For any of the oil-hungry nations of the Western Hemisphere, a new find even remotely like Venezuela's bountiful Lake Maracaibo area would be the joyous national equivalent of breaking the bank at Monte Carlo. Last week, in nine countries within 1,500 miles of Maracaibo, the quest for black gold was on more earnestly than ever before, with U.S. oilmen leading the pack. In rain forests and cane fields, dozens of drilling rigs probed for the telltale "show" of oil.

Many a costly hope was placed in Central America, spurred by Union Oil Co.'s...

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