose identification of himself with Columbus might be imagined, as he tried on new opportunities for self-identification as a politician that seemed, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, before the candidacy of Bill Clinton, to be regularly arriving at his door.

In this context, the cast image of a monumental Columbus arrived. Questions rose during the Colombian quincentennial about whether the fifteenth-century navigator represented the nation of the United States. The statue designed in Moscow was not designed for Mr. Trump, but was strikingly ahistorical in its triumphal celebration of the “discovery” of the continent not only as an image of national identity, but demanding consent to an image of public authority far removed from American monuments or a tradition of political monumentality. The historical Columbus was of course with little sense to have “discovered” a new world with such a sense of recognition that the statue seems to assert; Columbus lacked this sense, either when he set of from Spain without any clear sense of what lay on the horizon, or even a clear sense of where he was, by the time he had championed the wonders of the Indies, which he believed lay in Asia, even returning from his first transatlantic voyage.

By casting the monument as a confirmation of the navigator’s role as a national figure who arrived, his right arm raised in acclamation, as if swearing fealty or in classical salutation, before the coast of the New World. The form of greeting worthy of Augustus belied that Columbus had not in fact travelled. Rather than being site specific or historic, the massive sculpture seemed a token and symbol–if not an idol–to an ideal of economic openness to international trade, a declaration of monarchical supremacy foreign to America political traditions. The multi-piece monument was a totem of economic grandeur and unbridled expenditure on funds, whose lavishness as a documentation of grandeur might obscure its role in a geopolitical chess board of global finances, that by then hinged on New York City’s financial markets. For the massive statue marked possibilities of money laundering, and foreign expropriation of wealth to offshore destinations, revealing terrifyingly modern global tentacles more than a language or intent of discovery.

The double entendre of the massive statue’s name, Birth of the New World, was inherited, but appealed, no doubt to Trump, who readily accepted the idea of promoting the monument on properties where he planned to build in 1997. He felt entitled to accept the gifted work to be erected in land he owned on the Hudson River, bought at low cost and converted to residential zoning, as an extension of his development scheme, announcing the imminent arrival of a colossal bronze Columbus, right arm raised in salutation as if hailing the New World he saw for the first time, from the Russian people.

The image of the fifteenth century navigator had been planned for the prevention to commemorate the quincentenary of the first transatlantic voyage of the fifteenth century navigator, a conceit that Zurab Tsereteli had worked on in models that he had presented to Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He had earlier given models to of the navigator in heroic form, and a statue of a standing Columbus he had presented to forty five meters tall, emerging in classical robes from an egg of bronze, displaying triumphantly an unscrolled map of the voyages of the three ships of his first voyage–Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria–as if to herald his nautical accomplishment referenced the legend of Columbus’ demonstration of the sphericity of the earth, “Birth of the New Man” (1995), which Tseretelli also designed, ever resourceful in the needs of exportable public statuary, to be presented to Mayagüez on the occasion of the XXI Central American and Caribbean Games. (Russia also gave a copy of this statue to Spain, installed in the park of San Jeronimo, Seville, used to smuggle soft high-grade raw soft copper from Ukraine of industrial value, evading export taxes. What, this leads us to ask, did this massive tube of a hollow statue actually contain?). Financial evasion of taxes may hint at the intention of the grander statue of Columbus offered Trump, saluting the island of Manhattan as if for the first time, of which the statue of Columbus unfurling a chart seems but the first draft.

Thirty Meter tall Columbus within Forty-Five Meter Tall Egg-Shaped Bronze Lattice in Seville

If the Seville image of Columbus emerging from an egg seemed to hold a map on which the three caravels slid to the New World, opening up its lattice of ship ropes cast in the form of an egg doubled as a Beryozka doll bearing high-grade copper evading export tax, what concealed agendas and private interests were within the taller, if strikingly similar, he vehicle of goods concealed within it bronze shell, like a Beryozka doll, of this Russian connection planted on the properties of real estate but mark a startling growth of laundered funds through international banking.

If the storied if apocryphal notion that Columbus had argued for the ease of the opening of an international trade route by taking an egg and breaking its end to balance it during dinner-time debate for skeptics who challenged his conviction that the cosmographic knowledge needed for his transatlantic voyage was an act of daring diminished by all who “had wondered at it as an impossibility” before he flattened one end of the eg to make it stand on its tip, as the sixteenth-century Milanese traveler Girolamo Benzoni had first recounted in 1565, revealing his ingenuity before a fictitious dinner party before Spanish nobility, the egg shaped cage recalled the cosmographic invention of Columbus as an act of daring, invention, and bravura–that recycled a solution Giorgio Vasari described in 1550 of how the engineer Filippo Brunelleschi in 1418 solved the problem to build a dome of Florence’s cathedral, S. Maria del Fiore, astonishing and besting the “most ingenious craftsmen of design.”

The global traffic in bronze statues of Columbus sought to announce the opening of Russia for trade during the post-Soviet period fit a trade in the kitschy recycling legends, myths, and folk tales that Tsereteli pioneered. The Seville statue recalled the challenge of design celebrated as underlying the logic of transatlantic discovery was repeatedly staged in statues as an individual bravura act.

Trump boasted rather fulsomely, as is his won’t, about the “gift” of a statue was taller–by six feet!–than New York’s Statue of Liberty,–as if, by happenstance, to suggest its transcendence of New York’s skyline and cement his legacy as a builder beyond Trump Tower itself. The statue’s fitting size seemed specific to the New York monument, to be the largest in the western hemisphere, was not serendipitous; it seemed to match Trump’s tastes and global appetite. Over the wreckage of the rail yards, would the heralded statue boasted to Mark Singer, in a remarkably unfiltered manner, Trump argued the three hundred and eleven foot statue to development where he remained a minor partner would be on its way soon, its head already in the United States, and the body, if it remained in Moscow, where it was forged, would arrive, he claimed in deadpan, as he was “working toward that end,” “favorably disposed toward” what he described as the “huge personal honor” of erecting the monument on his private land where he wanted to sell condominiums.

