Still shell-shocked by a series of defeats, facing a military government that’s ruthless in smashing dissent, the opposition staggers around listlessly hardly believing its own claim to power. Wise people warn about the need to hunker down for the long haul. With key leaders jailed or exiled, the opposition wallows in a kind of collective post-traumatic stress,  no longer really daring to believe regime change might be possible, much less imminent. The government, everyone knows, has a complete stranglehold over electoral institutions: it can flagrantly violate the constitution it itself had approved to give itself an unfair advantage in elections, and there isn’t a damn thing anybody can do about it.

Welcome to November, 1957.

The Pérez Jiménez dictatorship had blatantly broken the 1952 constitution to substitute a promised presidential election with a yes/no plebiscite on his continued rule. Everyone knew this wasn’t legal, everyone knew voting conditions would not be fair. The voting system wasn’t even secret, and public employees were explicitly threatened with dismissal if they did not show up to the office with the “No” ballot on Monday, proving that they had deposited the “Yes” ballot (in favor of the regime) in the ballot box. But with the price of dissent set explicitly at prison, no one could do anything about it.

The government did indeed go on to “win” the plebiscite of December 15, 1957, and by a wide margin. Less than six weeks later, the dictator Pérez Jiménez had fled the country, his regime a pile of rubble around him. December 1957 is an object lesson in why elections are always a crisis point for authoritarian regimes – and doubly so for unpopular ones – no matter how monolithic their power may appear.

The decision Pérez Jiménez faced ahead of the vote has absolute resonance today: he could either allow a more-or-less fair election and go down in honorable defeat, or he could try to rig the vote, putting forward unacceptable voting conditions that guaranteed his triumph and ride out the consequences. He had all the power he could have asked for to try the latter course, and the opposition felt entirely powerless to oppose him. 

One fascinating aside is that one of the very few voices that actually foresaw the potential for the dictatorship’s decision to cheat to backfire and undermine its stability was a then little known Copei youth activist by the name of Luis Herrera.

That was far from the consensus among opposition bigwigs. For one Romulo Betancourt, in his correspondence from exile in late 1957, lamented that Acción Democrática had essentially stopped functioning as a national organization by then. With all its key cadres jailed or exile, AD couldn’t mount a rally in Guatire if it set its mind to it. The reasonable expectation – indeed, the very widely shared expectation – was that Pérez Jiménez would never willingly give up power through the ballot box. 

That expectation turned out to be right…but useless. Elections have a way of destabilizing unpopular authoritarian regimes that are quite independent of what the leader is or is not willing to accept. 

Why? Because the actual process of stealing an election dramatically demonstrates to the regime’s remaining supporters the precariousness of their own position. The “cooperate/defect” choice facing each of them gets rebalanced towards defection. It is one thing to know for sure that a government is illegitimate; it’s quite another to know for sure that everyone around you knows that everyone around you knows it is illegitimate. Elections – when rigged – can give rise to just the sort of “Emperor Has No Clothes” moment where everyone suddenly acknowledges publicly what each person had known privately just a moment before.

For an authoritarian regime, that’s a moment of utmost peril. 

Come December 6th, realizing just how far behind they are, the Maduro regime may well calculate that their best bet to stay in power is to simply steal the election. That decision, if it is made, will be made on the basis of a calculation that that’s how the regime can cement itself in power.

It wouldn’t be the first time a Venezuelan government has made such a wager. And it wouldn’t be the first time that calculation has been wrong, either. 

72 COMMENTS

  1. I don’t know, Quico. The armed forces weren’t into government-sanctioned drug trafficking back then. Moreover, political repression under the Pérez Jiménez regime was much more severe; following years of persecution and clandestinity, I would assume that the opposition was much more emboldened to seize the opportunity to drive Pérez Jiménez out.

    Anyhow, the thing with the 1958 coup is that, despite all the talk of it being a “alianza cívico-militar”, it was pretty much a regular military coup d’etat (in the end, aren’t they all?). Do we really see that happening again? I’m leaning toward “not really”.

    • Well, that is a point. The main issue would be who is in position to actually do anything. Not talking about a coup; just that ok, lets say the government steal the election, and everybody is aware they did it.

      Who are the ones that are going to move from accepting it to opposing it by this revelation of how phony the revolution is? Who is going to break ranks? Who is going to catalyze the feeling of alienation and insult?

      1958 was possible because there were people that were moved to the brink due to it. People that already wanted something else, that were just confirmed by the whole farce that they wer not jumping into a empty pool.

