Christopher Columbus first sighted Venezuela during his third voyage to the New World, when he saw the Península de Paria from his ship at anchor off the coast of the island of Trinidad. Three days later, on August 1, 1498, Columbus became the first European to set foot on the South American mainland. Unaware of the significance of his discovery and of the vastness of the continent, he christened the territory Isla de García. He spent the next two weeks exploring the Río Orinoco delta. Fascinated with the vast source of fresh water and the pearl ornaments of the native population, Columbus believed that he had discovered the Garden of Eden.
A second Spanish expedition, just one year later, was led by Alfonso de Ojeda and the Florentine, Amerigo Vespucci. They sailed westward along the coast of Tierra Firme (as South America was then known) as far as Lago de Maracaibo.
There, native huts built on piles above the lake reminded Vespucci of Venice, thus leading him to name the discovery Venezuela, or Little Venice. Subsequent expeditions along the north coast of South America were driven largely by a lust for adventure, power, and, especially, wealth.
Pearls and rumors of precious metals were the initial attraction of Venezuela. By the 1520s, however, the oyster beds between Cumaná and the Isla de Margarita–at the western end of the Península de Paria–had been played out. The next of Venezuela’s native riches to be extracted by the Spanish was its people. Slave raiding, which began in the Península de Paria and gradually moved inland, helped supply the vast labor needs in Panama and the Caribbean islands, where gold and silver bullion from Mexico and Peru were transshipped. These slave raids engendered intense hatred and resentment among Venezuela’s native population, emotions that fueled more than a century of continual low-intensity warfare. Partly as a result of this warfare, the conquest of Venezuela took far longer than the rapid subjugations of Mexico and Peru.
The prolonged nature of the conquest of Venezuela was also attributable to the area’s lack of precious metals and the absence of a unified native population. Venezuela had low priority compared with regions of Spanish America containing vast ore deposits. Moreover, the territory that comprises present-day Venezuela contained no major political force, such as the Inca or Aztec leadership, whose conquest would bring vast resources and populations under Spanish domain. Rather, the conquerors found a large number of relatively small and unrelated tribes of widely varying degrees of cultural sophistication. Some were nomadic hunters and gatherers; others built cities and practiced advanced agricultural techniques, including irrigation and terracing. A number of coastal communities were reputed to be cannibalistic. One of the more advanced tribes, the Timoto-Cuica, was from the Andean region. The Timoto-Cuica (who apparently were not united, but rather comprised a series of "chiefdoms") built roads and traded with the populations of the llanos, or plains, to the southeast, and the Maracaibo Basin, to the northwest.
Spanish slavers established bases at Coro and El Tocuyo, south of Barquisimeto, in the western part of present-day Venezuela. In 1528, however, they were dislodged by a most unlikely competitor; a consortium of German bankers led by the House of Welser, a german banking firm, had been granted a concession by the deeply indebted Spanish crown to exploit the area’s resources. For the next twenty-eight years, a series of German governors administered western Venezuela and engaged in a futile search for the fabled riches of El Dorado. The Germans showed no interest in settling the territory. Rather, they tried to extract from it the maximum amount of human and material wealth as rapidly as possible. In 1556, the House of Welser’s contract was terminated. The group had grown tired of its vain search for a mountain of gold to match what the Spanish had discovered in Peru and Mexico and the Spanish had become equally weary of the behavior of their German concessionaires, which was ruthless even by the ignoble standards of the conquerors.
Spanish explorers, in the meantime, pushed eastward from El Tocuyo, founding Valencia in 1555. After more than a decade of fierce fighting with the recalcitrant native population, forces under Diego de Losada established the settlement of Santiago de León de Caracas in 1567. The value of Caracas lay not only in the fertile agricultural lands in its vicinity, but also in its accessibility, through the coastal range, to the seaport that would later become La Guaira. The vast majority of what is today the territory of Venezuela was left untouched by the Spanish conquistadors. Instead, tireless Franciscan and Capuchin missionaries explored and Hispanicized the Río Unare Basin to the east of Caracas, the Río Orinoco, and much of the Maracaibo Basin during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Much of the western llanos and the south bank of the Orinoco remained unknown territory to the Spanish even at the close of the colonial period.
Colonial Venezuela’s primary value to Spain was geographic: its long Caribbean coastline provided security from foreign enemies and pirates for the Spanish bullion fleet during its annual journey between Portobelo, in present-day Panama, and Cuba. Venezuela’s own form of mineral wealth, petroleum, was noticed as early as 1500, but after being hastily scrutinized, its vast deposits were ignored for nearly four centuries. Venezuela lacked political unity for the first two and a half centuries of
colonial rule, in part because it was of no economic importance to the Spanish officials. Before 1777, what we today label Venezuela consisted of a varying number of provinces that were governed quite independently of one another. These provinces were administered from neighboring colonies that the Spanish considered more important. Beginning in 1526, they were under the jurisdiction of the Audiencia de Santo Domingo. Then in 1550 their colonial administrative seat moved to the Audiencia de Santa Fé de Bogotá, which in 1718 was upgraded to become the Viceroyalty of New Granada. During most of the remainder of the eighteenth century, what is today Venezuela consisted of five provinces: Caracas, Cumaná, Mérida de Maracaibo, Barinas, and Guyana. Because these provinces were far from each other and from the centers of Spanish colonial rule, their municipal officials enjoyed a degree of local autonomy unknown in most of Spanish America.
By the late sixteenth century, agriculture had become Venezuela’s chief economic activity. The rich farmlands of the Andean region, the western llanos, and especially the fertile valleys surrounding Caracas made Venezuela agriculturally selfsufficient , and also provided a surplus of a number of products for exportation. Wheat, tobacco, and leather were among the early products exported from colonial Venezuela. The Spanish crown, however, showed little interest in Venezuela’s agriculture. Spain was obsessed with extracting precious metals from its other territories to finance a seemingly endless series of foreign wars. As a result, as late as the early eighteenth century, Venezuela sold the bulk of its considerable surplus of agricultural goods to British, French, or Dutch traders who, under the Spanish crown’s medieval notions of commerce based on bureaucratic control and mercantilism, were labeled as smugglers.
