The Transition to Democratic Rule

Venezuela Table of Contents

During the twenty-three years of transition to democratic rule, institutions developed as the military transferred political power to civilians. However, the military was still very dominant, and the death of Gómez left a leadership vacuum that could only be filled by the old dictator's tachirense minister of war, General Eleazar López Contreras. After he finished Gómez's term of office in 1936, the Congress, all the members of which had been appointed by Gómez, selected López to serve his own five-year term in office.

When the riots following Gómez's death precipitated demands for liberalizing the dictatorship, López quickly realized that his survival depended on his allowing some civilian political expression. Accordingly, he freed long-time political prisoners and dismantled the worst part of Gómez's repressive apparatus. Exiles returned to establish the first mass political organizations in the nation's history, the most important of which was the Venezuelan Organization (Organización Venezolana-- Orve) led by the populist Betancourt. Another surviving leader of the Generation of 1928, Jóvito Villalba, revived the Marxist- oriented Venezuelan Student Federation (Federación Estudiantil de Venezuela--FEV); the Venezuelan Communist Party (Partido Comunista Venezolano--PCV) was also reorganized, although it remained banned from political activities in the revised constitution of 1936. In a related area, liberalized labor legislation encouraged the organization of the nation's first modern labor syndicates.

A highly effective general strike in June 1936, however, led the López regime to the conclusion that the proper boundaries of reform had been crossed. Accordingly, the López government rejected a November application by Orve and other leftist opposition elements for legal recognition of a united National Democratic Party (Partido Democrático Nacional--PDN) and brutally suppressed a strike by oil workers the following month. The regime justified the outlawing of the nascent labor unions in 1937 by claiming that they had engaged in illegal political activities. Soon thereafter, the regime proscribed virtually all organized political opposition.

López decided instead to concentrate his reform efforts in the relatively noncontroversial sphere of economic modernization. The government established a central bank, along with state- controlled industrial and agricultural development banks, opened new oil fields to exploitation and, employing the slogan of sembrar el petróleo ("sowing the oil"), launched a program for developing the national economic and social infrastructural, although at a lackluster pace that led critics to question the program's efficacy.

In 1941 López's Congress selected yet another tachirense, minister of war Isaías Medina Angarita, to replace López. In this respect, it appeared to be politics as usual. A more ambitious economic development plan, announced by Medina in 1942, was interrupted during World War II when German submarines played havoc with tankers transporting Venezuela's oil. New laws governing the state's relationship with foreign oil companies in 1943 resulted in substantially increased revenues, spurring renewed development efforts in 1944. Construction activity boomed during the waning years of the war, a period that also saw the passage of Venezuela's first income tax and social security laws.

Perhaps more consequential, however, was Medina's expansion of the political opening begun by López. The PDN was legalized and promptly changed its name to Democratic Action (Acción Democrática--AD). Its members soon constituted a vociferous minority in local governments and, after the January 1943 elections, in the lower house of Congress known as the Chamber of Deputies (the upper house was the Senate). The president responded by organizing his own political party, the Venezuelan Democratic Party (Partido Democrático Venezolano--PDV), which waged a vigorous campaign and gained a legitimate victory in the crucial 1944 congressional elections. With his party thus assured of control of the 1945 Congress, which would hold indirect elections for president, Medina appeared poised to designate his successor.

To the surprise of many, he chose Diógenes Escalante, a liberal civilian serving as ambassador in Washington. A delighted AD agreed to support Escalante's candidacy. Medina's opposition on the right, however, which had expected former President López to receive the nomination, was incensed by the choice. Fear was in the air during the summer of 1945, as rumors circulated that the forty-six-year-long rule by tachirenses was about to be ruptured by a civil war between the lopecistas and medinistas (followers of López and Medina). Escalante soon became too ill to pursue the presidency, however, and his announced replacement was a colorless figure widely regarded as a puppet of Medina. Ironically, it was not the lopecista right that brought the era of tachirense rule to a close. Instead, on October 18, 1945, the AD in conjunction with junior military officers suddenly overthrew Medina.

The conspiracy to overthrow Medina had been hatched inside the Patriotic Military Union (Unión Patriótica Militar--UPM), a secret lodge of junior officers who were disgruntled over the persistence of cronyism and the lack of professionalism within the tachirense senior ranks. These officers had invited AD to join their plot in June and asked Betancourt to serve as the president of the new government. AD did not agree to cooperate with the UPM, however, until after the October 1 announcement of Medina's replacement for Escalante.

