Remembering the Coup that Overthrew Venezuela’s First Elected Government

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.

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  1. #1 on agenda if El Guapo becomes new dictator of Venezuela: Complete disarmament of FANB. Venezuela becomes like Costa Rica and disbands its standing military. All military given honorable discharge and offered new jobs in eco-tourism.

  2. Instead of eco-tourism, I would try and get as many as can be trained and controlled into policing against the crime wave which is sweeping the country.

  3. I was 8 years old, a 3d grade American kid whose childish knowledge of international relations at the time was to hate Japs and Germans. Heck, the doctors were still digging slivers of German steel out of my uncle’s ass, who was lucky to have survived the Battle of the Bulge.

    The Berlin blockade started that year and us Americans (and the Brits and Aussies) were forced to decide: do we walk away (not our problem) or do we stand up to the Ruskies and try to make Germany a frontline ally in this new “cold war” against an eventual Soviet domination of Europe?

    That summer an American AAC pilot in the Berlin Airlift was touched by the plight of some German kids, and started dropping candy to them as he flew into Berlin. He came to be known as the “Berlin Candy Bomber” in the U.S., and “Uncle Wiggly Wings” in Germany. His act of kindness touched the hearts of a war-weary, hate-weary America (yours truly included) and before the blockade ended us kids donations (plus a little help from American candy companies) resulted in 250 tons of candy dropped on Germany using thousands of handkerchief parachutes, during which the press had a field day.

    The result was that us American kids (and our parents) learned that German kids (and their parents) weren’t the stereotype nazi-fanatic-monsters that was drilled into our heads by the war propaganda, and maybe we can work with these people and prevent Europe from going Commie (Not everyone was convinced. See “Germany is Our Problem,” by Henry Morgenthau). Shortly thereafter the Truman Plan turned into the Marshal Plan and the rest, as they say, is history.

    I am of the opinion that that small act of kindness by the Candy Bomber (Colonel Gail Halvorsen) with a little help from us American kids, changed the course of American opinion, resulted in Truman winning another term, and, indeed, altered the course of world history for the better (Butterfly Effect and all that).

    • That’s quite a piece you posted. Thanks. News of the Candy Bomber probably got to the Russians and helped change their minds, too. Propaganda on both sides, and all over the world, is so weird. Gives one the impression that man will believe, or ignore, almost anything. (Of course the candy companies were just seizing an opportunity to build brand recognition, dirty capitalist pigs they are.)

      I’m really impressed that your uncle was in the Battle of the Bulge. They were some tough hombres, there.

    • The Berlin blockade imposed by the Soviets in 1948 was confronted by a peaceful airlift that allowed the city to survive not only physically but also, and most importantly, spiritually.

      The Venezuelan regime has mounted a blockade preventing much needed food and medicine from getting into the country. The country needs an internationally organized airlift to bring food and medicine to its people. The planes could parachute supplies down to open spaces or use “thousands of handkerchief parachutes” in inhabited areas. Candy would be included in these airdrops helping to lift the spirit of regime-weary Venezuelans.

      An armed invasion would be a terrible mistake and should be out of the question in Venezuela. An invasion of love and kindness in the form of airdrops might be a partial solution out of this long-lasting mess.

      In his novels Rómulo Gallegos wrote about the confrontation between “civilización y barbarie”. The airdrop to overturn the regime’s blockade of its own people would be an example of such a clash using a very civilized means to overturn a barbaric regime.

  4. Excellent account of such a turbulent juncture of Venezuelan history. However, I don’t see what exactly was the beef against AD, Gallegos and Betancourt. What did Perez Jimenez accuse them of? Incompetence? Corruption?

    “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.” What opportunity? They probably just craved the Power and Fortunes of having complete control of the country. The rest were probably just vague excuses to gain some public opinion support. A classic case of “quitate tu pa poneme yo”. They were not as happy as the 2000 courrupt “generals” of today, and the entire armed forces, also bribed and pampered with mansions and priviliges. If AD and Gallegos had bribed and greased Perez Jimenez a bit, there may not have been any coup.

