Particularly because of the dynamic quality of her history, Venezuela is an extremely fascinating country to study. In many respects Venezuela’s reformers have set an example which revolutionary leaders elsewhere might well be advised to follow. For her leaders have generally tried to steer the country through its ‘revolution of rising expectations’ by moderating the extremes of nationalism characteristic elsewhere and by eschewing the methods of violence, force, and demagoguery. It is especially promising that they continue to hold uncompromisingly to the democratic path even in the face of the 1948-57 decade of dictatorial counter-revolution and reaction.
During the nineteenth century the country’s history was characterized by recurrent periods of dictatorship, political instability, and revolutionary violence. Long periods of authoritarianism in the twentieth century included the dictatorships of General Juan Vicente Gómez (1908-35) and General Marcos Pérez Jiménez (1952-58). Between 1936 and 1938 and after 1958 efforts were made to develop effective representative government, and after the overthrow of Pérez Jiménez in 1958 there were three consecutive elections.
Venezuela’s first experience with democracy lasted only three years (the trienio from 1945 to 1948). The civilian – military junta and short-lived elected government, however, did not establish “common rules of democratic coexistence and norms to limit conflict” (Levine 92). During the trienio, some individuals among the social democratic majority party leadership-intermediary level, grass roots, and several of the labor leaders-appeared to see political opposition as symptomatic of counterrevolutionary conspiracy rather than as expressions of legitimate critique and alternative policies. On the other hand, the vehement opposition of some of the conservative sectors of the social Christian minority party, particularly in the Andean region, led to further political polarization. The reimposition of military rule (from 1948 to 1958) not only ended the democratic experiment, but it also terminated interparty conflict. Although that conflict certainly did not reach the proportions of La Violencia (political violence turned into sheer criminality) in Colombia, both situations manifested a lack of consensus concerning interparty legitimacy, as well as acceptance of and commitment to a democratic regime (Schuyler 11 – 13).
After the dictatorship was overthrown, the Venezuelan elites agreed to a more broadly based government than was the case in Colombia, and three political parties – Accion Democratica (AD), the social Christian party (COPEI), and the Democratic Republican Union (URD) – signed the Pact of Punto Fijo. Although the non-Communist elites decided to exclude the Communist party from the governing coalition, and the URD eventually decided to leave the government, the concept of a multiparty government took root. Thus, certain consociational practices were followed during the administration of AD President Romulo Betancourt (from 1959 to 1964). Furthermore, the two major parties, AD and COPEI, not only accepted each other’s legitimacy, but that of the smaller parties as well. They also agreed to give certain guarantees (particularly important in the case of AD) to such groups as the military, the church, and the business community. For example, the Betancourt government substantially increased the traditional governmental subsidy to the church. Although COPEI remained in the government, the Liberal – Conservative relationship in Colombia was much more formalized, if not institutionalized, than that of AD and COPEI. At the end of President Betancourt’s term of office, COPEI left the government and became the principal loyal opposition to the next AD administration of President Raúl Leoni (Peeler 93).
On 15 February 1948 the duly elected AD constitutional Government was inaugurated, and the junta ceased to exist. In addition to increasing its share of company profits, the Government sought to obtain a still larger income by entering the oil business itself. The initial move in this direction was made in June 1947, when the Venezuelan Government for the first time exercised the legal option of receiving part of its royalty in kind instead of in cash. It then exploited the post-war seller’s market for crude by obtaining somewhat higher prices from European and Latin American consumers than the companies operating inside Venezuela would have paid in royalties. Then in March 1948 the new Gallegos Government appointed a commission to draw up plans for building a national refinery and decided to look into the possibility of creating a state oil company to exploit the National Reserve fields (Lieuwen 106-7).
In line with its conservation policy, AD refused to grant any new concessions and insisted that the companies should salvage more natural gas, improve the efficiency of their operations, and eliminate waste. In addition, AD insisted that the companies must assume broader responsibilities toward the Venezuelan nation, that they must contribute to economic development by investing in domestic industry and agriculture as well as purely extractive industry, and that they must do more refining in Venezuela.
AD’s aggressive oil policy did not seriously interfere with the expansion of the petroleum industry. In the immediate post-war era, demand and prices were higher than ever, and the Venezuelan operators responded by breaking new production records nearly every week. Between 1945 and 1948 the average annual rate of increase was over 50 million barrels, and in 1948 490 million barrels were produced, two and a half times the pre-war record. This booming pro duction, coupled with the high market prices and the new taxes, enormously increased the Government’s income. During 1948 petroleum revenues alone totalled over $400 million, more than double the Government’s entire income during Medina’s last year in office (Lieuwen 108).
