Original art by @modográfico

January 23rd, 1958. One of the most important dates in Venezuelan history lays half-forgotten today, eclipsed by the infamous neighborhood named in its honor. For those who need a crash course, here’s a snazzy newsreel about it:

60 years ago, General Marcos Pérez Jiménez, dictator of Venezuela for ten years, is ousted after several weeks of revolt, fleeing to Santo Domingo. A junta led by admiral Wolfgang Larrazábal takes the government and calls for elections, won by Rómulo Betancourt, starting a period of peace and democratic stability unheard of in our history.

On the streets, people erupted in celebration. Jails full with political prisoners were emptied and government buildings were ransacked, particularly the Seguridad Nacional headquarters, the regime’s political police. Pro-government newspapers, such as El Heraldo, are burned down, loyalists went into hiding and many exiled came back.

It was a Bastille Day at the foot of the Ávila. The legendary origin of the democracy we once were so famous for, the promise that, from this date on, we would be a free, modern country and never again some militaristic, autocratic strongman would rule us.

So, what happened?

Concessions

In her book The Indictment of a Dictator, Judith Ewell points out several factors that led to the weakening of Pérez Jiménez’ regime.

On the first place come the usual suspects– repression and lack of liberties, although far more repressive regimes managed to last much longer. Then, there’s the drop of oil prices in the mid 50’s, inefficient services hinting the superbloques were a failure from the start – and rampant corruption around the government’s clique.

But the single most important factor? According to Ewell, discontent within the military:

Pérez Jiménez had ignored the military and heavily depended on Seguridad Nacional and his civilian advisors. The civilians dominated all his cabinets but the last. (…) Unfortunately, for Pérez Jiménez, the military revolt could not be stopped by last-minute concessions.

Surprising, when we consider the vast amount of projects and programs the regime aimed at the military, including supermarkets, social clubs, and hospitals. In the dictatorship’s official philosophy, called the New National Ideal, the military in its highest moral and rational level, just like in Bolivarian times is the baseline institution that everything else in the country should derive from.

“Venezuela marches at the pace of the Armed Forces,” Pérez Jiménez declared in a 1983 interview with historian Agustín Blanco Muñoz. “There won’t be a great Venezuelan nation without an equally great Venezuelan Armed Forces. (…) That’s what we wanted with the New National Ideal: to build a strong, dignified, prosperous nation.”

And in this philosophy, democracy was consequence of a stable, prosperous society, not its catalyzer. This was shaped, in part, by planting a sense of stratification and nation-building were democracy had no space, and making an emphasis on creating lavish works to make the common person feel proud of his nation:

Ultimately, it was the common people who lived the political repression, the ban on labor unions, the newspaper censorship, the sham elections. Some men in fatigues set the fuse alight, starting the revolt on New Year’s Eve and one of them, Wolfgang Larrazábal, became the man who called for elections.

Trials

After el 23 de enero, things were hardly settled. Everyone agreed they wanted Pérez Jiménez out, but there was far less consensus on what came next. During the uprising, protests called by local leaders of Acción Democrática and the Communist Party placed the country in a standstill, and now those leaders felt disparaged by the more moderate politicians taking over.

In a 1997 documentary about the Venezuelan guerrilla, former communist Moisés Moleiro sums up the sentiment for these young rebels:

The old leaders of Acción Democrática return from their exile and they turned out to not be what we expected. They weren’t that democratic, they weren’t (…) anti-imperialistic. They were worried because a revolution had occurred in Cuba, so they made up a very conservative government.

In 1961, Rómulo Betancourt got a second chance to lead the country, after his previous attempt was slashed by a military coup 13 years before. He still envisioned AD on the same line than Mexico’s PRI or Perú’s APRA, but now he was older, more pragmatic. Something necessary in a Caribbean increasingly shaped by Cold War politics.

This meant making stronger allies, particularly the United States. The Kennedy administration was eager to take a more flexible approach to Latin America, curtailing Castro’s revolutionary example with health and education programs, while distancing itself from unpopular, difficult authoritarian regimes that previously served as allies, such as Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, or Pérez Jiménez himself.

The man who was once harried by the US State Department was now walking around Caracas with JFK:

But Betancourt was at odds with many, including the far-left wing of his own party that would eventually split off. Nationalists across the political spectrum who once criticized the closeness of Pérez Jiménez with foreign capital saw him as a lap dog. Despite two left-leaning military uprisings, an assassination attempt and an ongoing guerilla conflict that would be conquered, he was successful on establishing a political structure that would outlive him. The guerilla, despite strategic assaults and kidnappings, never really managed to set foot beyond limited bastions.

“It never reached the masses,” Moleiro says. “It was seen with sympathy by some in the country, but no one would risk their future in that war. It was a thing for rebellious students.”

Consequences

In the 1970s, Rafael Caldera’s administration called an amnesty for the leftist guerrillas and lifted the ban on the Communist Party. Many, like Moleiro, Teodoro Petkoff and Pompeyo Márquez, took the opportunity to organize their own political parties, while hardliners like Douglas Bravo accused them of selling out.

