Venezuela’s October Revolution Offers Lessons for The Opposition

Throughout history, our leaders fell into the trap of losing the composure that historical change required. Machado and Gonzalez Urrutia should look at the mistakes of Acción Democrática during the transition they attempted in 1945 with some tricky travel companions

There is little doubt that María Corina Machado is popularly acclaimed by vast sectors of Venezuelan society and that she has been able to transfer that support to the unitary candidate, Edmundo González Urrutia. However, her support within the Unitary Platform (PUD) coalition is mixed, as it is no secret that she is disliked by many in the old guard that used to rule the previous MUD coalition. Despite her popularity, ferocious internal disputes between parties and some big personalities, that have seen their status threatened, continue to happen within the opposition. In an eventual transitional government, Machado and her allies must build bridges not only with the surviving Chavismo but among those PUD members that will become adversaries once political freedoms are restored. The failure of the trienio adeco –Venezuela’s first democratic experiment in the late 1940s– could offer some lessons for the new democratic leadership. 

After the death of Juan Vicente Gomez in 1935, the governments of generals Eleazar López Contreras and Isaías Medina Angarita started to open the political scene. A new constitution signed in 1937 and later modified in 1945 shortened presidential terms, implemented second order elections, and legalized political parties, prompting the return of exiled leaders while political prisoners were freed. However, when the negotiations between the leaders of the newly legalized political party Acción Democrática (AD) and the government of Medina Angarita –which included the ill-fated candidacy of Diogenes Escalante– failed to bring universal suffrage to the general elections, the subsequent breakdown opened the door to Venezuela’s October Revolution; a coup led by a coalition of young rising military men and the political leaders of AD. 

The toppling of the Medina Angarita government on October 18th, 1945 forced the old military guard out and started a three-year coalition formed by AD politicians like Rómulo Gallegos and Rómulo Betancourt and young and ambitious military officers such as Marcos Pérez Jiménez and Carlos Delgado Chalbaud. During this period a new constitution granted additional political rights that included the long-awaited universal suffrage. 

Finally, in 1947, all Venezuelans were allowed to head to the polls for the first time, electing Gallegos –a renowned novelist– and setting up a new Congress. However, the lack of political conscience from opposition parties, the ambition of the military side of the coalition, the weakness of the newly created democratic institutions, and a lack of apparent legitimacy gave way to the fall of the first modern democratic attempt in Venezuela. Ultimately, the failed venture led to one of the darkest periods in our political history – the dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez, which came after the military group that had led the coup in 1945 expelled Gallegos in November 1948.

The president of the 1945 junta, AD leader Rómulo Betancourt, jumped the gun rushing the timings of a political system that was (slowly) opening up. He miscalculated two main components of his plan to bring a long lasting democracy to the country. First, he allied with a power-hungry military that was more interested in a generational change –from the heirs of Gómez to the comrades of Pérez Jiménez– than in changing the system. Secondly and arguably more important, Betancourt overestimated the power of the newly born democracy. As it turned out, AD was popular among the people but not within the opposition to Medina, which included a universe of strong and ambitious personalities that used their newly gained freedoms to fight Betancourt (and President Gallegos) without measuring the damage that could do to the delicate political situation. 

Betancourt would later describe this period as a bloodless civil war between the political leaderships recognizing AD arrogance during those key transitional years. The political changes were drastic and rapid, prompting three elections in three years and bringing reforms that were not always aligned with the gubermental plan that their military allies had envisioned. Betancourt gambled but he did not stop the advance of the democratic reforms generating tensions between the new and old political elites and friction within AD. 

By the time Gallegos was elected, the relationship between the two Romulos was distant, giving an opening for the opposition to attack. On the other side of the fence, the two main opposition parties (COPEI and URD), born during the trienio, did not have the political capabilities to fight AD in the polls. AD had started to build their political base long before the events of the mid-1940s, even participating in previous elections against Medina. The result was a political dominance by AD who along with Gallegos won comfortably, taking 74% and 70% of the votes in the presidential and parliamentary elections of 1947. The opposition parties started to see their chances of gaining political ground in the short run as far-fetched, a dangerous feeling when they lacked the political maturity or democratic experience to gain support from the ground up. 

These parties were short sighted, resorting to disproportionate attacks and falling complicit to military and political conspiracies, something that both the trienio and later President Gallegos were passive to respond to fearing they would generate more political trauma. Adding to these pressures was the new role the military played. They were no longer a caudillo-centered entity, as the Venezuelan military had been institutionalized and professionalized. AD had opened the door for them into the political scene where they expected to continue having an active participation and not to pack and go back into the barracks. Betancourt and Gallegos would face a heated political environment from both civil and military counterparts, hurting their chances to deliver a long lasting democratic project.  

In a new democratic transition, political parties –unlike Acción Democrática in the 1940s and its parliamentary opponents— must have the political maturity to understand that the protection of the incipient democratic project goes above any individual power quota. That is why, and still a big if, the way the transitional goverment materialize matters. González Urrutia will need every ounce of support and national legitimacy, way beyond the October primaries –extended to him via the support of Machado– to lead the way through an eventual transition. The recent bickering between the two poles of the Unitary Platform must be contained to ensure the survival of a big-tent government. 

Similarly, jumping in feet first to a military and/or political alliance that could give Gonzalez Urrutia the upper hand without making a proper assessment of the repercussions it might bring could be detrimental to the country’s ability to sustain the democratic project in the long term. Avoiding AD’s sin will lay the grounds to build the necessary institutions needed to solidify the rebirth of what will be at first a weak and unstable attempt at recreating a Venezuelan democracy. However, it seems that resisting the temptation to seek a way out without measuring the full implications of the next step is a lot easier said than done. Ask the late Burmese democracy… or Pedro Carmona Estanga. 

Unfortunately, any transition will need the National Bolivarian Armed Force’s (FANB) approval stamp. One of the lessons to take from Betancourt’s original mistakes is to not underestimate the military’s ability to play the game. After all, they see themselves as the Liberator’s heirs, with a divine right to intervene as they see fit: a train of thought that will be fueled by the surviving Chavista opposition. To make matters worse, the high-ranking members of the FANB are in dire need to avoid international criminal persecution over the systematic human right violations committed while trying to hold the grip on the nation’s natural resources and trade of illicit goods they have used to splurge on through the last 25 years.

Acción Democrática’s venture and consequent fall in the 1940s leaves useful learnings for the current political leadership in how to identify and analyze the dangers that incipient democracies face. AD was at best clumsy in its defense of the democratic institutions. However, by 1958, once the Pérez Jiménez dictatorship had crumbled and elections were called under a result recognition pact between parties, AD managed to win. 

After being one of the most persecuted parties during the dictatorship of Pérez Jiménez, they rectified some of the mistakes from the mid 1940s, promoting a more inclusive and tolerant stance towards adversaries, avoiding a resentful vengeance-driven and steering away from claims over political privileges for their clandestine opposition struggles.

All transitions are built differently. But while we wait and see how (and if) this one plays out there are lessons to be learned from our own not so distant attempts at the complicated world of transiciones democráticas.

Juan Comella

London-based Venezuelan. Juan has a degree in Economics and Finance from Bentley University and has been a Chartered Financial Analyst since 2023.