  2. A blatant or flagrant fraud cannot be hidden by the use of formal electoral cosmetics , people will know it happened , and the consciousness that it happened makes for a change in peoples emotional state and convictions , those supporting the regime will feel enfeebled and phony in their militant stance , inwardly demoralized (whatever brave face they exhibit to mask their inner feelings), this can ultimately have a desvastating effect on their resolve , while those opposing the regime will feel incensed and angry at being robbed of the thriumph they won giving rise to cllective responses that ultimately can become quite vehement in their expression . People in the army are not exempt from these consequences , there might be some of them who decide to act on it , be it by mounting a rebellion or when the time comes by not acting decisively in suppressing either that rebellion or popular protests against the regime.

    In the case of Perez Jimenez a small group within the army ( the air force and a Lit Col Trejos colum of armed cars) attempted a coup which was rapidly and effectively suppresed by the army command use of its control over the remaining army units . The command however understood that Perez Jimenez could not continue as before that it had to make changes in the composition of the gabinet and in its policies , that the uprising spelt a change in the circumstances, they pressed Perez Jimenez to make those changes and made what amounted a palace coup which forced MPJ to simulate going along . MPJ resisted having had to give in to the army command and days later staged a palace counter coup that in effect broke up the army command to reassert his authority .

    In doing this MPJ in effect lost effective control of the army , lacking the support of the high command he tried replacing it by appointing an unconditional loyalist as head of the armed forces but without the organization below that might assist it in exercising effective control over the army units. This emboldened people within the army who saw a weakened MPJ to start staging certain acts of rebellion which MPJ knowing the game was up decided not to resist and abandon power .

    Civilian protests were a backdrop noise, exercising external pressure over the situation , but if the army command had remained loyal , had it not been broken up by MPJ he might have remained in power for quite a few years. Of course a Myth developed that the people;s brave and glorious protest had been the decisive factor in toppling MPJ. In actual fact it played a secondary role in the denoument of the crisis. With MPJ army supporters feeling demoralized and leaderless they gave up suppressing and instead joined the rebellious part of the army to institute a regime change.

    The situation now is different from that of 1957 , early 1958 but the impact of a flagrant fraud that robs the election can be very damaging to the regime and ultimately spark a chain of events that can bring great peril to the regimes continued hold on power , it may pass thru many stages but the threat to the govt of stealing the elections can have consequences that it cant help but fear …….

    This article from Francisco is spot on…

  3. Dunno, it has worked sometimes – I’m thinking of Franco referendum in 1947, with 93% of “YES” over 89% of the electorate voting.

    Of course, that was a bit easier to do after basically carrying out a campaign of extermination and having a traumatized population cowed by civil war.

    Better not give them ideas.

  4. People say the MPJ regime was a disaster. And that the “oligarchs” then were crooks.

    Fine. Have any of you seen what he built in less than 5 years? Plus he stepped down, saying “yo no mato cadetes”.

    Compare that to AD/CopeyMud or Chavismo.

    • No, sorry, I’m not playing the game of “guess what piece of shit smells better”.

      We dont need the likes of MPJ. We can have a fucking working democracy like everybody else. No need to justify authoritarian cretins.

    • Yeah, he built what the 1945-48 government had originally planned to build, just that using forced labor.

      This MPJ nostalgia is the most rancid political undercurrent going on in Venezuela right now.

    • Heard “the militar arrecho…” first time from ‘la conserje de mi edificio’ when I arrived in Venezuela in 1978.

      Moreover that idea became the enabling prophecy for Chavez.

      One more thing. Betancourt and the other early governments of the Venezuelan democracy refused to make big infrastructure investments in the 60s because that was what dictators, namely MPJ. They wanted to paint democracy in a different light.

  5. A good essay. I hadn’t been aware of the details of Perez Jimenez’ fall from power, but they surely resonate today.

    Of course there’s no guarantee that 4D is the beginning of the end, but dictatorships can turn to rubble in the blink of an eye.

  6. I have to agree with Lee Kuan Yew

    Comparing Chavez/Maduro to Marcos Perez Jimenez is like comparing a turd to a bar of gold. MPJ just did what had to be done in order to develop the country and deep down I think he was a patriot. Not like this regime of drug traffickers who are only concerned with their ever growing bank accounts in Andorra.

    The Marcos Perez Jimenez regime was one of the best eras of Venezuela’s history. The amount of public works and infrastructure improvements conducted under his mandate still hasn’t been replicated. Not to mention the economy rapidly grew and essentially boomed during his regime. For a few days the Bolivar was worth more than the American dollar. To give you an Idea, we received a significant influx of European immigrants in those times. It really showed the world the unharnessed potential Venezuela has to become a world power when the person at the helm isn’t a criminal.