But the biggest threat for the young democracy was the return of Pérez Jiménez. Extradited in 1963, he could only face trial for embezzlement due to a legal loophole and now, after serving his term, nothing would stop him from running for public office:

The trial of Pérez Jiménez, conceived by AD as a final victory over dictatorship, became a lightning rod for discontent in conservative circles. In the 1968 Presidential Election, Cruzada Cívica Nacionalista, a far-right pro-Pérez Jiménez party, surprised everyone by getting 11% of the total vote for Miguel Ángel Burelli and in 1972, Pérez Jiménez briefly returned from Spain to write in his presidential candidacy.

According to Judith Ewell’s book, the three biggest proposals to bar Pérez Jiménez for the 1973 elections were eliminating the presidential reelection, adopting a two-round system (Caldera’s party and AD’s biggest frenemy, COPEI, preferred this) and, the ultimately approved option, a constitutional amendment barring anyone accused of public funds embezzlement to run for office.

Though this marked the political end for Pérez Jiménez, his shadow loomed then and now over Venezuela. For Ewell, the appeal is obvious: “(Voters) nostalgically yearned the relative prosperity and harmony of the 50’s.”

It’s hard to ask sacrifices from the people for freedom and democracy, when they think freedom and democracy aren’t capable to feed them.

In the 1980s, with Venezuela facing hardships after a huge economic boom, many started to reevaluate the hurried democracy Betancourt helped to establish two decades before.

Not helping the case was the sectarian, unaccountable nature of AD and COPEI, caring more about holding power than healing up a sick system. When reforms were tried, they met aversion by political factions and unrest by the citizenry.

After the February 4th coup in 1992, Rafael Caldera, the other godfather of Venezuelan democracy, sang the death rattle of whatever was born on January 23th, 1958: “It’s hard to ask sacrifices from the people for freedom and democracy, when they think freedom and democracy aren’t capable to feed them.”

Paraphrasing José Ignacio Cabrujas, a 35 year-old dream was dead and nobody seemed to mourn it. This is not for joy, as chavismo loves to say, but out of indifference. That’s how democracy dies, when it becomes a legend, something distant and mythical, and not something living, common, fragile and in need of constant care.

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7 COMMENTS

  1. Street protests were secondary , the revolt of the airforce and one colum of armored cars on january 1st although quickly put down by regular army units loyal to the regime was a wake up call to the high command , they went as a group to PJ led by head of army command staff Gnral Romulo Fernandez and demanded that he purge his govt of some of the most prominent figures of the regime whose excesses they thought had caused the outbreack ……this included the Interior Minister Vallenilla Lanz and Secret police head Pedro Estrada . PJ simulated agreement and went before TV cameras to announce the changes in the govts top posts (with the high command right behind him) ………but then a few days staged a counter coup calling Gneral Fernandez to his office at Miraflores palace and telling him “there cannot be two presidents in Venezuela one in Miraflores and another at La planicie then site of the Ministry of Defense building (recently renamed Cuartel de la Montana and used to house chavez cadaver) ordering him to put his revolver on the desk and to give himself up to a group of loyals taking him to La Carlota airport to be flown to exile in Santo Domingo…….he proceeded to do the same with each separate member of the high command which he effectively dismantled, and replaced with a small number of ultra loyal officers with no high command experience , thus when word got around the garrisons of what had happened PJ discovered that the orders issued by the new command were ignored and that some of the garrisons were even makind sounds of starting a revolt against the govt , it was around this time that street protests started in earnest) and things gor really hot culminating in the revolt of the military school cadets , PJ understood that the game was up , made preparations to leave the country in the presidential plane stationed at La Carlota and sent a message to the High Command members in Caracas that he would not be one to start killing Cadets , that he was abandoning power and that ‘Ahi les dejo eso’.(there i leave you this mess) , once he flew out of caracas the army high command met in Miraflores (blocking the access to any civilians ) and took command of the country, they initially decided on a military junta made up of many offices who had been among the most loyal supporters of PJ but later tought better of it and decided to allow for the formation of a politically more neutral junta which could bring the country back to normalcy , when deciding whom to choose as president of the junta , military style they decided that the job should go to the most senior officer in the room , Wolfang Larrazabal , known to be a light weight commander who mostly dedicated himself to composing sentimental songs in his cuatro and organizing the balls and parties of the regime …….

    It was PJ’s decision to dismantle the high command which held total command of the army what did PJ in …..not the street protests , he could deal with then , also he just didnt want to start the bloodshed that would be needed to keep himself in power ……’ of course we are talking of an army very different from that of later years , a compact officer group mostly andean in origin , who had known each other all of their lives , had worked together many times and ultimately were only interested in their army careers and saw politics as a messy unsavory activity !!.

  2. “General Marcos Pérez Jiménez, dictator of Venezuela for ten years.”