The story of the “failed monument” has been told, but the gift that post-Soviet oligarchs long planned to offer as a gift to the United States, was cast by Trump as a final achievement, as if threading a needle, to the promotion of his own properties on a global scale greater than New Yorkers were accustomed to associate his brand. As the brash boy from Queens who had made good, the figure of Columbus, the scrappy sailor who had been dignified beside Trump International in Columbus Circle, which dwarfed the iconic image of Columbus since 1994. He may have even sought a new image of Columbus in 1997 to provide a model for the new symbol of his own internationalism, and international ambitions, and to mark the arrival of a new burst of financial energy to the empire of Trump Properties, and birth of Trump International–not backed by Spanish sovereigns whose emblem was on the bronze sails behind his back, but a faux national icon that concealed its own Russian backing.

Could the planned arrival of a generic piece of faux patriotic statuary also chart Trump’s persistent conflicts of interest as his first political ambitions emerged? The statue he described only as a “gift” from the Russian people to the United States that he had in 1997 boasted he had orchestrate in pursuit of real estate abroad, arrived from the very financiers of the post-soviet real estate market, and Moscow-based firm, who lured him to visit the city to attract funds to Moscow’s redevelopment. Re-imagined as a fifteenth-century navigator preposterously sailing into New York Harbor, or up the Hudson, mighty far from Columbus’ actual transatlantic route, against what any elementary school student might know of the voyages of discovery, if the statue demoted the place of the map was demoted to its base, the brazen rewriting of history was an act of kitsch few New Yorkers wanted to see: it seemed a means of simultaneously both attracting and repelling attention of observers in the gaudy monumentality in which Donald Trump had seemed to specialize.

The gifts of massive statuary designed by Zurab Konstantinovich Tsereteli, a Georgian sculptor with an active trading of public sculptures in Moscow, had become a sort of stock trade in monuments as gifts of state in the post-Soviet era. Highly generic in form, vaguely stripped of history, and persistently monumental, the monuments Tseretelli crafted were somehow a search for a new level of kitsch to respond to the kitsch of Soviet monumentalism, stripping figures from historical context and monumentalizing their grader. The gifting of monuments of Columbus to Mayagüez, Seville and–it was hoped–New York provided a celebration of a spirit discovery that were anonymously funded, but launched in a spree of international trading as Russia sought to open corridors of foreign trade, and Trump’s investment of Donald Trump in Moscow.

Trump announced the arrival of the hundred and ten meter bronze statue, including base as the result of his close ties to Russian elites–less as an image of American patriotism, than a means to dignify in the most opulent manner possible his most recent Manhattan property development. Did he intent it to replace the The iconic statue outside Time-Life–or Gulf + Western building seems to have been prized by Donald Trump that it became a target of his desires. Just in October, 1996, New York’s City Planning Department rejected the proposal to emblazon the orbital globe with “Trump International” on the orbital globe as a way to brand his new venture–but the developer took the shiny orbital globe, silhouetting the world’s continents on a thirty-foot wide globe, modeled after the Unisphere built for a 1964-65 World’s Fair, as fair game to brand his ambitions, as it lay on property he now owned, and even if the words “TRUMP INTERNATIONAL” were not emblazoned on it to reveal his new global ambitions, the shiny sphere was replicated, in Sunny Isles, as an icon of the global scope of Trump Properties.

Brandell Studios, Architectural Rendering

The provision of Trump with a new image of Columbus on his own Hudson Yards development would be, perhaps, an alternate glorification of hi self-fashioning and marketing as a truly international developer. Was the discussion of the arrival of Tsereteli’s monumental figure of the navigator meant to hold an image of the orbital globe that Trump saw as an emblem of his new expansive network of global real estate properties beyond New York City–as if to brand the statue that was located on his properties as an icon of its aspirations to an actual globalism, and as if a statue could bolster its claims to internationality by virtue of a monumental map.

Six Foot 1997 Model of Zurab Tsereteli’s Birth of the New World”

Was the figure of the fifteenth century navigator consisting of over 2,500 pieces of steel and bronze were more of a token or a pawn in a global Ponzi scheme of money laundering, cancelled debt–even as Trump accepted it eagerly to promote his buoyant reemergence on a global stage, having cleverly disburdened himself of abundant financial debt? Or would it conceal the greater debts that his involvement with Russian backers, canny on playing the fulsome developer for all he was worth, would itself conceal? The inflation of this “gift” of bronze that was in itself valued–or Trump boasted it was valued–as containing $40 million of raw bronze alone would be evidence of his success at the mythic “art of the deal,” if the construction of deal–and the deal that it meant for American tax payers, or for the tax board–have been rarely scrutinized. If the statue given to Seville was found to be a way of smuggling high-grade copper out of the country tax-free, was the image of Columbus something of a Trojan horse, as much as the boondoggle it is usually portrayed to be.

The idea of the arrival of the massive statuary that seemed a big win-win certainly left Trump in the mood for levity. At a time when he was ready to open his own private Club, the renamed and rebranded Mar-a-Lago, the figure of Columbus seemed a new validation of his global esteem, and gave him a sense of legitimacy, after the failure of his Atlantic City casinos, built for $1.2 billion, as a gaudily orientalist “Eight Wonder of the World” in 1990, whose “opulence” and “size” of its three casinos he boasted would make it “the most successful hotel anywhere in the world” went underwater after it failed to generate the needed $1.3 million daily to break even in overhead costs.