    A lot of people right now wish we had a guy like MPJ at the helm, but like history has often showed us. Hoping for a iron boot to kick things into gear is a slippery slope.

    • Hey, it’s a Cleptocracy, you don’t have to agree with me.. See for yourselves, But let’s not over-complicate things,

      Not that we can ever forgive murders or dictatorships. As in just 3000 dead with Pinochet. Or fewer with MPJ. Adecos, copeyanos? much nicer guys in over 4 decades..

      But every time I look at the numbers, and the countries, Qatar, Nigeria, Vzla, Chile, Singapore, it’s all very darn clear: seems that some authoritarian regime of some sort is in order for Kleptozuela. Or else. We can have as many colas sabrosas as we like for sevral more chavista-light mud-decades to come.. In Miami, we watch el conde del guacharo, anyway.

    • Again. No, and no, and no. MPJ was a criminal. Pinochet (for the innevitable Chile angle) was a worse criminal.

      There is ABSOLUTELY NO NEED of any other gorilla. And the fact that one gorilla stinks worse than the other doesnt make any of them anything else but gorillas, and the people that want one, idiots.

      The moment one legitimize any of them because “things were better” is the moment you are saying that you consider democracy unnecessary and that it all depends on your ability to pick the good gorilla to follow. And that way gives you the whole spectrum of assholes from Chavez to Pinochet.

      What we need is inspiring leadership to actually get to proper democracy and rule of law. What we dont need is to get our panties all tangles for another macho man to come and fix things.

    • Si vale, what’s a few hundred political jailings, killings and exilings between friends when a government builds shiny highways?! Revísate, chamín…

      • Hey, it works for Communism too, Havent you read like a 1000 times how hey, see, what are you complaining about, Lenin and Stalin took a backward crumbling empire and made a modern superpower out of it! So it works! It just need somebody to actually go and do the hard thing, like killing all opposition and using people like slaves! Its not like they were not guilty, right?

      • I’ll be honest with you. I’m skeptical when it comes to democracy here in Venezuela. The opposition aren’t anywhere near the holy beings we make them out to be. They’re just the lesser of two evils. I might be wrong of course, which I hope I am…

        “Whenever I hear the word democracy, I know that a bloodbath is coming” – Klemens von Metternich

        • The main risk for democracy in Venezuela is all the people that want to take a shortcut to their own vision of what is right and wrong.

        • I think there is hope. Look at Peru.

          -They had a horrific incompetent government with Allan Garcia 1985-1990.
          -They had a traumatic guerrilla movement with Shining path during the same period.
          -Say what you may, but Fujimori was not Pinochet and he now sits in jail.

          Since 1990, Peru has had continuous economic growth and stable governments, lifting many people out from abject poverty.

          The point is that history matters and forms the people so they realize that there are no silver bullets for their plights.

          If nothing else, Chavismo has shown in spades that the partenalistic-petrostate is bunk, maybe the people will ‘gird their loins’ for what is ahead.

    • David, you have no idea what happened back then. They raped, tortured and killed and got away with it because there was no Internet. To say that MPJ was better times because there was no fucking poverty is rambling bovine manure.

  7. Ok. si eso es conmigo, revisa tu las estadisticas, chamito. a todo nivel. Hay males peores que otros males, y no me cabe la menor duda que a cierto costo hay que educar y disciplar al “pueblo” para que todos robemos mucho menos y la vaina capitalista funcione. Libertad, al final.

    • Ah. ¿Disculpa, el precio estas dispuesto a pagarlo tú? Quiero decir, si al final todo sale bien, te parece si te matan a ti? A ver,que es un precio pequeño, ¿no? Piensa en que luego todo estara mucho mejor. Tan sólo hay que cometer unas cuantas violaciones de derechos humanos pero vamos, eso es papel mojado.

      Por mas que intento verlo no se donde esta la diferencia entre esto y el chavismo, porque era mas o menos la misma idea… Derechos, democracia, todo eso es muy bonito pero la patria necesita que nos lo saltemos para llegar al futuro feliz, y al que le tocó que se joda, por escuálido.

  8. I’m afraid that there’s not too much human material capable of leading a counter-revolution in Venezuela right now, the few who could start or lead something are either in jail, dead or abroad. Venezuelan civil society is currently very weak and impoverished in all forms. Purges in the army, after more than a decade of a very authoritarian regime, neutralized all possible focus of resistence there too. Don’t forget that these Chavistas have Cuban/USSR know-how, they may be stupid and amateur about a lot of things, but now about how to consolidate a dictatorship. The way some high-caliber figures from the nomenklatura flee to the US running for their lives with their families is elucidative of the situation at hand.