Starting in the 1620s, cocoa became Venezuela’s principal export for the next two centuries. Cocoa was a quasi-narcotic bean used in the processing of chocolate, a native product of Venezuela’s coastal valleys. Its impact on colonial Venezuelan society was immense. Its sizable profits attracted, for the first time, significant immigration of Spaniards, including relatively poor Canary Islanders, and its plantation culture created a great demand for African slaves during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. These two population groups would complete a social hierarchy that became virtually a caste system. On top was a small elite of white peninsulares (those born in Spain) and criollos (those born in America of Spanish parentage); they were followed by the white Canary Islanders, who typically worked as wage laborers; then came a large group of racially mixed pardos, who by the late eighteenth century made up more than half the total; they were followed by African slaves, who constituted about 20 percent of the population; and, lastly, by the Indians. The native population, decimated by slavery and disease throughout the colonial period, constituted less than 10 percent of the total at independence.
Enormous profits obtained from the triangular trade of African slaves for Venezuelan cocoa, which was then shipped across the Caribbean and sold in Veracruz for consumption in New Spain (Mexico), made the Venezuelan coast a regular port of call for Dutch and British merchants. In an effort to eliminate this illegal intercolonial trade and capture these profits for itself, the Spanish crown in 1728 granted exclusive trading rights in Venezuela to a Basque corporation called the Real Compaña Guipuzcoana de Caracas, or simply the Caracas Company.
The Caracas Company proved quite successful, initially at least, in achieving the crown’s goal of ending the contraband trade. Venezuela’s cocoa growers, however, became increasingly dissatisfied. The Basque monopoly not only paid them significantly lower prices but received favored treatment from the province’s Basque governors. This discontent was evidenced in the growing number of disputes between the company and the growers and other Venezuelans of more humble status. In 1749 the discontent erupted into a first insurrectionary effort, a rebellion led by a poor immigrant cocoa grower from the Canary Islands
named Juan Francisco de León. The rebellion was openly joined by the Venezuelan lower classes and quietly encouraged by the elite in Caracas. Troops from Santo Domingo and from Spain quickly crushed the revolt, and its leadership was severely repressed by forces headed by Brigadier General Felipe Ricardos, who was named governor of Caracas in 1751.
The growth of the cocoa trade, the success of the Caracas Company, and the assertion of the royal will manifested by the suppression of the 1749 revolt all helped to centralize the Venezuelan economy around the city of Caracas. In recognition of this growth, Caracas was given political-military authority as the seat of the Captaincy General of Venezuela in 1777, marking the first instance of recognition of Venezuela as a political entity. Nine years later, its designation was changed to the Audiencia de Venezuela, thus granting Venezuela judicialadministrative authority as well.
Barely three decades later, however, Venezuela would suddenly–after almost three centuries on the periphery of the Spanish American empire–find itself at the hub of the independence movement sweeping Latin America. Present-day Venezuelans continue to take pride in having produced not only Francisco de Miranda, the best known of the precursors of the Spanish American revolution, but also the first successful revolt against Spanish rule in America and, of course, the leading hero of the entire epic of Latin America’s struggle for independence, Simón Bolívar Palacios.
Miranda was born in Caracas of wealthy criollo parents in 1750. Following a checkered career in the Spanish Army, Miranda spent virtually the rest of his life living in nations that were at odds with Spain, seeking support for the cause of the independence of his native Spanish America. Although he was a professed admirer of the newly independent United States, Miranda’s political vision of Latin America, beyond independence, remained equivocal. In 1806 he led an expedition that sailed from New York and landed at Coro, in western Venezuela. Expecting a popular uprising, he encountered instead hostility and resistance. Miranda returned to Britain, where in 1810 Bolívar persuaded him to return to Venezuela at the head of a second insurrectionary effort.
Events in Europe were perhaps even more crucial to the movement for Latin American independence than Miranda’s efforts. In 1808 French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops invaded Spain amidst a family dispute in which the Spanish king Charles IV had been forced to abdicate the throne in favor of his son, Ferdinand VII. The fearful Bourbon royal family soon became Napoleon’s captives, and in 1810 the conquering French emperor granted his brother, Joseph, the Spanish throne, precipitating a four-year- long guerrilla war in Spain.
These events had important repercussions in the Caracas cabildo (city council). Composed of a criollo elite whose allegiance to the crown had already been stretched thin by the gross incompetence of Charles and his feud with his son, the cabildo refused to recognize the French usurper. Meeting as a cabildo abierto (town meeting) on April 19, 1810, the Caracas cabildo ousted Governor Vicente Emparán and, shortly thereafter, declared itself to be a junta governing in the name of the deposed Ferdinand VII. On July 5, 1811, a congress convoked by the junta declared Venezuelan independence from Spain. Miranda assumed command of the army and leadership of the junta.
A constitution, dated December 21, 1811, marked the official beginning of Venezuela’s First Republic. Known commonly by Venezuelan historians as La Patria Boba, the Silly Republic, Venezuela’s first experiment at independence suffered from myriad difficulties from the outset. The cabildos of three major cities–Coro, Maracaibo, and Guayana–preferring to be governed by Joseph Bonaparte rather than by the Caracas cabildo, never accepted independence from Spain. The First Republic’s leadership, furthermore, distrusted Miranda and deprived him of the powers necessary to govern effectively until it was too late. Most damaging, however, was the initial failure of the Caracas criollo elite insurgents to recognize the need for popular support for the cause of independence. Venezuela’s popular masses, particularly the pardos, did not relish being governed by the white elite of Caracas and therefore remained loyal to the crown. Thus, a racially defined civil war underlay the early years of the long independence struggle in Venezuela.
When a major earthquake in March 1812 devastated proindependence strongholds while sparing virtually every locale commanded by royalist forces, it seemed that the very forces of nature were conspiring against La Patria Boba. Despite the gravity of the circumstances, Miranda’s July 25, 1812, surrender of his troops to the Spanish commander, General Domingo Monteverde, provoked a great deal of resentment among Bolívar and his other subordinates. Miranda died in a Spanish prison in 1816; Bolívar managed to escape to New Granada (present-day Colombia), where he assumed the leadership of Venezuela’s independence struggle.
