Remembering the Coup that Overthrew Venezuela’s First Elected Government

Acción Democrática’s government was just three years old when the military decided it had had enough of civilian rule. It happened 70 years ago, today.

Photo: El Ucabista retrieved.

As 1948 wore on, it became obvious that the tensions between the civilian and military sectors would reach a dramatic conclusion.

The U.S. Embassy was well aware of who the main players were. On the one hand, the brass harbored a grudge against Acción Democrática (AD). They thought this party had squandered the opportunity of the Military Coup that had installed them 1945. Delgado Chalbaud, who wasn’t seen as sharing that dissatisfaction, sat across from the Chief of the General Staff, Marcos Pérez Jiménez. President Rómulo Gallegos, on the other hand, wasn’t willing to bend to any request that could diminish AD’s position, or to take steps counter to the Constitution.

On November 17, President Gallegos was told a plot against him was unfolding. Major Mendoza, Chief of the La Guaira Garrison, invited a loyal Navy officer to participate in the plot, and that man personally told Gallegos. Mendoza was arrested and Gallegos, advised by Delgado Chalbaud, addressed the troops the following day.

The president reminded officers that honor and respect for the Constitution were priorities. Labor Minister, Raúl Leoni, and Chief of Staff, Gonzalo Barrios, wanted to be at Gallegos’ side, afraid of leaving him surrounded by soldiers, but Gallegos declined.

The U.S. Embassy was well aware of who the main players were.

Commander Delgado Chalbaud sent the president a memorandum with all of the Army’s demands which, by the way, Lieutenant Colonel Pérez Jiménez wrote in its entirety, as he admitted in an interview with Agustín Blanco Muñoz, published in 1983. The demands were: 1) to expel AD leader Rómulo Betancourt from the country; 2) to forbid the return of Mario R. Vargas; 3) to remove commander Gómez Arellano as Chief of the Maracay Garrison; 4) Removals and changes among presidential aide-de-camps; 5) to distance himself from Acción Democrática.”

Gallegos’ answer was a political and constitutional tour de force: “I want to remind you that, according to the Constitution I have sworn to uphold and defend, the only two powers that must hold me accountable for my governmental decisions are, first, the National Congress, and second, the judicial branch, in case a trial is opened against me. But according to that Constitution which you also have sworn to respect, defend and uphold, I cannot and must not accept impositions by another institution called the National Armed Forces, whose duties and rights as a non-deliberative body are clearly defined by the fundamental law of the republic, and they’re not, exactly, the ones you’re seeking to exercise at the moment.”

Gallegos explained, step by step, why Betancourt couldn’t be expelled, why Vargas’ return couldn’t be forbidden, why he couldn’t ditch Acción Democrática and why every demand was, in short, against the Constitution. Those present, according to Commander Delgado Chalbaud, acquiesced. The president then walked to his office, regretting his wasted time. It was Friday.

On Monday 22, he met with close officers, surreptitiously testing the levels of loyalty. He had a hunch that the incident of Friday 19 didn’t end there.

President Gallegos spent Saturday 20 and Sunday 21 between his home in Los Palos Grandes and the Miraflores Palace, in meetings with acquaintances and ministers of his Executive Cabinet. On Monday 22, he met with close officers, surreptitiously testing the levels of loyalty. He had a hunch that the incident of Friday 19 didn’t end there; on Tuesday 23, amidst a wave of rumors, he ordered his Chief of Staff to speak publicly at noon. In the speech, the government recognized the development of a military crisis, and appealed to the president’s willingness to negotiate, trusting the Armed Forces to fulfill their role.

On the morning of Wednesday, November 24, President Gallegos, according to the only present witness, Isaac J. Pardo, was in the living room of Quinta Marisela, offering Pardo the position of Minister of Health and Social Assistance in the new Executive Cabinet, when his brother, Pedro Gallegos, entered the room visible shaken, saying there a coup d’etat had been launched, and several ministers were already in jail.

The president’s personal physician, Dr. Humberto García Arocha, says that the raid on Quinta Marisela was led by Lieutenant Colonel Hernán Albornoz Niño and, at 6:00 p.m., Gallegos was arrested and taken to the Military Academy by commander Raúl Castro Gómez, then Head of the Academy and Carlos Delgado Chalbaud Gómez’s cousin.

Before his arrest, the maestro managed to write a paragraph that I transcribe here in its entirety: “In my personal residence I was just informed that the Presidential Palace of Miraflores has been occupied by military forces led by Lieutenant Colonel Marcos Pérez Jiménez, where several ministers of the cabinet have been arrested and I know that, after committing the institutional abuse they have decided, the Armed Forces now come to take me. This is the end of a process of insurrection of the forces of the garrison of Caracas and the military High Command, started ten days ago with an attempt to exercise pressure on my will, to coerce me to adopt a political conduct, which can only be done by the people of Venezuela whom I represent and whose trust I have. I have vigorously opposed those ambitions in defense of the dignity of the civilian power, against which there has been yet another coup de force aimed at establishing a military dictatorship. People of Venezuela! I have fulfilled my duty, now fulfill yours and do not let them take away the right that you had legitimately conquered, of giving yourselves your own government by the civil act of popular sovereignty.”

Once in prison, Gallegos remained at the Military Academy until he was expelled from the country, on December 5, 1948. His ministers, the boards of the Chambers of Senate and Deputies, and many AD militants were arrested. Rómulo Betancourt requested asylum at the Colombian Embassy and managed to leave the country, thanks to Mariano Ospina Pérez’s support. Thus started an exile of ten years, most of which Gallegos spent in Mexico.

He was 64 years old.