    By watching that documentary on the 2014 Ukrainian revolution (“Winter on Fire”), I could see parallels, in many ways, with 2002 Venezuela, but not so much with nowadays Venezuela. To imagine that 1957 may happen again just because, well, it’s the same territory, is quite a stretch. The players needed are just not there, and the ‘barrios’ won’t take the streets by themselves, it’s just not like how it happens.

    Hope you are right, though, Quico. And there’s a Martin Luther King there hidding somewhere.

    • “the few who could start or lead something are either in jail, dead or abroad.”

      Stop plagiarizing from Romulo Betancourt’s 1957 letters!

    • When people get hungry, something has to give. I agree that a peaceful and organized revolution a corrupt and discredited authoritarian government, such as the Orange (Ukraine) or Rose (Georgia) Revolutions, are probably not in the cards for Venezuela. That takes effective leadership, planning, and organization. Venezuela’s rebellion will probably be very messy. But, it will happen anyway, simply because the status quo is not sustainable.

  9. Francisco is right. This election is different. The negative opinion of the government has reached critical mass and cannot be covered up with bluster and lies. The chavista regime has very limited options.

    1. Let the Opposition win the Assembly and then undermine its power afterwards.
    2. Cheat massively.
    3. Cancel the elections.

    Every single one of these options still results in a public awakening to the fact that the regime does not represent the vast majority of the population.

  10. The discussion of MPJ regimes merits/sins reminds me of Fukuyamas axion that there are 3 element to test whether a system of political orde that work : firstneed : a state that functions , that does its job , not necessarily perfectly, second a rule of law and third a democratic system that makes govts accountable to those it rules, which allows for the replacement of govts that dont function .

    The prevalent view ( even among many Chavistas) si that the MPJ administration offered the example of a functioning state although it flunked the rule of law principle (in so far as political rights were concerned) and the democratic accountability test.

    The current regime flunks all three tests, the 4th Republic was less succesful in providing for a fully functioning State, largely functional in maintaining a Rule of Law ( with quiet a bit of exceptions) and rather good at maintaining the basic institutions of democracy.

    No such thing as a perfect system , but definitely the current regime presents the very worst of all systems known in our history.!! So much so that all things considered it is beleived by most to be much worse than the MPJ system . (life was better in those days)

  11. Well, an important difference with 1957 is that the opposition did not participate in the election. For 6D, even if the government tried to rig the results, there will be some seats the opposition will win and most probably improve its current position in the AN. That increases incentives for at least part of the opposition to accept the results. An officially divided opposition is just a dream come true for the gov.

    • “Development is like a female orgasm in the eyes of men. You cannot conclude a woman always has an orgasm if she moans….there’s more to the picture.”

      Not to disagree or undermine your post but: That was the worst metaphor I’ve heard in my life.

    • Oh, MPJ the thief and criminal.. who lent him the CASH do build the stuff he built?

      Has any other “president” built half as much in whatever years?

      Every time you hit the Cota Mil by the Avila, or go to the airport pa la Guaira, thank Carlos Perez or Chavez. Except they did not build shyt.

      How could MPJ steal that much and build that much?

      Google it up.

  12. Depending on the definition of “stealing”, we could argue that the government has been trying to steal this election for quite some time. It’s not just saying “You lost” on election day, it’s what happens during the whole process.

  13. Dear Lee Kuan Yew, aka Sledge, aka…

    At times I’ve had a few laughs with your lines.

    The kleptozuela was funny the first few times but as a punch line it is wearing thin.

    That Venezuelan are ignorant mass of gullible people. You have stated this for every blog post multiple times in the comment section. Your point is made, but now you are not adding anything to the discussion.

    The solution for Venezuela is a paternalistic strong man ala Pinochet. Same as above.

    Religion sucks. OK, fine.

    I would politely ask you to contribute NEW ideas to the comment section.

    • And about Vzla, or Cleptozuela, do you care to be more accurate than I have been?

      Choose your own misnomer. My classification is dead on. Or is yours more accurate? Cubazuela, Guisozuela, Murderzuela, democracies?

      Instead of accusing individuals, what’s your own definition, Einstein?

        • The # factor defining anything in Vzla is massive corruption. You can understand anything that way, plus massive ignorance. Sorry to sound like a broken record de vinyl, but Cleptozuela is Exactly what it is. Not a full-blown classic dictatorship from the right or the left, not a “sosialijmo” or “comunijmo” not a Republic with 3 separate powers, of course. I try to use the right words. Kleptocracy was invented by the Greeks, just like Desgobierno is more accurate than Gobielno bolibanana. These words exist in the dictionary. Cleptocracia disfrazada del siglo 21. Y maj’naa.

