On a pedestal in his garden of tropical flowers, entwined with vines and gorgeous Venezuelan orchids, sits his Singer Sportscoupe, the 1936 model. It is a symbol, this automobile reduced to a nostalgic artifact in the exotic garden of don Juan Pablo Perez Alfonso on the outskirts of Caracas; for this man, who was called "the chief architect of OPEC" by Anthony Sampson in "The Seven Sisters," believed the car was a "cosmic curse" and ought to be replaced by bicycles, as electricity ought to be replaced by candles, and petroleum by wood.
"The Man Who Invented OPEC," as he was known to his colleagues, told me with a twinkle in his eye that he conceived of it as an environmental organization. He believed the industrial nations of the West were destroying the energy resources of the earth by their wasteful consumption. And the only wao to stop them was to raise oil prices so high that they would be forced to limit oil imports and conserve.
"OPEC, as I have conceived it, is the leading ecology group in the world," said Perez Alfonso, who died of cancer in a Washington hospital on Labor Day.
Don Juan Pablo wrote the original "Gentlemen's Agreement" upon which OPEC was based. For 20 years he guided the growth of what he called "my little idea that has changed the history of the world."
"Now the world is paying the real price of oil," he said. "It is the price of history."
Back in the late 1940s it was Perez Alfonso who convinced the Iranians, under Premier Mohammed Mossedegh, to nationalize their oil fields. It was, to come to believe, a premature and ill-advised move, and he felt responsible to some degree for the shah's coming to power with the aid of the CIA. "I made a mistake," he said simply.
Nonetheless he continued to feel that if the Iranians had been successful and if he could have organized OPEC back in the 1940s, the world energy crisis might have been avoided. "Even then," he said, "we were beginning to think of the need for controlling the use of our natural resources. Not having been able to establish OPEC in the 1940s, but having to wait for the 1960s, has damaged the future of the whole world."
The opportunity did come to him in the summer of 1960. When the Russians began flooding the world oil market with their then abundant supplies, they forced oil prices down.Exxon, as leader of the multinational oil companies, countered by lowering its prices. And in the fall of oil royalties that followed, the Middle Eastern countries faced a revenue loss of $132 million; they were ready to listen to don Juan Pablo.
Meeting in Egypt that year, leaders of the oil-producing countries agreed to the Venezuelan's proposal that they form "an exclusive club." As a Kuwaiti official later said: "OPEC couldn't have happened without the oil cartel. We just took a leaf from the oil companies' book."
In gathering signatures for his OPEC proposal, don Juan Pablo was as impish as ever. He told the Iranian representative, "Sign it! Nobody is going to read it!"
Almost 20 years later, asked whether he still thought OPEC was an ecology organization, don Juan Pablo voiced mixed feelings. "Now [that] role of OPEC has really disappeared," he said. "Still, I feel OPEC is a good instrument for the Third World. It just has not been used properly."
Born at the turn of the century, he embodied in his life the contradictory ideas of our time. He helped to create the very world of oil riches that he later rejected.
In the democratic revolution that deposed the Gomez dictatorship in Venezuela, he and his friend Romulo Betancourt helped establish one of the longest-lasting democracies in Latin America. He became minister of mines and hydrocarbons, the position from which he formulated his proposal to nationalize the country's oil fields and refineries, and to found OPEC.
A gnome-like little man, as bald as a baby, he retired from what he called "the jungle" of international oil politics to quietly tend his garden. "So, you see, I am an ecologist, first of all. Always I have been an ecologist, first of all. Now I am not interested in oil. I live for my flowers."
In the small mansion that he built with his own hands, he lived as simply as he could. Though he was many times a millionaire, his lifestyle was Spartan. He read by candlelight. And when visitors came to seek his counsel, notables from around the world, he politely asked them to leave by sunset so that he would not waste electricity.
Nor would he drive a car. When the parliament of Venezuela wished to honor him as "The Father of Oil Nationalization," he refused to go to downtown Caracas. They'd have to come to him, he said. And so the parliament came to his garden.
"Isn't that a strange philosophy for the man who founded OPEC?" I asked him one day. "Why, if you feel that way, did you found OPEC?"
"Maybe we will [be forced by OPEC] to start over again, with bicycles," he laughed. "As I see it, we in the Third World may stop the wastage of our energy resources. That's how I envisioned OPEC when I thought of it, back in 1946. Most people see OPEC as a way to raise oil prices, but I see it as a way to lower the use of energy."
The idea of OPEC as the promoter of bicycles seemed an unlikely image then. But don Juan Pablo was merely ahead of his time.