October, 18, 1945: The Start of the October Revolution

The October Revolution: First, a coup. Then, a Revolutionary Government Junta to rule the country, headed by Rómulo Betancourt. In their decrees, they vowed to do it right.

Photo: Venezuela en Retrospectiva retrieved.

The matter of Isaías Medina Angarita’s presidential succession came to light as the end of the constitutional period approached, in 1945. Judging by the speeches of Arturo Uslar Pietri in the Venezuelan Democratic Party’s (PDV) assemblies, a sector called medinismo was inclined toward an electoral reform to have direct elections. The military sector wasn’t, though, and it imposed its view; in an interview I personally conducted, Uslar himself said that President Medina believed he owed himself to the army, and they didn’t want the country to take the last step toward democratization. Therefore, Medina chose Diógenes Escalante, Venezuelan Ambassador in Washington, to succeed him in office. Escalante was from Táchira, which was the dominant origin of the Armed Forces back then, and he was a civilian, which was a recognition of a world that demanded greater participation.

The matter was initially solved, thus, on Medina Angarita’s side. Furthermore, Rómulo Betancourt revealed in his book Venezuela, política y petróleo, that he and Raúl Leoni travelled to Washington discreetly to meet with Escalante, and he promised to move on with the electoral reform when his term ended, or even before, midterm, so Acción Democrática (AD) leaders returned to the country with a spoken agreement and the promise to support his candidacy. Fate intervened, and Dr. Escalante suddenly lost his mental faculties on August, 1945.

Betancourt and Raúl Leoni travelled to Washington discreetly to meet with Escalante, and he promised to move on with the electoral reform when his term ended, or even before.

Before this spoken agreement, a military lodge called Patriotic Military Union, led by the young officer Marcos Pérez Jiménez, was surreptitiously working to topple Medina. His reasons were more militaristic than political, founded on the resentment felt by these young officers toward their superiors, since they were trained in the context of professional modernity, while their superiors were heirs of the previous system. Moreover, military wages were extremely low, adding to dissatisfaction in the barracks.

This lodge was deactivated when Escalante, Betancourt and Leoni reached their secret agreement. On the other hand, the discontent of former President López Contreras and his followers was absolute, because the general wanted a return to power and Medina thought it inconvenient. Discontent was such that López Contreras and Medina Angarita weren’t even on speaking terms, and they didn’t accept goodwill intermediaries to create an agreement.

As previously seen, there were three projects of power cohabitating in the country. Medina Angarita and his candidate Diógenes Escalante, supported by AD; former President López Contreras and his desire to return to the Presidency of the Republic; and the lodge of young military officers who also sought to rule.

Escalante’s illness dismantled this context, because when Medina Angarita proposed his Agriculture and Livestock Minister, Dr. Ángel Biaggini, as replacement, he didn’t get AD’s support. The military lodge became active again, too, saying that they’d seek power regardless of Biaggini’s candidacy. This time, AD chose to support the young officers and the coup took place on October 18, 1945. The plotters had significant support within the Armed Forces, but if Medina Angarita had wanted to resist them, he could have. Even the Caracas Police Department was loyal to him. He chose to surrender to avoid bloodshed. He was jailed, along with former President López Contreras, and other high-ranking authorities in his government. They were all thrown into exile.

Three years were required for the differences between AD and the officers who carried out the coup to become evident.

At first, people thought it had been former President López Contreras and his followers within the Armed Forces who carried out the coup, but the surprise was huge when it was revealed that other actors were responsible. An agreement was made between the young military lodge and Acción Democrática, leading to the constitution of a Revolutionary Government Junta on October 19, composed of seven members and led by Rómulo Betancourt.

Three years were required for the differences between AD and the officers who carried out the coup to become evident. When another coup topped President Rómulo Gallegos in November, 1948, commanded by Carlos Delgado Chalbaud, it was obvious for everyone that AD and the military had different projects.

After the Revolutionary Government Junta’s Constitutive Act was written and signed on October 19, the provisional government issued a public written statement. In this text, it was clear that the government’s main goal was to call for universal, direct and secret elections, after writing a new Constitution. Later, in the Junta’s first decree, in Official Gazette dated October 23, they promised to dictate a Decree-Law to call for the election of a National Constituent Assembly. After this, Rómulo Betancourt, head of the Junta, appointed his Executive Cabinet.

Decree 9 was particularly significant, since the Junta’s members barred themselves from running as candidates for coming elections. This decree gave the Junta tremendous moral strength, since they were free from any suspicion of working for their own presidential intentions. Later, Decree 52 on November 17 created a Preparatory Committee of Electoral Statutes, which allowed for the election of a National Constituent Assembly’s deputies. Additionally, the Committee is given the task to write the draft of a National Constitution to be presented to the upcoming Assembly. Andrés Eloy Blanco was appointed head of this Committee.

Decree 64 created a Jury of Civil and Administrative Accountability, tasked with judging the substantiated cases against authorities of previous governments. With this Jury, a political persecution ensued against high-ranking officials of Medina’s, López’s and Gómez’s administrations. Many had their assets frozen and their houses confiscated, while they survived in exile. This chapter, called the “October Revolution,” is rightly seen as a retaliative expression: one of the main reasons justifying the coup was the persecution of those believed to be corrupt in previous governments.

Years later, many of the Junta’s members regretted these excesses, especially those committed against people of proven honor.