The addition of a statue of Columbus would seem not only emulate one of the lost seven wonders of the world, erected in Rhodes as the tallest statue of the ancient world, but would be the tallest in the Western Hemisphere. Would the figure of Columbus moreover offer the developer, in a true win-win, the desired logo for branding Trump International. It might have rebranded Trump in American politics, with Russian sponsorship, at a cost with which the nation has been saddled.

Trump on Links at Recently Opened Private Club, Mar-a-Lago, 1997/Max Vadukul

The ties of the realtor who had been interested in shifting his game from Atlantic City, after the failure of a large Casino, the Trump Taj Mahal, went under, led him to set sights on more majestic and still more mythic goals of worldly grandeur, and why would not Columbus fit the bill? The authoritarian statue certainly suggests a newfound proximity to post-soviet Russian funders, as the global financial game that Trump orchestrated seem to grow in its disconnect from America, and its concentration on the fabrication of an ideal America, with little correspondence to the actual nation and its interests. Although Trump asserts never to have had or sought or even want assistance from Russia in his Presidential campaign in increasingly strident tones, the attempt to persuade New York City to relocate a monumental bronze glorifying the fifteenth-century navigator Christopher Columbus suggests otherwise.

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Filed under Christopher Columbus, Donald J. Trump, globalization, globalized economy, national monuments

Venezuela’s Terribly Slippery Sovereignty

Almost unnoticed in the current crisis of who is the real sovereign of Venezuela is that national maps fail to show the remove of sovereign power from territorial bounds. Even as blockades obstruct borders, closing points of entry and ports from entering Venezuela, the pressure that push the Venezuelan people into dire economic straits underlie the map of its population, lying deep, deep within the ground beneath their feet. The ties of this underground offshore sovereignty, lying deep in oil deposits located in sandy regions or in sandstone basins, suggest the scale of redrawing sovereignty in an age of globalization–when the nature of what lies offshore can becomes a rational for globalized conflict.

The precarious claims of petrosovereignty are hard to map, but as the reserves in the Orinoco Basin and offshore on the continental shelf are leveraged against a global energy market, the real sovereignty of Venezuela–and the tensions manifested on Venezuela’s national boundaries–have become a touchstone and trigger point of global attention as the nation’s huge oil reserves held by Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PdVSA) have made the legitimacy of the nation’s Presidential election a topic of global divides.

The infographic that has gained such wide circulation in differing forms transposes the red/blue divide of the election of Venezuela’s President, as I noted in an earlier post, on a global map, in ways that barely skim the surface in suggesting the truly global consequences in which the election is understood as less by geopolitics–the ostensible reason for America’s increasing attention to its results, according to John Bolton, in a policy that extends back to the Monroe Doctrine, of preserving democracy’s expanse across our own hemisphere, but global energy markets.

The Venezuelan tragedy is local, but crises of immigration, economy, and public health seems undergirded by the corollaries of globalization–and how globalization both erases boundaries, and puts pressures on defining them, and invests huge significance on defining the “boundary” even if it has become something of an empty fetish in maps. If oil and gas were made central to Venezuelan sovereignty by Simon Bolivar, it is increasingly linked to global webs of oil exports and ties of international commerce–visible in the petroleum tankers marked by red dots in a visualization of global shipping routes–that have refracted and become a basis to interpret the question of Venezuela’s sovereignty, and in which the future of its economy and the future of its sovereignty are unavoidably entangled and enmeshed.

 Red dots are oil rigs in interactive map, courtesy UCL Energy Institute/Map: KILN

For the crisis that is unfolding against the economic backdrop of a precipitous drop of wages, goods, and basic human and health services suggests one tied to ripples in a global energy market. For as much as Venezuelan sovereignty was long based in the “bituminous belt” of the Orinoco Basin, whose expanse exceeds the oil in all of Saudi Arabia–

–located in the Eastern Venezuela Basin in the Orinoco Belt, surveyed as recently as 2010 by USGS as the Venezuelan government of Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chávez took bids from Chevron and others to help finance exploration projects in the Orinoco Belt, seat of the world’s largest reserves, in a basin extending quite far offshore, in quite dense jungle.

USGS, 2010

Venezuela has long seen its petroleum sovereignty as the source of its regional independence, and of needed cash influx from multi-national corporations with whom its nationalized Petroleos de Venezuela SA–PdVSA–undertakes strategic partnerships, including Exxon and Gazprom (Russia), Sincor (China), and Belarusneft, as American multinationals were pushed out of the heavy oil-rich Orinoco Valley during the Chávez regime. The evolution of multiple “strategic alliances” in mining and oil and gas speculation with over a hundred and fifty companies from thirty-five nations led to an expansion of foreign involvement in oil extraction and gold and mineral mining that has created a lamination over the region–

–that provides a complex lens to examine the refraction of its sovereign status, and the global geostrategic importance of the region to the globalized world.

Venezuela’s sovereignty is viewed as so closely tied to global energy markets that invocation of hemispheric dominance and the American “Monroe doctrine” truly seem only so much lip service–if it weren’t for the huge access to oil reserves that the sovereignty of Venezuela will determine who has access to these reserves. And much as the earliest mapping of the same region of South America combined the rich natural hydrogeography of the curving river basin that snaked through the territory with missions who had colonized the land, to convert its inhabitants, in the region of Granada–note the jesuit presence above the equatorial line–

Libarary of Congress, Map of the Province and Missions of the Company of Jesus in the New Kingdom of Granada

–the new presence on the Orinoco Basin are transnational oil companies, and repossession of their extractive wealth has provided a basis for not only nationalism, but Although their stewardship of the delicate ecosystem of the Orinoco may be doubted, as charges of a crude oil spill in the region that would be so disastrous to its ecosystem has created a specter of ecological disaster for several years that PdVSA has steadfastly denied, despite the threats of accelerated deforestation, pollution, and extinction that mining and oil accidents portend in the Guyana highlands: Maduro has claimed mining and oil extraction are now “environmentally friendly,” but satellite images have shown the extent of deforestation into once-protected areas. Little of the protected regions are actually protected as the economy has fallen into free-fall and pressure to extract gold from the region brought increasing use of mercury in mineral mills, despite a Presidential ban, and the erosion of legal enforcement on workers in the region. Although PdVSA has asserted that leaking of over 100,000 barrels of oil from local pipelines did not enter the Orinoco, but was contained in the Anzoategui province in 2016, the extent of environmental devastation may only be understood in future years across the “Strategic Mining Belt” south of the Orinoco, where the Orinoco’s major watersheds lie, where gold, iron, copper, and bauxite feed the cash reserves of the government as well as oil.