Bolívar was born in 1783 into one of Caracas’s most aristocratic criollo families. Orphaned at age nine, he was educated in Europe, where he became intrigued by the intellectual revolution called the Enlightenment and the political revolution in France. As a young man, Bolívar pledged himself to see a united Latin America, not simply his native Venezuela, liberated from Spanish rule. His brilliant career as a field general began in 1813 with the famous cry of "war to the death" against Venezuela’s Spanish rulers that was followed by a lightning campaign through the Andes to capture Caracas. There he was proclaimed
"The Liberator" and, following the establishment of the Second Republic, was given dictatorial powers. Once again, however, Bolívar overlooked the aspirations of common, nonwhite Venezuelans. The llaneros (plainsmen), who were excellent horsemen, fought under the leadership of the royalist caudillo, José Tomás Boves, for what they saw as social equality against a
revolutionary army that represented the white, criollo elite. By September 1814, having won a series of victories, Boves’s troops forced Bolívar and his army out of Caracas, bringing an end to the Second Republic.
After Ferdinand VII regained the Spanish throne in late 1814, he sent reinforcements to the American colonies that crushed most remaining pockets of resistance to royal control. Bolívar was forced to flee to Jamaica, where he issued an eloquent letter that established his intellectual leadership of the Spanish American independence movement. A number of local caudillos kept the movement alive in Venezuela. One, José Antonio Páez, a mestizo, was able to convince his fellow llaneros along the Río Apure that Boves (who had been killed in battle in late 1814) had been mistaken: that the Spanish, not the criollo patriots, were the true enemies of social equality. The alliance of his fierce cavalrymen with Bolívar proved indispensable during the critical 1816-20 stage of the independence struggle. Another caudillo chief named Manuel Piar, after outspokenly encouraging his black and pardo troops to assert their claims for social change, however, was promptly captured, tried, and executed under Bolívar’s direction. This ruthless disposition of Piar as an enemy of the cause of independence enhanced Bolívar’s stature and military leadership as the "maximum caudillo."
Based near the mouth of the Río Orinoco, Bolívar defeated the royalist forces in the east with the help of several thousand volunteer European recruits, veterans of the Napoleonic Wars. Although Caracas remained in royalist hands, the 1819 Congress at Angostura (present-day Ciudad Bolívar) established the Third Republic and named Simón Bolívar as its first president. Bolívar then quickly marched his troops across the llanos and into the Andes, where a surprise attack on the Spanish garrison at Boyacá, near Bogotá, routed the royalist forces and liberated New Granada. Nearly two years later, in June 1821, Bolívar’s troops fought the decisive Battle of Carabobo that liberated Caracas from Spanish rule. In August delegates from Venezuela and Colombia met at the border town of Cúcuta to formally sign the Constitution of the Republic of Gran Colombia, with its capital in Bogotá. Bolívar was named president and Francisco de Paula Santander, a Colombian, was named vice president.
Bolívar, however, continued the fight for the liberation of Spanish America, leading his forces against the royalist troops remaining in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru. In the meantime, the Bolivarian dream of Gran Colombia was proving to be politically unworkable. Bolívar’s fellow Venezuelans became his enemies. King Ferdinand, after an 1820 revolt by liberals in Spain, had lost the political will to recover the rebellious American colonies. But the Venezuelans themselves expressed resentment at being governed once again from far-off Bogotá.
Venezuelan nationalism, politically and economically centered in Caracas, had been an ever-increasing force for over a century. During the 1820s, Venezuelan nationalism was embodied in the figure of General Páez. Even the tremendous prestige of Bolívar could not overcome the historical reality of nationalism, and in 1829 Páez led Venezuela in its separation from Gran
Colombia. Páez ordered the ailing and friendless Bolívar into exile. Shortly before his death in December 1830, the liberator of northern South America likened his efforts at Latin American unity to having "plowed the sea".
Two decades of warfare had cost the lives of between one-fourth and one-third of Venezuela’s population, which by 1830 was estimated at about 800,000. Furthermore, the cocoa-based export economy lay in ruins, a victim of physical destruction, neglect, and the disruption of trade. As a result, it was relatively simple for the young nation to shift its agricultural export activity to the production of coffee, a commodity whose price was booming in the North Atlantic nations with which Venezuela was now free to trade. The production of coffee for export would, along with subsistence agriculture, dominate Venezuela’s economic life until the initiation of the petroleum boom well into the twentieth century. Venezuela’s century-long post-independence era of
caudillismo is perhaps best understood as a competition among various social and regional factions for the control of the Caracas-based bureaucracy that served the trade with the North Atlantic nations.
The century of the caudillo started auspiciously, with sixteen relatively peaceful and prosperous years under the authority of General Páez. Twice elected president under the 1830 constitution, Páez, on the one hand, consolidated the young republic by putting down a number of armed challenges by regional chieftains. On the other hand, Páez usually respected the civil rights of his legitimate political opponents. Using funds earned during the coffee-induced economic boom, he oversaw the building of fledgling social and economic infrastructures. Generally considered second only to Bolívar as a national hero, Páez ruled in conjunction with the criollo elite, which maintained its unity around the mestizo caudillo as long as coffee prices remained high.
In the 1840s, however, coffee prices plunged, and the elite divided into two factions: those who remained with Páez called themselves Conservatives, while his rivals called themselves Liberals. The Liberals first came to prominence in 1846 with Páez’s surprising selection of General José Tadeo Monagas as his successor. Two years later, Monagas ousted all the Conservatives from his government and sent Páez into exile, precipitating a decade of dictatorial rule shared with his brother, José Gregorio. The abolition of slavery in 1854 was the only noteworthy act by the Monagas brothers. In 1857 they introduced a new
constitution in an obvious attempt to install a Monagas family dynasty. The regime was ousted the following year in a revolt that included elite members of both parties.
The elite factions failed to agree on a replacement for Monagas, however, precipitating twelve years of intermittent civil war so chaotic that few history texts bother to chronicle the details. Between 1858 and 1863, local caudillos ngaged in a chaotic power struggle known as the Federal War, because the Liberals favored federalism. In the end, the Liberals triumphed and General Juan C. Falcón was named president. In practice, federalism was a disaster. Falcón’s general lack of interest in ruling and his failure to exert strong leadership allowed local caudillos to exert oppressive authoritarian control over their
fiefdoms even while they continued to pay lip service to the concept of federalism. Central government authority was finally restored in 1870 by Falcón’s chief aide, Antonio Guzmán Blanco, who established a dictatorship that endured for eighteen years.