    • Wrong !! the military then were not fond of politics which they saw as messy and hypocritical, civilians didnt know hot to govern and were always after gaining and retaining the maximum power without caring about the country , they saw themselves as orderly , technically efficient , disciplined , much better equipped to rule a country than traditional pols ……….main flaw of pols, their sectarian bent , you had to be a member of their party to become ministers , military men then felt that anyone who was competent even if not politicallly inclined could be appointed minister , many of them did become corrupt , comes with the culture , but they also understood that some areas were to remain clean so as to avoid ruining the system , quartermaster generals for example had to run clean ships , they all ailed frm the Andes and could claim frienships going back to military school and beyond ……..if they wanted to topple a govt they could organized themselvess real quick and be effective about it . some generals were political MPJ , Llovera Paez for example but the rest wanted nothing to do with politics ……., after MPJ fell a legend was created which demonized the military but they really didnt understand how their minds worked , the legend lives on and people who were never inside repeat it by rote…

      • The military then were competent, trained mostly in the U.S. Escuela De Las Americas They were also nationalists, right-leaning, cared about the Country. MPJ didn’t allow military corruption, except at very upper levels (Llovera Paez/Min. Defense/Min. Public Works/etc.)–and these were all pikers compared to democracy’s AD/COPEI corrupt military. Since Caldera’s “Pacification” of the Left, the military became increasingly Left-leaning, less competent, more corrupt, and, with Chavismo, the military has sold out national sovereignty to narco/Cuban/Communist/terrorist interests….

  5. People forget how prosperous Venezuela became in less than 5 years under Marcos Perez Jimenez. Yes it was a nasty, bloody dictatorship, yes, lots of political prisoners and some corruption, sure. But that was child’s play compared to Chavismo’s disaster. The economy was thriving, 1 bolivar was almost equal to the dollar. Every industry prospered, goods and services were abundant and effective. And they built countless infrastructure projects, highways, hospitals, endless construction was everywhere, this a short list and many other projects were conceived under MPJ, later finished, slowly, in decades by subsequent governments:

    Chances are that any important infrastructure you see today in Vzla was constructed by MPJ, or at least conceived by him, in less than 5 years. In the next 70 years that follow, combined, under numerous highly corrupt and incompetent ‘democratic’ governments, they seemed to have achieved much less than MPJ.

    Undoubtedly, if MPJ had stayed in power for 17 years like Pinochet did, Venezuela would be another Chile, or better, prosperous, with an educated, skilled population, 50 times more infrastructure, and a robust economy, with much less crime, impeccable medical services, attracting professional talent from everywhere. Instead of the mess it became. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a tough dictatorship from the Right, less corrupt, less incompetent that actually builds something, controls crimes, imposes the Rule of Law, and educates its people. Venezuela missed that boat.

  6. The arny officer corp was then very small tightly knit and united , they all came from the same place and shared in a common regional culture , if anything they were a band of brothers , the had their own customs and values , none where weaklthy in background ( sons of very paternalisic hard working very displined small size coffee growers family). their main complaint against Betancourt and Gallegos wass that they were too sectarian ,only AD fanatics could enter government jobs, missing is the story of a gentlement who was personal friendos of both ADECO bigwigs and the miliary and who was called in the last moment to make peace , he never wrote anything but many itnerwiews survived , he almost succceeded , never was a man so knoledgeable in history and in understanding people , even the Chavistas liked him . a deal was struck both betancourt and perez jimnez would retire from politics but two things failed , one Gallegos haughty republican posture of not giving in an inch in getting at a compromise and the army group of officers who told Perez JImenez when he went to accounce the deal , you are wasting our time , we have already everything prepared for the coup and here you come to preveny it , one phone call and we can make it happen , Perez Jimenes had already agreed to retire but the army group had already decided to oust gallegos . the man with the full story was called guiacopini zarraga…….

  7. Interestingly, Gallegos called on the “People” to defend their democracy against the military interlopers–and, scarcely a peep from them was uttered in defense of their democratic rights–same then, as well as now.


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