Indeed, as we consider

Virginia Behm, ESRI Story Map: The Orinoco Mineral Arc and Mega-Mining in the Amazon

In an age when we increasingly form interactive maps in terms of the information we desire at the moment–and the needs that this information can provide–perhaps Trump is the sort of executive we deserve, framing information by infographics he can grasp on demand, rather than motivated by universal ideals. After the Venezuelan “economic miracle” grew by oil from 2004-2008, Maduro had declared his own state of emergency in Venezuela, back in 2016, when American intelligence predicted his time in office was only a matter of time, as inflation neared 180% and GDP fell to levels before 2004. But increasing exports to China and Russia sent a lifeline, despite shrinking foreign exchange reserves, of which Trump and Bolton are no doubt extremely attentive observers–even before PdVSA moved its European offices to Moscow in early March.

While cast to reach 100,000%, the peaking of vertiginous levels of hyperinflation near 41,838% led economic data to be closed to the public, as all revenue sources dwindle or vanish, and all foreign aid is refused by the Maduro government, as all question of a coup increasingly uncertain as most of the country is living in poverty, and a fifth of PdVSA is laid off–raising questions about the fate of extractive industries and the continued safety of existing oil reserves that are inseparable from state sovereignty.

Venezuela’s sovereign wealth extends globally, if it is located deep underground. But the long-cultivated dependence of the United States, where heavy crude flows to three refineries, which supply over 5,000 retail stations in twenty seven states, has created a question of linked economies which our ADD-afflicted President is now doubt attentive: CITGO plants along the Gulf Coast and eastern seaboard run against according independence to sovereign state in a globalized economy–a tie that President Trump would want to keep alive, and indeed that the impact of a sudden shock an absence of oil flowing in its nine pipelines would create.

The flows of oil have blurred Venezuelan sovereignty, and allegedly led Donald Trump to ask advisors repeatedly why American couldn’t invade the nation in August, 2017, stunning former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former National Security Advisor Clapper, as American sanctions against the nation were discussed, and then again to float the question with Latin American leaders, including the President of Colombia, after addressing the U.N.’s General Assembly, to make sure none wanted to oust Maduro as President. Global energy supplies have created a lens by which the “legitimacy” of Venezuela’s government and Presidency is questioned that has overriden constitutional practices sanctioned by Venezuelan law.

The crisis of immigration on our southern border notwithstanding, the fear of a crisis in oil important have encouraged the United States to invoke the arrival of a “crisis situation” in Venezuelan internal politics, that allows action outside the rule of established Venezuelan law of due process Trump’s eagerness to recognize Guaidó as “interim President of Venezuela” on January 23, shortly after Maduro assume the and declaration, before any other nation, of readiness to use “the full weight of United States economic and diplomatic power to press for the restoration of Venezuelan democracy,” as he encouraged other governments to follow suit. As Bolton works to distill Presidential Daily Briefings on global intelligence into a form that is more amenable to his chief executive–“big points and, wherever possible, graphics,” as James Clapper put it–energy markets are the basic map on which he seems to be informing himself about global politics. Mike Pompeo noted that President Trump is said to “dig deeper” into his President’s Daily Briefing about Venezuela to assess the “real layout” of “what was really taking place” there–who had the money? where was the debt?  who stood to loose and gain?–led to open questioning of the legitimacy of Nicolás Maduro.

At a time when 8.36 million barrels of heavy crude managed by PdVSA–the state-owned oil and gas conglomerate, Petroleos de Venezuela SA–which is worth half a billion American dollars lay off in tankers nation’s shoreline, in national waters, ready to ship to refineries to be processed by Chevron, Valero Energy Corp. and Rosneft, but with no place to ship the heavy oil, the local and global seem to intersect in globalized energy markets.

Tankers Holding Venezuelan Oil off Venezuela’s shoreline

As Clapper remembered Trump’s preference in Daily Briefings for charts and data visualizations quite early on, the distilling of the Presidential Daily Briefings by John Bolton into America’s bottom-line interests may compel re-examination of the place of the nation in a global energy market, and his sense of the value of the region’s geography to American national interests. Mike Pompeo, current secretary of state, has similarly described the need to reduce global conflict to the bottom-line of America’s economic interests for Trump, given his dislike for distilling the PDB to American interests, the Venezuelan crisis may more easily be understood by infographics or “mapped” as a global calculus of oil exports, rather than a defense of democratic principles. Trump has increasingly asked, Pompeo remembered, with interest for “more clarity” on financial issues–“Who had the money, where was the debt, what was the timing of that?”–aware, as the self-proclaimed “King of Debt,” of how debt, too, structures sovereignty, and deeply aware of the US$60 billion in foreign debt the nation carried–a massive amount that has grown almost six-fold in recent years, as oil exports from the nation increasingly grow, and Russia and China invested increasing sums in its oil exports as the debt grew.

