The real meaning of February 14th

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From today, we’ve asked Alejandro Tarre – of the invaluable AlejandroTarre.com – 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.

1 COMMENT

  1. Great essay Alejandro. Bienvenido!

    I think you should clarify what you mean by “conservative authoritarian forces.” “Conservative” is a term that means different things to different people.

  2. Excellent point, Juan!
    What could be more legitimately “conservative” than conserving the ideals of a moribund but valid 1936 awakening.
    We liberals have to be less dogmatic about common sense.

    Best,

    Deedle

  3. Yes, I should clarify. I am not using the connotation the term has in the US. More the dictionary’s “disposed to preserve existing conditions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.” We have a long history of authoritarianism in Venezuela. If we take that long historical view, I think the term is appropriate.

  4. HI Alejandro, Manuel Caballero’s point is/was compelling, and precise, and I think you should have provided more context to those who lack the knowledge of our contemporary history.

    Saying that he somewhat exaggerated, without mentioning that in 1936 Venezuela had been ruled by a never ending succession of dictatorial caudillos that started with the Independence wars, and criticising his use of the term flowering vis-a-vis democracy, when you stated “…but it changed our history forever”, leaves one with the impression that you’re agreeing more with Caballero, with what you care to admit.

    Correct me if I’m wrong but, was that not the first ever massive outpour of people -as undertaken in democracy, seen in the country? How was Caballero then exaggerating?

    Please explain.

  5. Alek, our difference is so small it wouldn’t bother me to accept your criticism. I am just saying the more formal steps towards democratic reform I describe in the post are also very important. In essence I agree with Caballero. I just like more the “initial spark” phrasing instead of “flowering”. A small, trivial, fine-tuning, that -you’re right in this- might wrongly put too much emphasis on a minor difference of opinion about the importance of Feb 14th.

  6. Oh, in that, the more formal steps which came post 1936, are, of course, of crucial importance, I totally agree. However, I think the point of Caballero was that without the popular uprise of 36, perhaps we wouldn’t have seen those acts of crucial importance that came at a later date, hence his use of the term.

    While we are in this, discussing the “initial spark”, perhaps the events 1928 should also be mentioned.

  7. Very interesting analysis and very valid. Thought provoking but cannot be seen without a continuation. The continuation – in my view at least – was the February 4th military rebellion – which was the start of the challenge to the bourgeois democracy of AD and COPEI followed by the election of Chávez in 1998 and then the change to participatory democracy on December 15th 1999.

    Probably no one will agree with this but that’s freedom of thought and expression in the Bolivarian Republic.

  8. Not really, February 4th was a a symptom of the exhaustion of the democratic model that failed to deliver and the beginning of going back to the “Caudillos” of the 19th Century. Venezuela in no shape or form resembles a traditional democracy, it’s looking more and more like those 19th century governments. Remember, even Gomez had “elections”.

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