Unlike his former boss, Guzmán understood the politics of federalism. After removing disloyal Conservative regional caudillos by force, he installed a loyal group of Liberal caudillos in their place. Thanks to a rapid expansion of both
coffee production and foreign loans, Guzmán had access to considerable resources to maintain his supporters with generous subventions, backed up, if necessary, by federal troops. This formula brought nearly two decades of much-welcomed peace to the Venezuelan countryside. Guzmán used the increased revenue for additional activities that contributed to Venezuela’s national development. Education advanced notably, while the development of a modern governmental bureaucracy, and infrastructures for
communications and transportation–roads, railroads, port facilities, and telegraph lines–provided vital support for expanding export agriculture. Caracas especially benefited from public works and grew into one of South America’s premier cities. The vainglorious Guzmán, who liked to be referred to as the "Illustrious American," dedicated as many of these projects to himself as possible.
Although Guzmán demanded honesty from his subordinates, he amassed a personal fortune that allowed him to live in the kingly luxury he felt he deserved, both in Caracas and in Paris during the intervals when he deemed it prudent to leave
the presidency in the hands of a puppet. During one such period in 1888, civil unrest marked by anti-Guzmán rioting by university students in Caracas convinced the "Illustrious American" to remain in Paris on a permanent basis.
The four chaotic years that followed Guzmán’s rule were marked by several failed attempts to consolidate a civilian government. A colorless military regime, led by General Joaquín Crespo, spent most of its energies between 1892 and 1898 fighting to remain in power. Crespo was killed in 1898; in 1899 General Cipriano Castro, the first of four military rulers from the Andean state of Táchira, marched on Caracas with a private army that became a strong naitonal army and assumed the vacant presidency. Castro was characterized as "a crazy brute" by United States secretary of state Elihu Root and as "probably the worst of [Venezuela’s] many dictators" by historian Edwin Lieuwen. His nine years of despotic and dissolute rule are best known for having provoked numerous foreign interventions, including blockades and bombardments by British, German, and Italian naval units seeking to enforce the claims of their citizens against Castro’s government. The subsequent appearance of United States warships in 1902 convinced Castro to acquiesce to a financial settlement. Five years later, however, he again incited foreign naval intervention, this time by the Dutch, who seized a port and destroyed part of Venezuela’s tiny navy. In 1908 Castro
traveled to Europe for medical treatment; his chief military aide and fellow tachirense (native of the state of Táchira), Juan Vicente Gómez, took this opportunity to overthrow the dictator and assume power.
Gómez was the consummate Venezuelan caudillo. He retained absolute power from 1908 to 1935, alternating between the posts of president and minister of war. A series of puppet legislatures drafted and promulgated six new constitutions at the bidding of the dictator, while the judiciary enforced the will of the "Tyrant of the Andes" within the courts.
The dictator’s principal power base was the army. Disproportionately staffed with tachirense personnel, the army was used to destroy all of Gómez’s regional foes. This "national" army was prudently provided with high salaries
and generous benefits, the most modern weapons, and instruction from the Prussian-trained Chilean military. But Gómez’s most important means of eliminating political foes was his ubiquitous secret police force. Although some opponents escaped with a simple reprimand, many thousands of others, those who did not manage to escape into exile, were locked up–rarely with the benefit of a trial–in prisons where death by starvation or at the hands of torturers was commonplace.
Gómez justified his harsh dictatorship as the form of government preferred by the primitive, mixed-race Venezuelans. He based his theories in part on the racist notions of the book Democratic Caesarism by Gómez supporter Laureano Vallenilla Lanz that became official regime doctrine. In accord with these theories, Gómez believed that national development could be undertaken successfully only by foreigners who enjoyed technological superiority to Venezuelans. Moreover, the climate of stability required for this externally directed development process could only be provided–according to Gómez’s doctrine–by strong authoritarian rule.
The Gómez regime coincided with a protracted period favorable to Venezuelan exports. Coffee exports boomed, both in volume and price, during the early years of his rule. Most important, however, the foreign exploitation of Venezuela’s petroleum reserves began in 1918, augmenting government revenues to a degree previously unknown and allowing Gómez to pay off the nation’s entire foreign debt and to institute a public works program. The beginnings of an urban middle class were also evident in the bureaucracy that grew up around the nascent Venezuelan oil industry. The provision of required local services to the oil industry further expanded this new middle class.
The true beneficiaries of the petroleum boom, however, were Gómez, the army, and the dictator’s associates from Táchira. For the vast majority of Venezuelans, the petroleum era brought reduced employment (oil being a capital-intensive industry) and high food prices stemming from a decline in domestic agricultural activity and an increase in imports. Inflation increased and real wages declined. Little improvement took place in public education and health care, and although the capital-intensive petroleum industry grew impressively, oil-derived revenue was not applied to labor-intensive efforts such as agricultural diversification or the promotion of small-scale industry.
Subsequent events recast the students at the Central University of Venezuela, in Caracas, into the most significant opposition to the Gómez regime. Having closely observed the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and the Russian Revolution of 1917, the students launched a struggle in 1928 to liberate Venezuela from Gómez’s grip. The revolt began in February, when Jóvito Villalba and two other students were arrested for making antigovernment speeches. In protest, other students then challenged the dictator to jail them as well, and Gómez complied by arresting 200 student activists. A popular demonstration followed. Police
dispersed the demonstrators with firearms, killing and wounding many participants. With the assistance of a few young military officers, the rebels then stormed the presidential palace, which they managed to occupy briefly before being overwhelmed by Gómez’s troops. Gómez then closed the university and rounded up the students, many of whom ended up laboring on road gangs. Some of the movement’s leadership languished or died in prison; those of "the generation of 1928" who managed to escape into exile, like Rómulo Betancourt, Rafael Caldena Rodríguez, and Raúl Leoni, were later to become the nation’s principal political leaders.
Two subsequent efforts to overthrow Gómez–executed by long-exiled caudillo rivals who believed that their landings on the Venezuelan coast would trigger popular insurrections–ended in failure. The "Tyrant of the Andes" ruled until his death, by natural causes, in December 1935 at age seventy-nine. The event precipitated widespread looting, property destruction, and the slaughter of Gómez family members and collaborators by angry mobs in Caracas and Maracaibo. Gómez’s twenty-seven years in power brought to a close Venezuela’s century of caudillismo and, according to many historical accounts, his demise marked the beginning of Venezuela’s modern period.
Although he was not the last of Venezuela’s dictators, analysts of contemporary Venezuelan society commonly cite Gómez’s lengthy rule as the true line of demarcation between Venezuela’s democratic present and its authoritarian past. Although the nation’s post-1958 democratic leaders received their political baptism of fire in Venezuela in 1928, their principal political,
social, and economic perceptions were formed in exile in Europe, Mexico, or the United States. During the transition years from 1935 to 1958, the outlines of a national democratic political culture, including the configuration of Venezuela’s modern political party system, at last began to take shape.
