Please read Pablo Neruda’s 1950 poem “Standard Oil”:
When the drill bored down toward the stony fissures
and plunged its implacable intestine
into the subterranean estates,
and dead years, eyes of the ages,
imprisoned plants’ roots
and scaly systems
became strata of water,
fire shot up through the tubes
transformed into cold liquid,
in the customs house of the heights,
issuing from its world of sinister depth,
it encountered a pale engineer
and a title deed.
However entangled the petroleum’s arteries may be,
however the layers may change their silent site
and move their sovereignty amid the earth’s bowels,
when the fountain gushes its paraffin foliage,
Standard Oil arrived beforehand
with its checks and it guns,
with its governments and its prisoners.
They buy countries, people, seas, police, county councils,
distant regions where the poor hoard their corn
like misers their gold:
Standard Oil awakens them,
clothes them in uniforms, designates
which brother is the enemy.
the Paraguayan fights its war,
and the Bolivian wastes away
in the jungle with its machine gun.
A President assassinated for a drop of petroleum,
a million-acre mortgage,
a swift execution on a morning mortal with light, petrified,
a new prison camp for subversives,
in Patagonia, a betrayal, scattered shots
beneath a petroliferous moon,
a subtle change of ministers
in the capital, a whisper
like an oil tide,
and zap, you’ll see
how Standard Oil’s letters shine above the clouds,
above the seas, in your home,
illuminating their dominions.
(Translated by Jack Schmitt. From Problems in Modern Latin American History: Sources and Interpretations, edited by J.C Chasteen and J. A. Wood (Oxford: SR Books, 2005), pp. 190-192.)
- What feelings arise for you in reading this poem?
- What larger historical forces might the Standard Oil Company represent in this poem? What connections does Neruda draw between militarism, authoritarianism, and the quest for profit?
- What connections do you see between this poem and the other work you’ve done for this unit? How does it relate to our discussion of economic justice and neocolonialism?
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