Of public sector debt above $184.5 billion, $60 billion is foreign debt, though smaller numbers are claimed by the Venezuelan Central Bank 

–no doubt fascinated that the submerged collateral of such huge oil and gas deposits allowed the debt to grow to unprecedented height, as the exodus of refugees leaving Venezuela’s borders grew. Indeed, we focus on the fate of refugees, and cross-border flows, as a humanitarian crisis, but on which we focus more than the flow of extracted minerals, oil, and gas that have spread out to the world, and the arrival of capital from global sources as energy exports grow.

The sovereignty of the state was long tied to the concentration of oil and gas fields in sedimentary basins of northern Venezuela and South America–and which are the understory of the global attention to results of the election. As much as they are rooted in ideological debates of socialism and free market advocates, one needs to made sense of what “what was really taking place” in much of the Eastern Venezuela Basin and Columbus Basin to parse the deep interest in Venezuela’s sovereignty–and indeed to drill down, literally, into what Venezuelan sovereignty meant for the United States.

For the protection of those reserves led U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo-former director of the CIA–to try to entice Venezuela’s own armed forces to remove Maduro as President on January 28, 2019, as Trump helped assemble hemispheric powers to deny Maduro’s legitimacy. And it has led Donald Trump to advocate gunboat diplomacy by asking aides about benefits of a “military option” they openly called analogous to the 1989 Invasion of Panama when 9,000 troops toppled dictator Manuel Noriega, with 12,000 military already stationed in the nation, after Noriega had annulled a popular election, denying foreign sovereignty in the Panama Canal Zone with little military resistance of Panamanian Defense Forces. If America seeks to achieve a similar shift of sovereignty, hoping to echo the use of military force to topple Noriega–years after he was installed as leader of Panama to stop a feared spread of Communism in 1970—due to charges of Cuban collaboration, rather than money laundering and long involvement in the drug trade, such arrogant denial of sovereignty of other states in the hemisphere would not be so lopsided an engagement of force, or so smooth.

“Soberana” or “sovereign” is somewhat ironically the now-obsolete brand-name for a beer popular in Panama, now updated, which hung from the store-front of a Panama street American forces occupied back in 1989–

–the questions of the legitimacy of Venezuelan sovereignty are deeply intertwined with the offshore drilling rights that American oil companies are eager to acquire–or repossess–and underlie the denials of the legitimate sovereignty of elected leader Nicolás Maduro. The powerful evocation of the map

The American demonization of Mauro as military dictator erases the basis of Venezuelan sovereignty and a patrimony of petroleum, from Bolivarian models of sovereign economic independence; if oil is the source of 95% of the currency provided to the government, and was long seen as a gift from God to the Venezuelan independence at the heart of Socialist prosperity–

–the ties between the oil company and oil extraction and the nation grew hen Maduro declared personal leadership of PDVSA before the National Assembly in January, 2019, on the eve of his country’s assumption of OPEC presidency, as General Manuel Quevedo–a man without oil industry experience but a close Maduro military ally from the National Guard–assumes presidency of the global cartel OPEC, with ambitions of using OPEC to affirm Maduro’s swearing in as President, and his status as a defender of retro-sovereignty as counter-weight to the United States on a global stage–as the leader of sustaining the global prices of oil, offsetting the fall in prices with the increased production of shale-derived oil in the United States from 2014 that had caused a problem for Venezuela’s national wealth, and removing oil from the hegemony of dollar prices by cryptocurrencies as Venezuela’s own oil and mineral-backed Petro,

as well as by tying them to Chinese Yuan, in the face of growing US sanctions that Trump announced as Maduro heralded the digital currency as a way to affirm his nation’s “monetary sovereignty, to make [global] financial transactions, and overcome the financial blockade” imposed by the United States on investors, which led Trump to impose further sanctions on electronic transfers from by Americans in 2018, after the Petro netted $5 billion from American investors. The hope of decoupling from the US dollar was allowed by the transfer of the 30,000 million barrels of oil in the Orinoco Belt to the Venezuelan Central Bank as collateral for the hoped-for cryptocurrency–itself a proclamation of the national ownership of oil reserves that the current struggle for Presidential legitimacy would contest.

The map of national sovereignty onto the petroleum reserves was engraved in the public’s mind on oil and gas tanks that dot the coast and interior–

–even if may of the drilling projects are in fact joint ventures of PdVSA with other nations, from multinational based in Russia (Gazprom) to China (Sincor) to Belarus to Brazil (Petrobras) to Argentina (Repsol-YPF) to Uruguay (ANCAP & ENSARA)–and image of the deep-seated globalism of the Venezuelan oil economy, whose extraction of heavy underground oil is to be piped from the Orinoco Basin to ships waiting off the coast to be refined.

As Maduro tries to reaffirm the notion of petroleum sovereignty–the slogan of Bolivarian socialism is soberania petrolera–rooted in fashioning Venezuela as a global energy power, is there a logic of the staking of war for the offshore? The alleged fear Noriega collaborated with Cuba was voiced from 1986, and offered a rational for the “Christmas-time” invasion of December 20-24, 1989, as much as Noriega’s indictment for drug trafficking, although this was the reason for his eventual arrest by the DEA. The spectacularly lopsided and unrisky military deployment of 26,000 U.S. troops in “Operation Just Cause” against the Panamanian police force is a scenario, of course, quite unlike the threat of American invasion of Venezuela, a larger sovereign nation, not without its own armed forces–an invasion of which would provide far more expansive hemispheric consequences, as the scale of targeting Chávez’ appropriation of economic property. Yet Trump thirty years later in mid-February 2019 invoked the need to end Venezuela’s “humanitarian disaster” in Florida, beside Venezuelan refugees beside an American and Venezuelan flag, to inveigh against “Dictator Maduro” as being–hear the echo–a “Cuban puppet” for blocking the arrival of aid, and describing “our neighbor” Venezuela in ways that recall Panama.