During the twenty-three years of transition to democratic rule, institutions developed as the military transferred political power to civilians. However, the military was still very dominant, and the death of Gómez left a leadership vacuum that could only be filled by the old dictator’s tachirense minister of war, General Eleazar López Contreras. After he finished Gómez’s term of office in 1936, the Congress, all the members of which had been appointed by Gómez, selected López to serve his own five-year term in office.
When the riots following Gómez’s death precipitated demands for liberalizing the dictatorship, López quickly realized that his survival depended on his allowing some civilian political expression. Accordingly, he freed long-time political prisoners and dismantled the worst part of Gómez’s repressive apparatus. Exiles returned to establish the first mass political organizations in the nation’s history, the most important of which was the Venezuelan Organization (Organización Venezolana– Orve) led by the populist Betancourt. Another surviving leader of the Generation of 1928, Jóvito Villalba, revived the Marxist-oriented Venezuelan Student Federation (Federación Estudiantil de Venezuela–FEV); the Venezuelan Communist Party (Partido Comunista Venezolano–PCV) was also reorganized, although it remained banned from political activities in the revised constitution of 1936. In a related area, liberalized labor legislation encouraged the organization of the nation’s first modern labor syndicates.
A highly effective general strike in June 1936, however, led the López regime to the conclusion that the proper boundaries of reform had been crossed. Accordingly, the López government rejected a November application by Orve and other leftist opposition elements for legal recognition of a united National Democratic Party (Partido Democrático Nacional–PDN) and brutally suppressed a strike by oil workers the following month. The regime justified the outlawing of the nascent labor unions in 1937 by claiming that they had engaged in illegal political activities. Soon thereafter, the regime proscribed virtually all organized political opposition.
López decided instead to concentrate his reform efforts in the relatively noncontroversial sphere of economic modernization. The government established a central bank, along with state-controlled industrial and agricultural development banks, opened new oil fields to exploitation and, employing the slogan of sembrar el petróleo ("sowing the oil"), launched a program for developing the national economic and social infrastructural, although at a lackluster pace that led critics to question the program’s efficacy.
In 1941 López’s Congress selected yet another tachirense, minister of war Isaías Medina Angarita, to replace López. In this respect, it appeared to be politics as usual. A more ambitious economic development plan, announced by Medina in 1942, was interrupted during World War II when German submarines played havoc with tankers transporting Venezuela’s oil. New laws governing the state’s relationship with foreign oil companies in 1943 resulted in substantially increased revenues, spurring renewed development efforts in 1944. Construction activity boomed during the waning years of the war, a period that also saw the passage of Venezuela’s first income tax and social security laws.
Perhaps more consequential, however, was Medina’s expansion of the political opening begun by López. The PDN was legalized and promptly changed its name to Democratic Action (Acción Democrática–AD). Its members soon constituted a vociferous minority in local governments and, after the January 1943 elections, in the lower house of Congress known as the Chamber of Deputies (the upper house was the Senate). The president responded by organizing his own political party, the Venezuelan Democratic Party (Partido Democrático Venezolano–PDV), which waged a vigorous campaign and gained a legitimate victory in the crucial 1944
congressional elections. With his party thus assured of control of the 1945 Congress, which would hold indirect elections for president, Medina appeared poised to designate his successor.
To the surprise of many, he chose Diógenes Escalante, a liberal civilian serving as ambassador in Washington. A delighted AD agreed to support Escalante’s candidacy. Medina’s opposition on the right, however, which had expected former President López to receive the nomination, was incensed by the choice. Fear was in the air during the summer of 1945, as rumors circulated that the forty-six-year-long rule by tachirenses was about to be ruptured by a civil war between the lopecistas and medinistas (followers of López and Medina). Escalante soon became too ill to pursue the presidency, however, and his announced replacement was a colorless figure widely regarded as a puppet of Medina. Ironically, it was not the lopecista right that brought the era of tachirense rule to a close. Instead, on October 18, 1945, the AD in conjunction with junior military officers suddenly overthrew Medina.
The conspiracy to overthrow Medina had been hatched inside the Patriotic Military Union (Unión Patriótica Militar–UPM), a secret lodge of junior officers who were disgruntled over the persistence of cronyism and the lack of professionalism within the tachirense senior ranks. These officers had invited AD to join their plot in June and asked Betancourt to serve as the president of the new government. AD did not agree to cooperate with the UPM, however, until after the October 1 announcement of Medina’s replacement for Escalante.
After the coup, Betancourt named a seven-man governing junta consisting of four adecos (members of AD), two military officers, and one independent. AD thus controlled the government, and the UPM controlled the military. All officers who had attained ranks above major before the 1945 rebellions–Carlos Delgado Chalbaud, Julio Vargas, and Marcos Pérez Jiménez–were hence promptly sent into retirement. Political reform was the first item on the junta’s agenda, and in March 1946, it decreed a sweeping new electoral law. Universal suffrage for all citizens over eighteen, including women, at last became law. All political parties were legalized, and the number of congressional seats was to be apportioned according to each party’s percentage of the total vote.
AD’s principal competitor in the October 1946 Constituent Assembly elections, held to elect a body that would draft a new constitution, was the Christian Democratic Party (Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente–COPEI), recently founded by Rafael Caldera Rodríguez. COPEI appealed mainly to conservative Roman Catholics. Other parties of less conservative leanings but narrower electoral appeal included the Democratic Republican Union (Unión Republicana Democrática–URD), a personal vehicle for Villalba, and the communists, whose various factions united in 1947 under the banner of the PCV, which had been legalized in 1942. Although competition among the parties was intense, AD won overwhelming majorities in the Constituent Assembly elections as well as in the presidential and congressional elections of December 1947 and the municipal elections of May 1948.
AD’s wide margin of victory (in 1946 it drew 79 percent of the vote); in 1947, 73 percent) led its leaders to believe that they could push through a highly progressive program without considering the conservative political opposition. A new constitution was promulgated in 1947. The party’s vigorous pursuit of "social justice and better conditions for the workers" (as stated in a decree by the 1945 junta that established a separate ministry of labor) engendered widespread hostility within the business community, both foreign and local. The overhaul of the 1943 petroleum law to assure the government a 50 percent tax on the oil industry’s profits intensified the foreign oil companies’ antagonism. The junta’s aggressive campaign to expand public education and its regulation of both public and private education incensed the Roman Catholic Church. The church, whose dominant role in education had heretofore gone unchallenged, now enlisted COPEI in a strident antigovernment campaign.
