The 23 de Enero Myth Turns 60

Today, we celebrate the day democracy was born in our country. 60 years on, we keep trying to find reasons to celebrate it. So far, we haven't found many.

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?


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.


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.”


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.

José González Vargas

Freelance journalist, speculative fiction writer, college professor, political junkie, lover of books and movies and, semi-professional dilettante. José has written for NPR's Latino USA, Americas Quarterly, Into and ViceVersa Magazine.