The real meaning of February 14th

From today, we’ve asked Alejandro Tarre – of the invaluable – to contribute more actively to Caracas Chronicles. Today, he explains why February 14th should be about more than just romantic dinners and candy hearts to Venezuelans.

It’s an episode contemporary Venezuelans might be forgiven for not knowing about, but it changed our history forever. The popular protests on February 14th 1936 – 75 years ago today – in Caracas forced then president Eleazar López Contreras to make some changes in his government and start liberalizing his politics.

López Contreras, who had taken over from the deceased dictator Juan Vicente Gómez only weeks earlier, was forced to remove the Distrito Capital governor, restore constitutional guarantees he had suspended on January 5th, and repeal a decree to censor the media issued just two days before the protests.

The late Venezuelan historian Manuel Caballero liked to underscore the importance of that day. In his biography of Rómulo Betancourt he says that on February 14th 1936 “the nation’s democratic mentality flowered” and since then Venezuelans have lived in a democracy. People took the street and have since never abandoned it:

A new actor was in the scene: the street. The street and public opinion. Not just that public opinion that, through the old civil and military leaders, had expressed itself on 1908, but the public without intermediaries. We have to insist that this not only happened for the first time since 1830, but also that this happened in a more clear and definitive way than on April 19th 1810, when the bosses of the poblada were also the bosses of society.

Maybe Caballero exaggerates just a bit the impact of February 14th, 1936. After all, reforms for universal and direct suffrage were not enacted during the presidencies of López Contreras and Medina.

In formal terms, it was the electoral statute of 1947 that established a universal, direct and secret vote for the election of the deputies of the Constitutional Assembly. And it was the National Constitution of 1947 that established proportional representation of minorities, a concept Hugo Chávez has abolished in recent years.

In my view, February 14th 1936 was the initial spark that marked a process of democratization without precedent in our history. Democracy might not have “flowered” that day, but it did begin to gain ground against an authoritarian inheritance of many centuries.

It’s true that Venezuela retains too much of its long history of authoritarianism. Many Venezuelans still relate to power, even if it is democratic power, as subjects or subordinates. That’s one reason why Chávez maintains a hard-core of support.

But it is also true that the spirit of February 14th is alive, struggling to win the latest battle against the old, conservative authoritarian forces.