The political polarization intensified following the inauguration of Rómulo Gallegos as president on February 15, 1948. At that time, Venezuela’s most renowned author, Gallegos proved less than adroit as a politician. His signing of AD’s wide-ranging land reform bill in October pitted the nation’s powerful landowners against him, and his reduction of the military personnel in his cabinet and advocacy of a reduced military budget alienated the armed forces. In mid-November, the UPM issued an ultimatum to the president demanding that COPEI share political authority with AD and that Betancourt, still AD leader, be sent
into exile. Gallegos refused, and on November 24, after barely ten months in office, the military overthrew him in a nearly bloodless coup and exiled him along with Betancourt and the rest of the AD leadership.
The three-man provisional military junta that assumed control of the government was headed by Colonel Delgado. Delgado had joined the anti-AD conspiracy only after Gallegos had rejected the UPM ultimatum and it was clear that his fall was inevitable. Delgado had been a UPM coconspirator in 1945, and had served as a member of the AD junta and as minister of defense under Gallegos. The military junta’s other two members, UPM conspirator Pérez Jiménez and Luis Felipe Llovera Páez, were tachirenses who also held the rank of colonel. The junta quickly set about undoing the reforms of the AD trienio. It voided the 1947 constitution and restored the traditionalist 1936 constitution. The new military government outlawed AD and persecuted its militants.
Delgado took a more moderate position than his fellow junta members on such issues as the persecution of AD and the potential transition from a military to a civilian government. His disagreements with Pérez and Llovera, who advocated overt military rule in the Venezuelan tradition, became increasingly public. In November 1950, Delgado was assassinated. Germán Suárez Flanerich served as a figurehead for Pérez, who assumed leadership of the junta. Under pressure from non-AD political parties, the junta reluctantly convoked long-deferred presidential elections for November 1952.
AD continued to be proscribed but was extremely active underground. Pérez organized a progovernment party, the Independent Electoral Front (Frente Electoral Independiente– FEI), which he mistakenly believed would be victorious and thus legitimize his rule. Caldera ran a conservative campaign as the presidential candidate of COPEI, and the URD’s Villalba ran a fiery
antigovernment campaign. When the early election results made it clear that the URD (supported clandestinely by AD), was far ahead of the government party, Pérez ordered the count halted and declared himself president. The other junta members were sent abroad "on vacation," and the leaders of the URD and COPEI joined their AD colleagues in exile.
The next five years saw a brutal dictatorship in a country that by now was notorious as the almost archetypical home of Latin American dictators. A regressive new constitution reverted to indirect elections for president by a puppet legislature. Pedro Estrada, described by historian Hubert Herring as "as vicious a man hunter as Hitler ever employed," headed the vast National Security Police (Seguridad Nacional–SN) network that rounded up any opposition, including military officers, unable to escape. Hundreds, if not thousands, were brutally tortured or simply murdered at the notorious Guasina Island
concentration camp in the Orinoco jungle region. Labor unions were harassed, and the Venezuelan Confederation of Labor was abolished and replaced by a confederation under the control of the FEI. When the Central University of Venezuela became a center of opposition to the regime, it was simply shut down. Strict controls over the press recalled the worst days of the Gómez regime. Political power concentrated around Pérez and an inner circle of six tachirense colonels who held key cabinet positions. Pérez revived Gómez’s old "Democratic Caesarism" doctrine and gave it a new name, the "New National Ideal," under which politics would be deemphasized in favor of material progress (dubbed the "conquest of the physical environment" by apologists for the dictatorship).
Under Pérez, much of the nation’s ever-increasing petroleum revenues were used for ostentatious construction projects. These included a replica of New York’s Rockefeller Center, a luxurious mountaintop hotel, and the world’s most expensive officers’ club, all of which served more as monuments to the dictator than as contributions to national development. An even larger share of the state treasury, fully 50 percent according to one estimate, was squandered or simply stolen. By the time Pérez was forced to flee to Miami, he alone had accumulated a fortune estimated at US$250 million. Meanwhile, government expenditures on such human resources as health and education stagnated.
Pérez’s staunch anticommunism and his more liberal policies toward the foreign oil companies–compared with the nationalistic stance of AD–won him the open support of the United States government; President Dwight D. Eisenhower awarded him the Legion of Merit in 1954. His seemingly insatiable greed for wealth and power, however, as well as the widespread reports of his debauchery, made him a growing object of scorn among his countrymen. In mid-1957 the united civilian opposition organized an underground movement called the Patriotic Junta dedicated to overthrowing the dictatorship. Opposition to Pérez also flourished
within the military, especially among junior officers tired of the corruption and monopoly on power of the ruling generals. Pére’s favoritism to the army alienated air force and naval officers.
A shameless electoral farce in 1957, obvious to all as a bald maneuver designed to perpetuate Pérez in power, proved decisive in the downfall of the dictator. Fearful of an embarrassment similar to that of 1952, Pérez cancelled planned elections and then scheduled a plebescite. Only two hours after the polls had closed on December 15, the government announced an incredible 85 percent vote in favor of Pérez continuing in office. Outrage at this obviously fraudulent result was universal among both the civilian and military opposition.
Air force planes dropped bombs on the capital on January 1, 1958, to signal the start of a military insurrection. The anticipated coup d’état failed to materialize, however, because of the lack of coordination among the conspirators. Nonetheless, the bombing did give heart to the civilian opposition to Pérez by signaling that they were not without allies within the military. On January 10, the Patriotic Junta convoked a massive demonstration of civilian opposition in downtown Caracas; on the twenty-first, it called for a general strike that proved immediately effective. Street demonstrations as well as
fighting erupted and quickly spread outside Caracas. When the navy revolted on January 22, a group of army officers, fearful for their own lives, forced Pérez to resign. The following day, Venezuela’s last dictator fled the country, carrying most of what remained of the national treasury. In addition, his ouster cost the nation some 300 dead and more than 1,000 wounded.