    Not even half of that. Let’s get our facts straight young people, shall we? MPJ was in office for less than 5 years: 4/19/1953 till 1/23/1958. In that short period there was amazing progress and stability, with over half of today’s entire infrastructure being built, while oil prices and demand were super low. Look up the amazing list of major public works in such a short period of time, plus the numerous prospects successive governments abandoned, or struggled to complete much later. (23 de Enero was one of them, it became disaster when later mishandled.

    Repressive as his brief tenure was, terrible as dictatorships can be, there weren’t nearly as many killed as there are in 1 month of Chavismo. Chavismo is a thousand times worse in every aspect than MPJ was. Had he lasted the same 17 years Pinochet lasted in Chile, Same as Chavismo has, Venezuela would be better than Chile today, with even more infrastructure and, most importantly, educated people.

    Sad to say, but ‘mano dura’ is sometimes the only way to prosperity for many 3rd world countries. Instead, welcome to Klepto-Cubazuela; another apocalyptic mess, (some call them “shitholes”), comparable only to Haiti these days, if not worse.

    • Maybe some day I’ll try to look up the names and aspirations of those whom PJ jailed or exiled, but my guess is they were people very much like the ones running Venezuela today. And Pinochet was certainly better than Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot – people Pinochet (very probably) would have immediately executed without so much as blinking.

    • Thank you Poeta Criollo! Spot on regarding his tenure. I always think exactly the same thing, can you imagine what would have happened if they would have let him govern at least 5 more years? But well, as Miranda once said:

      “¡Bochinche, bochinche! Esta gente no es capaz de hacer sino bochinche”.

      With regard to MPJ and his legacy, he said it very well: “Dicen que yo caí…pero ahora yo les pregunto, cuando me fuí, quien cayó? Venezuela o yo?

      But ignorance about MPJ and his legacy are well rooted in our modern history despite that the evidence is literally staring at people in the face (probably because of bochinche bochinche). A major imbecile like Napoleon Bravo (a “good” journalist according to some in the libtard circles) was completely disarmed by MPJ in an interview he did to him many, many years after he left power and it was clear that Venezuela was in a tremendous state of deterioration (the interview is all in Youtube and it is fantastic). Bravo still kept asking the same idiotic questions and arguing with now classic oppo mickey mouse logic. Sigh…

  3. “Not helping the case was the sectarian, unaccountable nature of AD and COPEI, caring more about holding power than healing up a sick system.”

    So, as my mom would have said, they didn’t lick it off the floor.

  4. MPJ was small of stature ,portly of girth , squeaky voiced , pudgy faced , bald , wore thick glasses , plus he was a clumsy public speaker who hated giving speeches . How then did he get to be chosen undisputed leader by the 250 or so officers who made up the professional army at the time ?? Well he was the smartest cadet ever to cross the doors of the officers academy , Alferez Mayor of his promotion , resolute, courageous , highly organized , very focused , knew how to to give orders all could understand and instantly agree to , he led them because of the force of his personality …….and undoubted professional military credentials. He was no politician , he hated politics , saw it as messy backstabing world , thats why when he and a few officers decided that Medina had to go (in a large part because of his neglect of the proffesional military desire for better salaries and treament and promotion opportunities ) he went to AD to get them to give the uprising political cover ……!!

    He shared the leadership of the officer movement with Delgado Chalbaud someone whose european education, gentlemanly poise and capacity for making fine speeches all admired , but Perez Jimenez was a dyed in the wool tachirense , spoke with the andean sing song most of the officer corps used in their daily lives , came from the same small town provincial background …even if standing above them all in personal gifts he was down at heart ‘one of he fellows’.

    To him meticulously planning the countrys growth was the object of government , he hired the best experts , and had them give presentations to the officer corp on what the govt was planning to do next , his plans were always met on time and on budget , he said the panamericana road crossing the country would be built in one year and it was built in one year , if you had nothing to do with politics he didnt care what you did but if you wanted to participate in politics then you became a target of persecution and a candidate for forced exile .
    Mean time the army had nothing to do with day to day politics , that was MPJ’s job , he would consult with them some top decisions but they were to stick to the barracks and leave politics to him and his mostly civilian advisors ( of which there were a great many) . He was no saint , he liked making money and made a fortune from a lot of public deals , also allowing those in the circle of his favourites to get a piece of the action , but that never prevented the carefully laid plans to be perfectly executed with a minimum of waste.

    A guy like that of course could never be popular outside the circle of his military followers , can you imagine someone like him competing in public speaking with Chavez , or Betancourt , he would never have made it in ordinary politics …….. If he had really cared about power half the way our current regime bosses do, he would have made run at keeping it and maybe he would have succeeded but his heart wasnt in it …..having to kill young promising army cadets to remain in power …unthinkable . !!

    After being toppled the democratic regime made sure that an army such as had existed when he came to power ceased to exists , commands were divided , careful measures taken so that it would be difficult in future for a group of officers to launch a coup, generous benefits were granted army officers and troop to keep them happy …….opportunities for promotion really expanded (there were 7 generals during MPJs time now they number thousands ) and of course total subordination to the civilian bosses coming up the political ladder was drilled into their minds unti it became a sacred mantra…….!!

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