With regard to ‘sowing the petroleum’ income, AD clearly defined its policy. It argued that since oil taxes constituted payment for extraction of the country’s natural wealth, all this income had to be ploughed back into the economy in such a way that new wealth would be produced to replace the assets withdrawn. Thus the Government’s unprecedented petroleum income was reinvested, in accordance with a broad, detailed plan, to develop the nation’s human and material resources.
The sweeping and fundamental nature of AD’s programme of reform, the party leader’s impetuous determination to transform the Government almost overnight into a vehicle to satisfy the rising expectations of the hitherto ignored lower and middle-income groups in the society, the hasty insistence that civilian democracy must immediately replace the age-old tradition of military rule – all this served to swell the ranks of the opposition. The critics complained that the Government was trying to do too much, and go too far, too fast. AD’s downfall occurred on 24 November 1948 (McCaughan 49 – 51).
At the head of the three-man military junta set up to replace the Gallegos Government was Lt.-Colonel Carlos Delgado Chalbaud. The second man in the military junta was Perez Jiménez. Lt.-Colonel Llovera Piez, the third member of the military junta, was a leading member of the Tichira group and an old friend and associate of Pérez Jiménez. This triumvirate ruled Venezuela for two years, from November 1948 to November 1950. Their immediate task, of course, was to deal with the AD opposition. All the party leaders were either arrested, exiled, jailed, or forced into hiding. The party itself was outlawed. Most of its reform decrees and laws were nullified. The revolutionary 1947 Constitution was abolished, and the traditionalist 1936 Constitution was restored.
Differences over just what kind of govemment Venezuela should have soon split the military junta. Delgado Chalbaud had promised elections and desired to hold them promptly, perhaps with himself as a presidential candidate. Though he dissolved AD, he was reluctant to persecute former party adherents. His attitude was one of compromise and moderation. The other two junta members, however, displayed little enthusiasm for an early return to constitutional government. They were decidedly inclined towards the military’s customary political monopoly and insisted on dealing harshly with AD.
The crisis was resolved by the assassination, under mysterious circumstances, of Delgado Chalbaud. On 19 November 1950 he was machine-gunned by a soldier of fortune, Rafael Simon Urbina, who was shot on the following day ‘while attempting to escape’. Pérez Jiménez then became the strong man. He appointed a civilian puppet, Dr German Suarez Flamexich, to serve as provisional President, while he made preparations to become the permanent President himself (51-52).
On 19 April 1951 the military junta issued an electoral statute to regulate the selection of delegates for a new Constituent Assembly. The provisions were surprisingly democratic. All parties except AD were allowed to participate. There was to be direct election, just as under the 1947 Constitution, and voting was made compulsory.
The elections were held on 30 November 1952. Early returns indicated a landslide victory for URD, for it was leading the FEI by more than two to one with COPEI running a poor third. On the afternoon of 1 December Perez Jimenez ordered a tight censorship of all election news. On the night of 2 December he proclaimed an FEI victory. He also an nounced that the armed forces had dissolved the junta and designated himself as Provisional President. Llovera Piez and Súarez Flamerich were sent ‘on vacation’ abroad.
On 9 January 1953 the FEI-controlled Constituent Assembly met; the URD and COPEI delegates absented themselves in protest. In March 1953 a new Constitution was promulgated, one which, to no one’s surprise, granted the President overwhelming authority to rule as he pleased. In April a pro-Government slate of candidates was elected to make up the new Congress, which body, on 16 April 1953, dutifully named Pérez Jiménez constitutional President for a five-year term.
The military dictatorship thus ‘legalized’, the next step was to make it 100 per cent. effective. The National Security Chief Pedro Estrada built up a huge spy and police organization to achieve this end. Not only were AD sympathizers hunted down, but the political persecution was expanded to include URD, COPEI, and the Communists as well. Jovito Villalba was forced into exile and his party organization was crushed. Rafael Caldera was arrested and jailed, and the Communist Party was outlawed.
True, political liberties had begun to be curtailed immediately following the November 1948 revolution, but with the advent of Pérez Jiménez the persecution became far more brutal and all-pervasive. Thousands were jailed for political crimes. During 1951 and 1952 over 4,000 AD partisans were sent to the notorious Guasina Island concentration camp in the Orinoco jungle region. Here hundreds lost their lives through torture, overwork, malnutrition, and disease (Betancourt 490-500). After the 1952 electoral farce, AD sympathizers were joined in prisons throughout the nation by URD and COPEI partisans.
Political parties were not the only ones to incur the wrath and to bear the brunt of the repressive blows of the strong man. The military junta’s general policy was to get the workers out of politics in general, and, in particular, to end AD’s influence in the union movement. In February 1949 the Venezuelan Confederation of Labour and all its federation affiliates were dissolved by government decree. Thereafter steady persecution of the local bodies occurred. Hundreds of labour leaders were jailed, and within two years steady police harassment reduced the number of syndicates from over 1,000 to less than 400. Once the AD-affiliated local bodies had been curbed, the Communist unions also came under attack. Then during 1952 Pérez Jiménez attempted to build up FEI-affiliated unions, or more correctly, government unions, but the workers showed little enthusiasm for such paternalism.