The five-man provisional military junta at first tried to rule without civilian participation. The Patriotic Junta, however, called for the rebellion to continue until civilians were included. Two businessmen were promptly added to the junta, which ruled during the year required to dismantle the institutions associated with the dictatorship and transfer power to a popularly elected civilian government. The junta contained personnel from all three military services, led by Admiral Wolfgang Larrazábal, who headed the crucial January 22 naval rebellion. The junta also began a valiant effort to deal with the grim realities of an empty treasury and some US$500 million in foreign debt. It immediately stopped work on most of the dictator’s public works projects, and later decreed a sharp increase in income taxes. Most important, the junta increased the government’s
share of the profits on petroleum extraction from 50 percent to 60 percent.
Under a new electoral law decreed in May, the junta convoked elections for December 1958. The political parties that had participated in the Patriotic Junta found themselves unable to reach a consensus on a single candidate. In the Pact of Punto Fijo, drawn up in October, the top party leaders did agree to resume their cooperation after the elections. They drew up a common policy agenda and agreed to divide cabinet posts and other governmental positions among the three major parties, regardless of whose candidate proved victorious in December. AD then nominated Betancourt, the URD tapped the popular Larrazábal as its candidate, and COPEI again ran Caldera as its candidate. After a hard-fought campaign, Betancourt came out the victor with 49 percent of the total; Larrazábal, who also had the support of the communists, received 35 percent; Caldera garnered 16 percent. AD also gained a majority in both congressional bodies. Although few anticipated it at the time, Betancourt’s inauguration as
president on February 13, 1959, initiated a period of democratic, civilian rule of unprecedented length in the nation’s history.
Historians invariably point to Betancourt’s inauguration as the pivotal point in four centuries of Venezuelan history. Not since its discovery by Spanish explorers in the late fifteenth century had an event so clearly marked a new era for the country. After nearly a century and a half as perhaps the most extreme example of Latin America’s postindependence affliction of caudillismo and military rule, Venezuela’s political life after 1959 was defined by uninterrupted civilian constitutional rule.
This stark break with the past has been attributed most often to the government’s petroleum-based wealth, which gave it the material resources to win a vast portion of the population over to the democratic consensus, and to the spirit of cooperation among the nation’s various political entities (commonly known as the "Spirit of the 23rd of January," after the date of Pérez’s fall from power) as embodied in the Pact of Punto Fijo. Betancourt and his AD colleagues had apparently learned from the disastrous consequences of their strident posture during their previous stint at governing. They now reversed themselves by granting concessions to a broad range of political forces that included many of their most bitter enemies during the trienio. They guaranteed, for example, the continuation of obligatory military service; improved salaries, housing, and equipment for the military; and, most important, amnesty from prosecution for crimes committed during the dictatorship. The Roman Catholic Church, whose active opposition to Pérez had impressed many doctrinally anticlerical AD militants, somewhat enhanced its political image and expanded its influence within the government.
In another pact written up during the weeks before the 1958 elections, known as the "Declaration of Principles and Governing Program," AD, COPEI, and the URD agreed on a broad range of matters with respect to the economy. In what amounted to guarantees to the foreign and local business communities, the parties agreed to respect the principles of capital accumulation and the sanctity of private property. Local industry, furthermore, was guaranteed government measures to protect it from foreign competition as well as subsidies through the state- run Venezuelan Development Corporation (Corporación Venezolana de Fomento–CVF). With respect to agrarian properties, any expropriation or transfer of title would provide for compensation to the original owner.
Betancourt made other conciliatory moves as well. A new labor code granted unprecedented government guarantees of the right to association and collective bargaining. Vastly enlarged state subsidies benefited the poor in such areas as food, housing, and health care. The objective was to institutionalize a "prolonged political truce" by including as many citizens as possible within a popular consensus in favor of the civilian, democratic project. The "Spirit of the 23rd of January" informed the 1961 constitution, which guaranteed a wide range of civil liberties and created a weak bicameral legislature, where partisan political conflict could be aired but would cause a minimum of damage. The president was given considerable power, although he was allowed to run for reelection only after sitting out two five-year terms.
The major group excluded from the political pacts of 1958 was the extreme left. This exclusion was the result, initially, of the doctrinal anticommunism of AD–and of Betancourt in particular. The exclusion was subsequently perpetuated by the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and the revolution’s precipitous radicalization during the early 1960s. The Cuban Revolution had a profound impact on the Venezuelan left, particularly among student groups, who saw it as a model for a successful revolutionary effort in Venezuela. In November 1960, the URD dropped out of the governing coalition with AD in protest over Betancourt’s firm stance against Cuban leader Fidel Castro Ruz. AD also suffered the loss of most of its student wing, which in April of that year split from the party to form the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (Movimiento de la Izquierda Revolucionaria–MIR), supposedly to protest delays in the implementation of the government’s agrarian reform program.
In 1961 these groups, together with the PCV, consolidated their advocacy of antigovernment guerrilla warfare. The Betancourt government supported Cuba’s expulsion from the Organization of American States (OAS), then broke diplomatic relations with the Castro government in December. In May and June of the following year, military officers sympathetic to the left instigated two bloody uprisings, first at Carúpano on the Península de Paria, then at Puerto Cabello. These provoked Betancourt into legally proscribing the PCV and the MIR, which promptly went underground and formed the Armed Forces of National Liberation
(Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional–FALN). The FALN engaged in rural and urban guerrilla activities throughout the remainder of the 1960s. The activity reached its height in 1962 and 1963, when the FALN sabotaged oil pipelines and bombed a Sears Roebuck warehouse and the United States Embassy in Caracas.
The FALN failed, however, to attract adherents among the poor, whether rural campesinos or the residents of the makeshift shacks, known as ranchos, that made up Caracas’s mushrooming slum areas. The guerrillas also proved unable to achieve their secondary goal of provoking a coup d’état that would lead to a repressive military regime and, hence, increase popular support for the insurgents. As political scientist Daniel H. Levine points out, the FALN’s effect proved to be quite the contrary of what it intended: it actually consolidated the democratic regime by making AD look–to its many former enemies on the right–like the better of two alternatives. At the same time, the insurgency provided a vital military mission to the armed forces, one that removed them still further from direct participation in politics. Ultimately, the FALN’s efforts to disrupt the December 1963 elections also proved futile. In the midst of this guerrilla campaign, the government arrested all PCV and MIR congressmen in September, and in November military forces discovered a three-ton cache of small arms–with clear links back to the Castro regime–on a deserted stretch of beach.