In Florida, Trump threateningly observed that “we have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away [and] Venezuela is not that far away,” while privately asking advisors if invasion wouldn’t resolve threat of Venezuela’s economic collapse. As FOXTV states that the refugee crisis in Venezuela–a political, humanitarian, and economic crisis, to be sure–could “match the scale of Syria’s catastrophe,” and as sanctions imposed on Venezuela have helped precipitate an exodus that unfolded over the previous years, he was quite eager to suggest military options, in ways that give his declarations of geographical proximity particularly disquieting.

The impromptu geography lesson had huge implications: “The people of Venezuela are standing for freedom and democracy and America is right by their side,” announced the American President in Miami, before flags of Venezuela and the United States and nationalist chants of “USA! USA!”

Maduro rightly feared coup, as Trump invited Venezuelan citizens in the “Maduro regime” to “end this nightmare of poverty, hunger and death” by a peaceful transition of power as Senator Marco Rubio tweeted images of Noriega on social media–as a specter of the bombast of Quadaffi and the criminality of Noriega, that “thug of a different era,” brought down by American troops.

Rubio’s tweet of head-shots of two thugs helped recall his creation of a niche of helping to design American foreign policy toward Venezuela: the echoes of the offshore in both Venezuela and Panama were perhaps the only element that might link them, for all the similarity of a Cuban connection Trump–who seems to have little familiarity with the region–supplied. The fear that “war for the offshore” may underlie Trump’s eagerness to entertain military options. Gen. Manuel Noriega had not only been on CIA rolls, but preserved access to a notion of the offshore-banking system about which we have learned in the Panama papers; the preservation of the offshore oil derricks that Exxon and Conoco had left in Venezuela in 2007, as well as in the Orinoco Belt, which PdVSA has presumably used new international partners to maintain since to pump viscous heavy oil for international use. Trump’s familiarity with Panama and its President may mostly be through hotels–the Trump International Panama was planned from 2005 opened in 2011, and is the tallest building in Latin America–but the invasion must have provided a point of entry for inaugurating the “fantastic building in a fantastic location” on beachfront property with then-president Ricardo Martinelli, who later fled to Miami, Florida to escape charges of embezzling public funds, and has only recently returned.

The local political dynamics are vastly different, despite some similarity in American eagerness to secure offshore sites: Maduro had won his Presidential election, whereas Noriega had annulled one, but the suggestion of toppling his regime undercut all sense of sovereign boundaries, was a clear parallel assertion of hemispheric dominance, to protect offshore assets. For all the lip service to Democracy and the Will of th People–Guadió was not really elected, although as head of the “Voluntad Popular” (Popular Will) party, and has declared himself as leader of opposition to Maduro in the National Assembly, with American blessings: after trying to direct the arrival of humanitarian aid into Venezuela, he met with Mike Pence in Bogota and President Lenin Moreno in Ecuador, but his success would open the offshore waters to American interests, and has been anointed President in one theater of public opinion–but in ways that break the world in ways that reflect continued accessibility to Venezuelan oil.


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But the offshore benefits of a Guaidó Presidency to the United States may be as great as any benefits that he might be able to bring, at this point, to the Venezuelan people: they transcend surely ideology, economic prosperity–save in US aid–btu would be a viable way to reopen offshore Venezuelan oil reserves, and secure assets of ExxonMobil and ConocoPhilips that had been nationalized in the Chávez Socialist regime. With the Orinoco Belt resources, which transformed a marginal area of oil extraction into a particularly lucrative one in a short time, complemented the drive of Houston-based Conoco to retrieve $2B of assets of lost Venezuelan oil projects, only partly reimbursed as Conoco seized some offshore PdVSA rigs in the Dutch island of Curacoa, in May 2018; ExxonMobil and Hess were poised in 2017 to start drilling projects offshore of Guyana–including several regions Maduro has claimed as Venezuela’s sovereignty, if ones identified, in public maps show, to ExxonMobil’s and Shell’s ambitions for offshore drilling and exploration.

Oil Rig Reclaimed by Conoco in Curacao
6.6 Million Acres offshore Guyana being Explored by ExxonMobil/Hess Guyana/CNOOC in 2017/ ExxonMobil

Claims of Shell, Canadian Oil Company CGX and ExxonMobil Claims off Venezuelan Coast (April, 2017)

CGX Energy INterative Map

If there is a connection between Panama and Venezuela, is it in the prospect of invasion to protect role of the offshore assets so dominant in an age of globalization? If the comparison of invading Panama was widely entertained by military, U.S. bases not only lay in Panama, unlike Venezuela, but Venezuelan troops are loyal to the Maduro government, and any asymmetrical invasion with support from neighbors is unlikely. The attempts to delegitimize the election of Maduro, and his sovereign claims to offshore oil, with such finality have been an increasing goal of ensuring global claims to its petroleum sovereignty. Yet in an American administration that encouraged the expansion of offshore drilling, the arrogance of regarding sovereignty over offshore and inland black dots denoting oil and gas wells in the below map reveals the slipperiness of Venezuelan sovereignty, no doubt tied to the readiness of regarding them as an extension of our own energy security.


Based on A. Escalona and P Mann, Marine and Sedimentary Geology, v 28, 1 (2011)

And despite the heralding of waters offshore of Guyana as “the next big beast of global oil”–medium-light crude that is closer to major Middle East grades than United States shale-based oils, hoped to be rich in diesel when refined, the championing of Guyana as a next new site for oil extraction in late 2018, lies in a region that Venezuela has proclaimed as it sown, in a proclamation of uncertain enforcement, from 2015: ExxonMobil announced Stabroek blocks in 2015 and 2016 as a “world-class discovery” of up to a billion barrels of oil, as the Venezuelan government asserted it sovereignty over some of the exploration block, and has demanded that all exploration and development work be ceased until the international resolution of territorial boundaries.