Along with its political power labour’s power to bargain was lost. For example, when the collective contract in the petroleum industry expired in 1951 Perez Jimenez, rejecting the demands of the non-Government labour leaders for broad new economic advances, decreed a new collective contract almost identical to the old one, the workers being awarded nothing more than a small cost-of-living adjustment (Lieuwen 111). In a similar fashion, Perez Jimenez ‘s Minister of Labour settled the 1954 and 1957 collective contracts in the oil industry, and for that matter, all major collective contracts. Thus under the dictator, neither Venezuelan nor foreign employers needed to make any more costly adjustments on behalf of labour such as had occurred under AD.
In the educational sector, the repression was also nationwide. Following the forced disbandment of the Teachers’ Federation, hundreds of teachers known to be sympathetic to AD were dismissed, jailed, or exiled. Perez Jimenez then attempted to launch, with little success, a government controlled teachers’ association. Of course, AD’s 1948 education law was abolished, and the protests and demonstrations of the teachers were met with harsh reprisals.
The universities suffered most severely. These traditional citadels of democratic resistance to tyrannical and totalitarian political methods soon ran afoul of Perez Jimenez. Student demonstrations against the Government’s repression of political parties and labour brought arrests and expulsion of student leaders and professors and the closing of the Central University in Caracas early in 1952. By the mid1950’s hundreds of Venezuelan college students were forced to complete their education abroad, whereas those too poor to do so had to postpone their training. The more ‘troublesome’ teachers and students joined the political prisoners at Guasina or in the bulging national prisons.
The brief freedom that the Venezuelan press had enjoyed under AD came to an abrupt halt in November 1948. The censorship that began under the military junta was tightened considerably during the presidency Perez Jimenez, who imposed heavy fines on mildly critical editors and barred a large number of unsympathetic columnists. Issues of foreign publications in any way critical of the régime were seized. Meanwhile the dictator maintained an official press and fed a steady stream of government propaganda to all the newspapers, requiring them to publish it. The constant vigilance over, and persecution of, the press by the National Security police drove a number of newspapers out of business. The annual protests of the Inter-American Press Association concerning violation of the freedom of the press in Venezuela were simply ignored (Szulc 236 – 40).
Upon returning to power in 1959, the adecos undertook once again to redistribute former Gomez properties now owned by the state. In many instances, peasants forced the government’s hand through land seizures. In early 1960, the Betancourt government secured passage of a reform bill that led to further expropriation (with compensation) from private owners in the central states of Miranda, Aragua, and Carabobo, where peasant pressure was most intense. In exchange for the law, the adeco-controlled Peasant Federation, reorganized after ten years of illegality, agreed to cease land seizures. During Betancourt’s administration, 62,000 peasant families were settled and more than 1.5 million hectares distributed (Aranda 221 – 22).
Betancourt’s policies also evoked consternation among more radical and youthful members of AD. While the Old Guard was in exile, many young adecos had assumed positions of leadership, as they worked to build mass resistance to the dictatorship. Many had worked closely with the Communists, whom Betancourt continued to abhor. Betancourt and the Old Guard also faced a challenge from a group known as the ARS faction, composed mostly of members who were young militants during the trienio. Much of the ARS group later did split from AD (in 1961), and a few joined the guerrilla movement.
In November 1960, violence flared again after the government declared illegal a strike by telephone workers. Betancourt again blamed the unrest on leftist agitation and suspended constitutional guarantees, this time indefinitely. On November 30, the offices of the Communist party newspaper were occupied by the military. Barricades went up again in many barrios, and fighting brought widespread death and destruction. The PCV, over the objections of many of its own “Old Guard,” who continued to fear the threat of a rightist military coup, formally endorsed the thesis that revolution was possible. No clear strategy was presented, but the party began to cultivate support among leftist military officers and to train, both at home and abroad, guerrilla cadre. After two coup attempts by leftist military officers, in Carupano and Puerto Cabello, were defeated in May and June 1962, respectively, the government formally moved to ban the MIR and the PCV and to break relations with Cuba, inducing some leftist members of the URD to join the revolt.
The MIR and the Communist party had called for revolution, but neither had a clear idea of what strategy-urban or rural, insurrectionary or patient accumulation of forces – should be pursued. Not until mid 1962 was a centralized, coordinated guerrilla command structure created. At that time, various guerrilla and political leaders agreed that military operations would be coordinated by the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN); political affairs and organizing were placed under control of the National Liberation Front (FLN). Both fronts were subordinate to a Political Military Directorate headed by the leaders of the FALN, the MIR, the PCV, the revolutionary sector of the URD, and some independents (Schuyler 21).