        • In the Art of War, from some old Chinese dude, they always talk about 2 things: know your enemy. and the art of Deception, based on people who are more stupid than you or I are. The ignorant, under-educated masses, and their fat generals.

          If in Vzla people simplified things, and understood the enemy for what it is : THIEVES, criminals, then we save a lot of macoeconomic analysis of la inflasion or la delicuensia y la canajta bazica. And the level of thievery in Vzla is astonighing, Galactic Corruption.

          If people, almost everyone at every level, stole just a bit less and went to real schools, Cleptozuela would be paradise on earth. The next Norway with tropical weather.

  14. I was buying Quico’s argument until it occurred to me that we are clloser to Zimbawe now than to the 1958 Venezuela. So, not so sanguine about Quico’s argument, but hopeful that it is correct.

  15. Establishing comparison between terrible periods for the country are pointless… This Revolutionary Process has indeed change the way Venezuela was going, but now we see we are worse in several (maybe in all) issues…

  16. No it’s not pointless. People need the right kind of discipline going forward. Or we’re all Neanderthals, can’t seem to learn anything about recent history. You have to compare.

  17. Maybe this is more like 1952 and not 1957. URD, Jovito’s party won and he was shipped off to NY. It would take five years for MPJ to leave.

  18. Interesting post and some interesting comments. In lieu of reading some history more closely right now, I wonder if the fall of MPJ coincided with a period of economic crisis (I’m not aware of one). I think the potentially distinguishing feature now, is that people are primarily incensed about economic conditions and economic conditions, and this is reflected the low popularity of the regime. Francisco’s reading is that when MPJ fell, there was a broad consensus and dissatisfaction about the lack of democracy and all that entailed. It was a crisis of democratic legitimacy.

    My current running theory is that the last presidential elections were something of a test of whether people were prepared to live with a regime that lacked democratic legitimacy, but managed to muddle through on the economic argument (i.e. people were better off than the alternative). It was close. What appears to be the case is that there was no overwhelming consensus that Venezuelan democracy was going to hell in a hand basket or that if it was, that mattered, all things considered.

    If people are incensed about the economy, but not the state of their democracy, there will be less incentive on the military to facilitate a democratic transition if the regime steals the election, as opposed to just kicking out the leadership. My fear is that this is why now may be different, but my history is weak.

  19. I take your December of 1957 in Venezuela and raise you pretty much every election in Cuba, where candidates for provincial and national office must be approved in advance by mass organizations controlled by the government, and North Korea, where for some reason the Kim Jongs happen to win every election with near unanimous support despite being objectively terrible at their jobs.

    The elections in Venezuela may shed some light on how strong the current regime is, but it’s not like they can’t be more obvious in rigging the election and there are plenty of countries where it’s obvious that the game is rigged but somehow power doesn’t change hands.

  20. Don’t lose sight of the fact that unlike any other time in Venezuelan history, virtually nothing works, and whatever is still plodding along is doing so on momentum that will soon run out. My daughter is doing her residency in a hospital that supposedly is the best of its kind in Ven. and as of last night there was virtually no medicine, IVs, no nothing. So while there will no doubt be some wrangling for power come Dec., and even as Maduro vows to keep the revolution going “by all means,” till even the lights in the hospital no longer work, there is a tipping point that is beyond all politics and that is simple survival. Some article I read recently said that Chavez couldn’t have designed a better strategy to gut the country bottom to top. At some time people will seek options if only to stay alive with some modicum of dignity. I think the time has come. Battling for the right to ride the whole damn country right into the toilet is Maduro’s option, but few it seems are still willing to go along with him. And as the man just said, elections exacerbate problems and wake people up. So even if they steal the election – made harder by all the observers pouring in from all corners – the house is in such disarray and so broke and the overall discontent so great (I mean really – a goddam hospital with no medicine!) that this simply can’t go on much longer.

    JL

  21. […] ベネズエラはこれまでの約17年間、今回のような政府が国全体をコントロールできていない状況に直面したことがありません。ベネズエラが向かっているのは、いわばテラ・インコグニタ(未知の世界)なのです。騒動や暴力は十分にありえることです。ですが、政府と野党側のいちかばちかの本格的な政治交渉もまた現実的な可能性のひとつです。そして政権の完全崩壊の可能性もまた、完全に除外することはできないのです。これは面白くなりそうです。 […]

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