After the coup, Betancourt named a seven-man governing junta consisting of four adecos (members of AD), two military officers, and one independent. AD thus controlled the government, and the UPM controlled the military. All officers who had attained ranks above major before the 1945 rebellions--Carlos Delgado Chalbaud, Julio Vargas, and Marcos Pérez Jiménez--were hence promptly sent into retirement. Political reform was the first item on the junta's agenda, and in March 1946, it decreed a sweeping new electoral law. Universal suffrage for all citizens over eighteen, including women, at last became law. All political parties were legalized, and the number of congressional seats was to be apportioned according to each party's percentage of the total vote.

AD's principal competitor in the October 1946 Constituent Assembly elections, held to elect a body that would draft a new constitution, was the Christian Democratic Party (Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente--COPEI), recently founded by Rafael Caldera Rodríguez. COPEI appealed mainly to conservative Roman Catholics. Other parties of less conservative leanings but narrower electoral appeal included the Democratic Republican Union (Unión Republicana Democrática--URD), a personal vehicle for Villalba, and the communists, whose various factions united in 1947 under the banner of the PCV, which had been legalized in 1942. Although competition among the parties was intense, AD won overwhelming majorities in the Constituent Assembly elections as well as in the presidential and congressional elections of December 1947 and the municipal elections of May 1948.

AD's wide margin of victory (in 1946 it drew 79 percent of the vote); in 1947, 73 percent) led its leaders to believe that they could push through a highly progressive program without considering the conservative political opposition. A new constitution was promulgated in 1947. The party's vigorous pursuit of "social justice and better conditions for the workers" (as stated in a decree by the 1945 junta that established a separate ministry of labor) engendered widespread hostility within the business community, both foreign and local. The overhaul of the 1943 petroleum law to assure the government a 50 percent tax on the oil industry's profits intensified the foreign oil companies' antagonism. The junta's aggressive campaign to expand public education and its regulation of both public and private education incensed the Roman Catholic Church. The church, whose dominant role in education had heretofore gone unchallenged, now enlisted COPEI in a strident antigovernment campaign.

The political polarization intensified following the inauguration of Rómulo Gallegos as president on February 15, 1948. At that time, Venezuela's most renowned author, Gallegos proved less than adroit as a politician. His signing of AD's wide-ranging land reform bill in October pitted the nation's powerful landowners against him, and his reduction of the military personnel in his cabinet and advocacy of a reduced military budget alienated the armed forces. In mid-November, the UPM issued an ultimatum to the president demanding that COPEI share political authority with AD and that Betancourt, still AD leader, be sent into exile. Gallegos refused, and on November 24, after barely ten months in office, the military overthrew him in a nearly bloodless coup and exiled him along with Betancourt and the rest of the AD leadership.

The three-man provisional military junta that assumed control of the government was headed by Colonel Delgado. Delgado had joined the anti-AD conspiracy only after Gallegos had rejected the UPM ultimatum and it was clear that his fall was inevitable. Delgado had been a UPM coconspirator in 1945, and had served as a member of the AD junta and as minister of defense under Gallegos. The military junta's other two members, UPM conspirator Pérez Jiménez and Luis Felipe Llovera Páez, were tachirenses who also held the rank of colonel. The junta quickly set about undoing the reforms of the AD trienio. It voided the 1947 constitution and restored the traditionalist 1936 constitution. The new military government outlawed AD and persecuted its militants.

Delgado took a more moderate position than his fellow junta members on such issues as the persecution of AD and the potential transition from a military to a civilian government. His disagreements with Pérez and Llovera, who advocated overt military rule in the Venezuelan tradition, became increasingly public. In November 1950, Delgado was assassinated. Germán Suárez Flanerich served as a figurehead for Pérez, who assumed leadership of the junta. Under pressure from non-AD political parties, the junta reluctantly convoked long-deferred presidential elections for November 1952.

AD continued to be proscribed but was extremely active underground. Pérez organized a progovernment party, the Independent Electoral Front (Frente Electoral Independiente-- FEI), which he mistakenly believed would be victorious and thus legitimize his rule. Caldera ran a conservative campaign as the presidential candidate of COPEI, and the URD's Villalba ran a fiery antigovernment campaign. When the early election results made it clear that the URD (supported clandestinely by AD), was far ahead of the government party, Pérez ordered the count halted and declared himself president. The other junta members were sent abroad "on vacation," and the leaders of the URD and COPEI joined their AD colleagues in exile.

The next five years saw a brutal dictatorship in a country that by now was notorious as the almost archetypical home of Latin American dictators. A regressive new constitution reverted to indirect elections for president by a puppet legislature. Pedro Estrada, described by historian Hubert Herring as "as vicious a man hunter as Hitler ever employed," headed the vast National Security Police (Seguridad Nacional--SN) network that rounded up any opposition, including military officers, unable to escape. Hundreds, if not thousands, were brutally tortured or simply murdered at the notorious Guasina Island concentration camp in the Orinoco jungle region. Labor unions were harassed, and the Venezuelan Confederation of Labor was abolished and replaced by a confederation under the control of the FEI. When the Central University of Venezuela became a center of opposition to the regime, it was simply shut down. Strict controls over the press recalled the worst days of the Gómez regime. Political power concentrated around Pérez and an inner circle of six tachirense colonels who held key cabinet positions. Pérez revived Gómez's old "Democratic Caesarism" doctrine and gave it a new name, the "New National Ideal," under which politics would be deemphasized in favor of material progress (dubbed the "conquest of the physical environment" by apologists for the dictatorship).