In 1962, the left still believed that revolution was virtually inevitable. This false optimism was based upon a conviction that the popular unrest generated by the antidictatorial struggle and the economic crisis had created conditions comparable to those prevailing in prerevolutionary Cuba. However, the government of Venezuela under Betancourt was not a corrupt, personal dictatorship, but a constitutionally elected regime with a politically astute leader who possessed personal integrity, prestige, and physical courage. Although the PCV had emerged with great prestige from the antidictatorial struggle, the government made deft use of fear of communism, blaming Communist subversion for the climate of violence (Corrales 90).
All in all, for much of the 1960s, Venezuela was a violence-ridden society. Since human rights reports were much less commonly and scientifically reported, it is difficult to quantify abuses on the part of the regime. Exguerrillas and political activists of the period, many of whom are today extremely critical of the decision to undertake arm struggle, are able to recount numerous instances of unnecessary, if not deliberate, killings by military forces and of torture. However, the record of the left in this period leaves much to question on moral as well as pragmatic grounds. Between 1962 and 1964, the FALN carried out spectacular actions, including the sabotage of the U.S. embassy, the sacking and burning of the U.S. military mission, the kidnapping of a prominent soccer player and a U.S. army colonel, the burning of the Sears department store in Caracas, the capture of a few towns on the outskirts of Caracas, and the seizure of several barrios, followed by distribution of food stolen from supermarkets. Often these action were followed by pitched battles with the military in which residents suffered the worst consequences. This violence impeded efforts by some leftists to negotiate an end to the armed struggle before total defeat (97- 99).
For example, in September 1963, it appeared as though a negotiated solution with part of the left might be achieved before the December elections. However, the negotiations collapsed after five National Guardsmen were killed thwarting the attempted takeover of a commuter train by guerrillas. Under pressure from the military, the government arrested several PCV and MIR politicians, including several members of Congress, violating their constitutional immunity from prosecution. The left responded by urging a boycott of the elections, backed by violent attempts to disrupt them. However, voters turned out in massive numbers. Still, the left pressed on with the armed struggle.
In 1964, the guerrilla movement turned more frequently to terrorism, which attracted massive police and military violence against guerrilla strongholds, including the razing of entire neighborhoods where they were ensconced. A major leftist stronghold was eliminated in 1966 when the Central University campus in Caracas was militarily occupied. In some contexts, such a response might have swung hearts and minds over to the revolutionaries. However, in the Venezuela of 1966, state violence only made the guerrillas less welcome in the barrios. Combining a carrot with the stick, the presidential administrations of AD’s Raul Leoni ( 1964-1968) and COPEI’s Rafael Caldera ( 1969-1973), sponsored a community development program to provide political training and salaries for barrio leaders, which further undercut the influence of the left (Lacava 18 – 20).
All in all, there is a beginning and a reasonably clear end to the guerrilla violence in Venezuela that one does not find in the case of Colombia. The origins of La Violencia (or political violence turned into sheer criminality) in Colombia are considerably more complex, although the guerrilla movements that emerged in the 1960s shared the same overall objective as their Venezuelan counterparts – the overthrow of the national government. Venezuela has been more successful than Colombia in coopting guerrilla demands for social and economic reform. The country’s vast oil revenues have allowed it to institute agrarian reform and provide other forms of social assistance that have helped to erode the base of popular support for guerrilla movements.
Aranda, Sergio. La Economía Venezolana. Siglo Editores.Bogota, 1977: 221-222.
Betancourt, Romulo. Romulo Betancourt: pensamiento y accion. Mexico, 1951: 490-500.
Corrales, Javier. Strong Societies, Weak Parties: Regime Change in Cuba and Venezuela in the 1950s and Today. Latin American Politics and Society Vol. 43 Summer, 2001: 81-113
Lacava, Gloria M. “Neighborhood Associations in Caracas, 1960-1984” (Paper presented at the Congress of the Latin American Studies Association, Albuquerque, New Mexico, April 18-20, 1985.
Levine, Daniel H. “Venezuela Since 1958: The Consolidation of Democratic Politics,” in The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes: Latin America, eds. Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978: 92.
Lieuwen, Edwin. Petroleum in Venezuela: A History. Berkeley, University of
California Press, 1954: 106-7, 111.
McCaughan, Michael. The Battle of Venezuela. Seven Stories Press, 2005
Peeler, John A. Latin American Democracies: Colombia, Costa Rica, Venezuela. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985: 93.
Schuyler, George W. “Perspectives on Venezuelan Democracy.” Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 23 Postbonanza, Venezuela, Summer, 1996: 10-29
Szulc, Tad. Twilight of the Tyrants. New York, 1959: 236-40.