Photo: Últimas Noticias retrieved
The Pacto de Puntofijo signatories realized, very early on, that they couldn’t invoke historical precedents, because it was the first time that Venezuelan political actors sat down and established minimum cohabitation rules to guarantee democratic life.
Instead of records, we can talk about experiences of power that, at the moment, pointed toward the need for a pact. Such is the case of the trienio adeco (AD’s three-year rule), which includes Betancourt’s first government (1945-48), and the first government that Venezuelans elected through universal and direct polls: Gallegos’s (1948).
The Puntofijo Pact was signed by three fundamental political parties on October 31, 1958: Acción Democrática (Rómulo Betancourt, Raúl Leoni, Gonzalo Barrios,) Partido Social Cristiano COPEI (Rafael Caldera, Pedro del Corral, Lorenzo Fernández) and Unión Republicana Democrática (Jóvito Villalba, Ignacio Luis Arcaya, Manuel López Rivas). Since they didn’t pick a particular name for the agreement, journalists started calling it after Rafael Caldera’s house, where the instrument was drafted and signed: “Puntofijo” (I’ll write it that way, so we won’t confuse it with the city of Punto Fijo, Falcón).
It was the first time that Venezuelan political actors sat down and established minimum cohabitation rules to guarantee democratic life.
There are numerous accounts of Betancourt’s sectarism and, although it’s true that he defended it back then, years later he recognized the substantial mistake in starting a democratic project with marked tones of exclusion. Consequently, the experience of that first attempt prepared the mood of Acción Democrática leaders for inclusive governments with other political forces. Moreover, between the coup carried out by Carlos Delgado Chalbaud and Marcos Pérez Jiménez against President Rómulo Gallegos, and the toppling of Marcos Pérez Jiménez’s dictatorship, there were 10 years of exile for Acción Democrática leaders, nearly half of that for the main leaders of Unión Republicana Democrática, and a few months for some COPEI members. They had enough time and space to think.
For many leaders of AD and Partido Comunista Venezolano (PCV), these ten years were rife with persecution, jail and secrecy in direct opposition to the ruling military regime. In fact, we can’t talk about the fall of the perezjimenista dictatorship without mentioning the Patriotic Junta, forged in the shadows. Milagros Contreras talks about it in the corresponding entry of Fundación Polar’s Dictionary of Venezuelan History: “In June, 1957, three young leaders from Unión Republicana Democrática (URD), José Vicente Rangel, Amilcar Gómez and Fabricio Ojeda, met in the latter’s house in Caracas along with Guillermo García Ponce, member of Partido Comunista de Venezuela’s (PCV) underground Political Bureau. They let him know about their interest in creating a united political organization, such as the one PCV had proposed, to fight for three general demands: amnesty, free elections, democratic government. In the following meeting, this organization was christened “Patriotic Junta” trying to connect with the prestigious precedent of 1811. After August, Moisés Gamero and Enrique Aristeguieta Gramcko joined in as representatives of AD and COPEI respectively. In late 1957, AD replaced Gamero with Silvestre Ortíz Bucarán.”
The Patriotic Junta would play a decisive role in the call to a general strike on January 21, which ended up ousting Pérez Jiménez from power.
By late 1957, the ties between the Patriotic Junta and soldiers opposing the regime got tighter and, by January 1, 1958, the Maracay uprising took place, confirming something that wasn’t common knowledge: the military didn’t stand in absolute support behind the dictatorship. The Patriotic Junta would play a decisive role in the call to a general strike on January 21, which ended up ousting Pérez Jiménez from power. Essentially, this group was a practical rehearsal of unity on the part of political groups with different ideological universes, on the basis of a common minimum program.
Once the dictator left, the oldest and highest-ranking officer, Wolfgang Larrazábal, took charge, and plans to hold elections in December, 1958, were set. In this environment, the Puntofijo Pact is signed, just a month and a few days before voting.
The agreement takes place while a partisan, representative democracy is rebuilt, confronted by decisive military power that had remained in place since general Gómez’s government, and which exercised power since November 24, 1948. The signatory parties came from persecution (AD) or poor growth (COPEI); they’re not established organizations in the country but, instead, weak in social life, with serious adversaries: their own weakness, the military and an unexpected enemy in armed left-wing extremists.
There were five considerations: First, the Patriotic Junta was to be expanded, recognizing the fundamental role of this ad hoc organization; second, respect for the Public Powers that emerged in elections was guaranteed, along with the commitment to respect the united front regardless of electoral results. Those involved also agreed that post-electoral unity would bring a “political truce,” the “depersonalization of the debate,” the “eradication of inter-partisan violence” and “the definition of regulations that pave the way for building the government and deliberative bodies.”
Third, signatories had to run in elections, with a previously written program, that was never written or, if written, never published. In any case, parties were allowed to present particular programs which should never contradict the common minimum accepted by the signatories.
In the fourth and fifth considerations, they proposed candidacies, promising to carry out a campaign far from “inter-partisan struggle,” and to hold a “great public event” ratifying the agreement.
Back then, parties understood that without an initial unity of purpose, democracy wouldn’t last in time.
In a strict sense, the tripartite agreement ends in 1961, when URD left Betancourt’s government. Until then, there were three partners, and already during Caldera’s rule (1969-1974), the spirit of the pact was transferred to the Legislative Branch, leaving the Executive alone (Caldera governed exclusively with his party).Back then, parties understood that without an initial unity of purpose, democracy wouldn’t last in time. If signatories had immediately opened the democratic game, the government and the opposition would start quarreling, thus eroding a precarious, scarcely incipient legitimacy, so it was necessary to create a government of national unity, agreed upon before elections. Already in 1958, before the agreement was signed, there were two attempted coups led by soldiers dissatisfied with Larrazábal and, after elections, there were many attempts against Betancourt’s government (even against his life). The military attempts, as we know, were driven by various interests, but all of them sought to depose the regime, so that the Armed Forces could recover their power and impose “a true democracy,” among other gems.
Everyone knows how that turned out…