Under Pérez, much of the nation's ever-increasing petroleum revenues were used for ostentatious construction projects. These included a replica of New York's Rockefeller Center, a luxurious mountaintop hotel, and the world's most expensive officers' club, all of which served more as monuments to the dictator than as contributions to national development. An even larger share of the state treasury, fully 50 percent according to one estimate, was squandered or simply stolen. By the time Pérez was forced to flee to Miami, he alone had accumulated a fortune estimated at US$250 million. Meanwhile, government expenditures on such human resources as health and education stagnated.

Pérez's staunch anticommunism and his more liberal policies toward the foreign oil companies--compared with the nationalistic stance of AD--won him the open support of the United States government; President Dwight D. Eisenhower awarded him the Legion of Merit in 1954. His seemingly insatiable greed for wealth and power, however, as well as the widespread reports of his debauchery, made him a growing object of scorn among his countrymen. In mid-1957 the united civilian opposition organized an underground movement called the Patriotic Junta dedicated to overthrowing the dictatorship. Opposition to Pérez also flourished within the military, especially among junior officers tired of the corruption and monopoly on power of the ruling generals. Pére's favoritism to the army alienated air force and naval officers.

A shameless electoral farce in 1957, obvious to all as a bald maneuver designed to perpetuate Pérez in power, proved decisive in the downfall of the dictator. Fearful of an embarrassment similar to that of 1952, Pérez cancelled planned elections and then scheduled a plebescite. Only two hours after the polls had closed on December 15, the government announced an incredible 85 percent vote in favor of Pérez continuing in office. Outrage at this obviously fraudulent result was universal among both the civilian and military opposition.

Air force planes dropped bombs on the capital on January 1, 1958, to signal the start of a military insurrection. The anticipated coup d'état failed to materialize, however, because of the lack of coordination among the conspirators. Nonetheless, the bombing did give heart to the civilian opposition to Pérez by signaling that they were not without allies within the military. On January 10, the Patriotic Junta convoked a massive demonstration of civilian opposition in downtown Caracas; on the twenty-first, it called for a general strike that proved immediately effective. Street demonstrations as well as fighting erupted and quickly spread outside Caracas. When the navy revolted on January 22, a group of army officers, fearful for their own lives, forced Pérez to resign. The following day, Venezuela's last dictator fled the country, carrying most of what remained of the national treasury. In addition, his ouster cost the nation some 300 dead and more than 1,000 wounded.

The five-man provisional military junta at first tried to rule without civilian participation. The Patriotic Junta, however, called for the rebellion to continue until civilians were included. Two businessmen were promptly added to the junta, which ruled during the year required to dismantle the institutions associated with the dictatorship and transfer power to a popularly elected civilian government. The junta contained personnel from all three military services, led by Admiral Wolfgang Larrazábal, who headed the crucial January 22 naval rebellion.

The junta also began a valiant effort to deal with the grim realities of an empty treasury and some US$500 million in foreign debt. It immediately stopped work on most of the dictator's public works projects, and later decreed a sharp increase in income taxes. Most important, the junta increased the government's share of the profits on petroleum extraction from 50 percent to 60 percent.

Under a new electoral law decreed in May, the junta convoked elections for December 1958. The political parties that had participated in the Patriotic Junta found themselves unable to reach a consensus on a single candidate. In the Pact of Punto Fijo, drawn up in October, the top party leaders did agree to resume their cooperation after the elections. They drew up a common policy agenda and agreed to divide cabinet posts and other governmental positions among the three major parties, regardless of whose candidate proved victorious in December. AD then nominated Betancourt, the URD tapped the popular Larrazábal as its candidate, and COPEI again ran Caldera as its candidate. After a hard-fought campaign, Betancourt came out the victor with 49 percent of the total; Larrazábal, who also had the support of the communists, received 35 percent; Caldera garnered 16 percent. AD also gained a majority in both congressional bodies. Although few anticipated it at the time, Betancourt's inauguration as president on February 13, 1959, initiated a period of democratic, civilian rule of unprecedented length in the nation's history.

History Contents
Discovery and Conquest
Spanish Colonial Life
The Epic of Independence
The Century of Caudillismo
The Transition to Democratic Rule
The Triumph of Democracy

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress