Barranquilla Plan: the layout for democracy that had to wait for decades

On March 22nd, 1931, a group of young exiled politicians, led by Romulo Betancourt, signed a manifesto that would set the foundations of Venezuelan democracy.

Photo: Globovisión retrieved

In order to understand the signatories of the Barranquilla Plan, we must start three years before the fact, during the Student Week of February, 1928, when a new political and literary generation emerged, setting the stage for the rest of Venezuela’s XXth century.

In 1928, the Venezuelan Federation of Students (FEV), founded only the previous year and headed by Raúl Leoni, organized “the Student Week.” The speeches and poems of that event were so critical, so challenging, that general Gómez’s regime had to imprison the students when a group of cadets joined the revolt, making it a military issue. Many youngsters were sent to the Puerto Cabello castle, along with a sizable amount of students who turned themselves in, in solidarity with their peers. Gómez had been defied by armed rebels before, and they got an armed response. Now, how to use the Army’s guns against a bunch of kids doing speeches and reciting poems?

While many students remained imprisoned for seven years, Rómulo Betancourt, Raúl Leoni, Miguel Otero Silva, José Tomás Jiménez Arráiz and others managed to reach Curaçao and, from there, moved to other destinations. The most important for the future political order was the group established in Barranquilla, in Colombia’s Caribbean coast, since they wrote a political action plan for Venezuela known as the Barranquilla Plan, which they made their life’s work and almost entirely fulfilled.

The document, signed on March 22nd, 1931, was the fruit of long hours of discussions, an assessment of the causes behind Venezuela’s situation and a plan of action. The plan’s signatories had all been politically educated by Marxism and their analysis of the national reality was based on that perspective, class struggle and clashes with foreign capital and its partners in the country, although they also supported a civilian model that would bring the military down to size and put personal ambitions in check. They also demanded freedom of press, literacy, university autonomy and the call for a National Constituent Assembly. In a careful read, the plan reveals a Marxist viewpoint for the analysis of economic relations, and a more liberal approach for politics, since they proposed a democratic system with respect for plurality of ideas, and not a single-party regime. Therefore, in terms of political philosophy, the document is a hybrid.

The debates that the plan sparked among the signatories, most of them through letters, started uncovering differences in focus, distinctive nuances. A rift opened between the communists who followed the doctrines of the Soviet Communist Party, gathered around the Venezuelan Communist Party founded in 1931, and the future founders of Acción Democrática, who didn’t follow guidelines from any foreign organization and instead sought a national model.

In a letter addressed to Germán Herrera Umérez in July 19th, 1931, Rómulo Betancourt admits that he wrote the Plan, saying “I wrote the Barranquilla Plan, reflecting the thought of the moderate left-wing abroad, those who don’t believe, calling themselves Marxists and honestly thinking that they’re being loyal to the Marxist ideology, in replacing Gómez with a worker-peasant government.” Miguel Otero Silva, founder of El Nacional, told Betancourt back then that the plan was extremely poor, because in his view, it lacked revolutionary impetus, but Betancourt held a moderate line, given the Venezuelan circumstances.

Consider their core propositions: civilians must lead all government affairs, freedom of expression and association must be guaranteed, as well as the protection of individual rights. These are principles upheld at the time by Liberal Democracies in the world, not precisely Real Socialism; the “confiscation of Gómez’s assets” and the “creation of a Public Health Tribunal,” in other words, sanctions against embezzlement and fight against corruption was also in the document. Other points included literacy and university autonomy, no more debts, “nationalization of waterfalls,” the only source of electricity at the time, and state or municipal control of public services. Finally, there was a call for a Constituent Assembly.

Betancourt was only 23 years old and he was already advocating for Reformism and not Revolution. He also understood that the landowning militarism associated with foreign and national capital had to be replaced by civilians. Even then, amid Marxist formulas, he noted that individual rights must be defended, which immediately distinguished him from his peers, followers of the Soviet Union, who would’ve never prioritized individual rights over State power. The Plan was signed by 12 people, some of whom didn’t engage in public life later on, while others rose to prominence: Rómulo Betancourt, Raúl Leoni, Valmore Rodríguez, Ricardo Montilla, Pedro Juliac, Simón Betancourt, Carlos Peña Uslar, Rafael Ángel Castillo, César Camejo, Juan José Palacios, Pedro Rodríguez Barroeta, Mario Plaza Ponte. This was the main core, although others would become signatories later.