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…

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8 COMMENTS

  1. And it all worked until Caldera chose to betray the country and deliver it to the communists with the pacification pact in the 70s.

    • Yes, but. The Caldera of the 70’s was a polar opposite of his Chiripero days. Not the vindictive politician who pardoned Chavez. Even though he got two bites at the apple of forgiving, the first one did not have the poison he put into the second one.

      Back then, all you had to do was look at Colombia and figure the country would be better off without guerillas in the mountains. Could they have been finished off (in Venezuela)? Maybe. But if not, then again, see Colombia and look at their 80’s, 90’s etc.

      Should I bring up Delcy’s statement that this is the revenge for the killing of her father?

      Just like back then, some swallows of aceite de hígado de bacalao are in the future if this nightmare is ever going to end. There are certainly quite a few that do not deserve anything until they pay the piper. This too must occur.

  2. under Caldera first term, military counter-intelligence was instructed to quit rooting out reds (leftists) from FAN. The reds where allowed to fester and even form their anti-government groups (MBR200).

  3. Having a real thinking historian like RAL contribute to this blog is something that adds a lot to its value , it might not be straight journalism but gives it a class and sweep that few blogs can offer . Kudos on your initiative to have him write for this blog.
    On the main topic the Pacto de Punto Fijo was essential to found democracy on a surer foot than any time in Venezuelas past , tells you something about the wisdom of the leaders of the main political parties back then, problems is that such pactos in time become eroded and cease to work as partisan ambitions rise and the outer threat that made them necessary dissapears , the common electorate is drawn to parties that make politics into a blood sport , something that makes them feel part of a warrior band fighting a satanized enemy making poltic so contentious that nothing can get done thru rational compromise ,second thing is that if pols become too ‘palsy’ they get along by playing along and dont really go after the policy flaws and failures that need correcting because they prefer to bargain it away for some benefit the other party can give them in compensation , I scratch your back today if youll scratch mine tomorrow, Th third problem is that parties start feeling that their main object is rising to power or holding on to it (not serving the public interest) to which end they have to engage in practices such as patronage , clientelism, the maintenance of irresponsible subsidies, and hide and leave uncorrected the mistakes they make so as not to lose face and let people learn of their faiures. These are problems that all democrcies must ultimately face and too often they fail to do so !! Which makes the appeal or radical or strong men claims to power irresisitible !!

  4. Thanks for this article. To tell the truth, Puntofijismo is hard to understand for non-Venezuelans like myself, even though it clearly was a formative experience for the country. Is there a good dedicated to explaining it in full?

  5. The Chavez/NM years might be titled, “The Plan To Back Militarism And Communize Venezuela That Worked”. The Communists never achieved more than 3% or so in free elections in Venezuela, but, thanks to Caldera’s leftist pacification, within 20 years Venezuela suffered the Chavez/leftist bloody attempted military coup, and with the military/Chiripero stealing of the 90’s Pres. election from Velasquez/Causa Erre (similar to the recent stealing of his Bolivar governorship), Caldera fully pardoned Chavez/co-conspirators, and the rest is recent tragic Venezuelan history.

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