ExxonMobil Oil Platform offshore of Guayana/Reuters

The continued dispute of the “offshore” and the state of Venezuelan sovereignty only increase the importance and significance of dismissing the legitimacy of the Maduro government in Trump’s America. The confusion of sovereign claims over the reserves sadly may underly full-throated blaming of other nations for “protecting” Maduro, as much as concerns for the Venezuelan people. Maduro in November, 2017, appointed his own National Guard major general—Manuel Quevedo, who lacked expertise in the oil industry—to run the national Oil Ministry and PdVSA, gathered with oil ministers in the Caracas headquarters to pray “for the recovery of the production of the industry,” the beleaguered company come under American attention, as the petroleum-technologies that remain in the region. Quevedo’s almost surreal level of inexperience in the oil industry has decreased oil production; and the decline of an established oil industry became seen as a question of American National Security, as army officials without familiarity with oil production meant that military managers have purged the industry of former executives, arresting former leaders, and appointed former military aides to supervisory positions.

National oil production plummeted by over half a million barrels from 2016-18, as maritime units entered critical mismanagement, more practiced executives and engineers left, many fleeing the country among three million displaced refugees, and oil production fell daily, as the National Guard assumed leadership positions–and foreigners invited to fill needed roles as infrastructure went unprepared, creating a time bomb dramatically reducing oil production by a million barrels per day from previous years–



BODI

–and reducing exports even far more severely, as far as an be gleaned from available PDVSA and OPEC records–

–but has created steepening anxiety about the futures of its oil exports.

How to map their decline against the increasingly slipperiness of sovereignty in Venezuela–undermined by economic catastrophe and lack of goods, as well as mismanagement–and on a global stage?

Deep confusion of sovereign claims over the reserves may underly full-throated blaming other nations for “protecting” Maduro–as much as concerns for the Venezuelan people. Although such calls for the legitimacy of Juan Guaidó’s self-declared Presidency present themselves as rooted in international consensus, Guaidó’s “Presidency” would pave the road for an increased access of American multinational companies to refine and extract oil from Venezuelan. The nationalization of oil has marginalized joint ventures with American companies and stands to diminish investment and servicing of rigs. Exxon has been barred from extraction by Maduro and its assets nationalized, and its exploratory ships confronted by Venezuela’s navy off Guyana’s coast; Shell has been trying to unload its stake in joint ventures on oil and gas with PdVSA; CITGO will cease to ship oil to America as American sanctions have struck the Venezuelan economy–the massive decline of venezuelan oil production stands to impact American gas prices.

The result is a scarily liquid sense of Venezuelan sovereignty. America entertained possibilities of a military coup openly from early 2018, and since the summer of 2017, seems to have led him to assemble pressure from Brazil, Peru, Guatemala and Honduras–leaders themselves not elected democratically–to endorse and call for regime change in Venezuela. The pressures created on Maduro’s claims to presidential sovereignty, and a national vision rooting sovereignty in mineral deposits and wealth have grown, as the nationalized oil and gas company has seemed close to collapsing.

Such a dated geopolitical spatial imaginary runs, however, directly against the longstanding centrality of Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA) to national sovereignty of the state in exporting, manufacturing, and transporting crude oil and other hydrocarbons, and its central place in the sustainable and indeed “organic” development of Venezuela’s economy–and the longstanding celebration of the three hundred billion barrels of confirmed oil reserves verified in 2015 by Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, whose location is currently trumpeted on all holding tanks in maps of a natural resource fundamental to plans for the nation’s economic growth–and indeed a proclamation of their national ownership.

Map of Orinoco Belt Owned by PdVSA and Venezuelan Central Bank

Although the laminations of sovereignty reveal the problems of Venezuelan sovereignty or its legitimacy that are so evident in maps of border conflicts, cross-border migrations, or humanitarian crises across borders, the problems of sovereignty in a globalized oil market, whose prices are upset by Venezuela’s shrinking exports, but which have long focussed global attention on Venezuela’s sovereignty on a global scale, at the risk of eliding and omitting the crises of regional displacement, economic disruption, and human suffering that “humanitarian aid” can’t resolve.

A crisis of global proportions rooted in the circulation of underground and offshore goods of oil and gas offshore has created a crisis that has spilled over the nation’s borders, and undermined Venezuelan sovereignty and borders–and even created a state of exception that threatens to undermine the legitimacy of its political government. The sustained undermining of Maduro’s claims to authority as illegitimate, and as allowing the very “state of exception” that would allow the leader of the elected National Assembly to oversee the transition to a new government, and constitutional order, by calling for new elections, the need for a new sovereign power to control the rich oil deposits offshore and underground with speed and expedience by the hemispheric global energy conglomerates that have contracts with PdVSA–Shell; ExxonMobil; CITGO–to resolves cascading economic troubles in Venezuela by ending Maduro’s presidency as expediently as possible. The stakes of doing so would, as Tony Wood argued, run against Venezuelan law and overturn long-established procedures of political process.

As one is struggling by attempts to imagine the crises faced on the ground by refugees and displaced on Venezuela’s boundaries–many of who provide a quite different image of refugees than we have seen from the ravages of globalization–crossing bridges and fleeing frontier with down jackets and backpacks and water bottles, if without jobs, livelihoods, or residence–

Indeed, it may be that problems of the gears of global capital, less clearly visualized, despite a mastery of multiple scales of global mapping, has pushed the nation of Venezuela to such international prominence. Despite ever-increasing facility with switching between local, regional, and global scales of mapping, we however are less able to register the increased impact of shifts of global economic changes that manifest in the fetishization of the border, and its closure. It is as if despite the omniscient promises of Google Earth to take us to any site in a globalized world, we lack an ability to map global shifts that provoke displacement onto local crises. And as much as globalization creates renewed tensions around borders that are defended and redefined against global pressures, in which the question of Venezuelan sovereignty over offshore areas where many derricks are located, and where Venezuelan oil fields are located with easier access for global markets–

Continental Shelf of Venezuela (in blue-green cyan hue)

–the sovereignty of Venezuela stands to be upset for emergency reasons–in a “state of exception” or of emergency that is able to invest legitimacy in the very young leader of a very small minority political party, Juan Guaidó, who was trained in the United States in Washington, D.C., after opposition parties have subtracted themselves from the democratic process and boycotted recent elections, and the oil reserves in Venezuelan waters and the pipelines able to move heavy crude reserves lying under the Orinoco River into global energy markets or to refineries in the United States. Even as Venezuela has failed to create functioning cross-border pipelines to Colombia, or to Aruba, or even to meet its citizens’ needs in gas, the national oil and gas company, PdVSA, to place hopes on exporting gas for needed capital to an imagined market for exports from that same offshore region that sadly reflects the flow of displaced persons from its borders.

Gas Exports Planned by PdVSA, 2018

–that would link Venezuela through both gas pipelines (shown in red) and oil pipelines to Trinidad and Tobago, Brazil or to port towns, but are now inactive. Guaidó was quick to congratulate Bolsonaro on his victory in Brazil,


Synthesis of varied sources on pipless connecting Venezuela to Trinidad and Tobago and Brazil, planned oil pipelines in dotted green and gas pipelines in dotted red

The failure to use petroleum products to provide needed agrofertilizers that the nation once provided and exported with plastics and other mineral fuels that made up a substantial share of its GDP and national wealth, and the problems of integrating such offshore or inland projects of extraction to the “resto del mondo” in an efficient manner have created a deep cyclical crisis of economic hardships that we register now on its borders,–tied to the increased migration from Venezuela’s frontiers. But might these pressure be more accurately mapped as lying in the deep attachments of the nation’s sovereignty to reserves both offshore and underground? Even if support accorded either Maduro or Guaidó are described in most news markets and by the American President Donald J. Trump in ideological terms of socialism and populism, the underlying pressures of controlling Venezuela’s large oil reserves–and returning its productivity of oil and exports–created huge permeability of its borders, as oil output suddenly drastically declined.

The recent attempt to view the crisis as at the border where refugees and displaced have fled Venezuela at such a staggering rate–over three million Venezuelans have left its borders for other Latin American nations, leaving a million Venezuelans now residing in Colombia, among that nation’s eight displaced, as 5,000 left the nation daily during 2018—a boggling scale seen only as the result of war or huge natural disasters. The cascading numbers of displaced Venezuelans mirror the collapse of oil prices and oil industry–both of which have transformed the state’s boundaries, and transformed national borders into regions overcrowded with displaced refugees–

April 2018

–in ways that recent discussions of the “sovereignty” of Venezula have difficulty including in any discussion of the nation’s economic crisis or current future political uncertainty.

In response to these crises of migration, displacement, and economic decline, many frontiers have been closed to Venezuelans, and anger at Venezuelans has grown in many host countries, creating a humanitarian crisis far beyond Venezuela’s own frontiers. The promise of energy nationalization to provide a vision of “La Gran Venezuela” since 2007 rooted in an image of national autonomy has paradoxically led its national bounds to become more porous than ever, and threatened the national economy in ways that have destabilized its national borders, opening them to humanitarian crises and economic collapse, creating odd out-migrations, quite distinctive from most images of other global refugees or displaced.

Despite invocations of the sovereign desires of the Venezuelan people, symbolized by banner-like display of territorial maps, the struggles for sovereignty in Venezuela are more removed from ideology than one might believe, following most news media. For rather than the crisis being about cross-border flows, or the barriers to needed humanitarian aid poised to cross the border into Venezuela, the global attention to the crisis of sovereignty responds less to any on the ground situation, but rather about what is mapped offshore, under the ocean, and underneath the Orinoco Petroleum Belt and Basin. For in sites of potential extraction where most of Venezuela’s nearly three hundred billion barrels of heavy oil reserves lie sequestered deep underground in sandstone, in the largest in the world, and levels of petroleum extraction–long the basis for Venezuelan national wealth–which have currently fallen to levels not heard of since the 1940s, with disastrous results of paralyzing the national economy and affecting the global oil market.

Even as Venezuela finds itself increasingly subject to global pressures even as it assumes the presidency of OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. As current President Nicolás Maduro threatens to defend his nation’s place on a globalized international energy market, threatening to “substitute the United States with other countries,” to undermine the American economy and the stability of Donald Trump’s presidency, and American energy markets, the sovereignty of Venezuela is again threatened by an increasingly protectionist American government, eager to take action to keep energy prices down–keeping Venezuelan oil, long shipped to and refined in the United States by its North American subsidiary CITGO, providing tens of billions of gallons of crude oil flowing into American national energy pipelines and refineries.

As the infrastructure of oil production have either collapsed or vailed to be invested in and maintained in the nation, they have become an object of eager attention in the petroleum industry as reserves once easily able to be shipped to a global energy market have been remapped for nations that offering to provide new extractive technologies: since oil prices collapsed in 2014, the state-run oil company PdVSA without a plan or ability to invest in necessary infrastructure,–tragically echoing, perhaps, how Chavista policies hurt agrarian and agrochemical industries by short-sighted collectivization and appropriation without an effective working plan. As the rural regions often returned to something similar to subsistence farming, and uncertain future, the lack of maintaining many PdVSA rigs and derricks have created a crisis of sovereignty and capital in the nation, that demands to be better visualized and mapped.

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