Castro was not Betancourt’s only enemy in the Caribbean, however. Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina, the dictatorial ruler of the Dominican Republic, was implicated in a number of antigovernment conspiracies uncovered within the Venezuelan military, as well as in the bombing of Betancourt’s car in June 1960, in which a military aide was killed and the president badly burned. The Venezuelan president’s strong-willed antipathy for nondemocratic rule was reflected in the so-called Betancourt Doctrine, which denied Venezuelan diplomatic recognition to any regime, right or left, that came to power by military force.
Highly unfavorable circumstances in the external sector of the economy handicapped the Betancourt administration. Having inherited an empty treasury and enormous unpaid foreign debts from the spendthrift Pérez, Betancourt nevertheless managed to return the state to fiscal solvency despite the persistence of rock-bottom petroleum prices throughout his presidency. He also managed to continue the effort, begun during the 1930s by President López, of "sowing the oil" by initiating a variety of reform programs, the most important of which was agrarian reform. Aimed not at addressing social grievances but rather at reversing Venezuela’s protracted decline in agricultural production, AD’s land reform distributed only unproductive private properties and public lands. Landowners who had their properties confiscated received generous compensation. By the end of the 1960s, an estimated 166,000 heads of household had received provisional titles to their new properties.
During 1960 two institutions were founded that made important contributions toward the development of a national petroleum policy: the Venezuelan Petroleum Corporation (Corporación Venezolana de Petróleos–CVP), conceived to oversee the national petroleum industry, and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the international oil cartel that Venezuela established in partnership with Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran. Both organizations were the creations of Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonso, who, for the second time, served as Betancourt’s minister of energy. During the trienio, Pérez Alfonso had
earned the wrath of the foreign oil firms with his proposition that the state should gradually assume control of the petroleum industry; this idea now once again became government policy.
Perhaps the greatest of all Betancourt’s accomplishments, however, were the successful 1963 elections. Despite myriad threats to disrupt the process, nearly 90 percent of the electorate participated on December 1 in what was probably the most honest election in Venezuela to that date. AD standard-bearer Raúl Leoni proved victorious, gaining 33 percent of the total vote in a field of seven presidential candidates. On March 11, 1964, for the first time in the nation’s history, the presidential sash passed from one constitutionally elected chief executive to another. It was a day of immense pride for the people of Venezuela.
Leoni, a hard-working but less colorful figure than Betancourt, differed little from his reformist predecessor from an ideological standpoint. Nevertheless, unlike Betancourt, Leoni proved unable to agree to COPEI’s conditions for forming a governing coalition and instead made an alliance with the URD and the National Democratic Front (Frente Nacional Democrática–FND), a probusiness party created around Arturo Uslar Pietri, a noted writer and public affairs activist.
Subversive activities quieted considerably during the Leoni administration. By no means were they ended, however. Rumors of military plots were rife throughout the five-year term; the most dangerous military rebellion, an attempted coup d’état in October 1966, was swiftly put down and its leaders court-martialed. The threat from the revolutionary left also persisted, leading Leoni in December 1966 to order an army search of Caracas’s Central University for revolutionaries. By 1965, however, the PCV had begun to harbor doubts about violence as a road to power, and over the course of the following two years, it
gradually abandoned the revolutionary path. Splinter groups with Cuban ties persisted in their violent activities, however, and in May 1967, a small landing party headed by a Cuban army officer was captured at Machurucuto in the state of Miranda. This would prove to be the pinnacle of Castro’s crusade to export his revolution to Venezuela. Insurgent activity subsequently subsided, and bilateral relations with Cuba eventually improved.
Economic growth averaged a healthy 5.5 percent annually during the Leoni years, aided by a recovery in petroleum prices and the relative political tranquility as the AD program attained legitimacy. Leoni kept the Betancourt reform programs on course and also introduced a number of impressive infrastructure projects designed to open up the nation’s interior to agricultural and industrial development. Regional integration efforts advanced, albeit slowly, although Venezuela remained outside the newly created Andean Common Market (Ancom) in response to objections from the local business community, which feared competition from lower-priced goods manufactured in neighboring countries.
The governing party split in 1967 over the choice of the party’s presidential candidate for the 1968 elections. Stemming in part from a long-simmering rivalry between former president Betancourt and AD secretary general Jesús Angel Paz Galarraga, a highly damaging split led Paz to launch the People’s Electoral Movement (Movimiento Electoral del Pueblo–MEP). The MEP tendered Luis B. Prieto as its candidate, while Gonzalo Barrios headed the AD ticket. The URD joined forces with the FND and the party of former presidential candidate Larrazábal to promote the candidacy of Miguel Angel Burelli Rivas under the banner of a
coalition dubbed the Victorious Front. COPEI once again ran Caldera, who proved victorious in this fourth attempt to capture the presidency. His victory resulted both from the split in AD and from COPEI’s liberalization of its image away from that of a strictly conservative Roman Catholic party. All four candidates finished strongly at the end of a hard-fought campaign, however, and Caldera eked out a victory over Barrios by a margin of merely 31,000 votes. The passing of the presidential sash from Leoni to AD’s principal opposition leader in March 1969 marked yet another first in Venezuela’s rapidly maturing democracy.
President Caldera never made an earnest effort to form a governing coalition. Throughout his five-year term, his cabinet consisted exclusively of copeyanos (COPEI party members) and independents. In Congress, however, the governing party was forced to form a working alliance with AD in 1970 because mounting student demonstrations and growing partisan intransigence made unilateral rule impossible. The major concerns of Caldera’s government were not unlike those of his two predecessors: agrarian reform and increased farm production, the improvement of educational and social welfare benefits, the expansion and diversification of industrial development, and progress toward local control of the petroleum industry. With respect to the latter, the government’s tax rate on the petroleum companies rose to 70 percent by 1971. In the same year, the Hydrocarbons
Reversion Law–stipulating that all of the oil companies’ Venezuelan assets would revert to the state when their concessions expired–went into effect.
The key policy distinction between Caldera’s government and those of his AD predecessors lay in the area of foreign policy. President Caldera rejected the Betancourt Doctrine, which he considered restrictive and divisive, and which he
thought had served to isolate Venezuela in the world. Bilateral relations were soon restored with the Soviet Union and the socialist nations of Eastern Europe, as well as with a number of South American nations that had fallen under military rule. By dividing Latin American nations from one another, the Betancourt Doctrine, Caldera believed, had served to promote United States
hegemony in the region. Seeking points of unity instead, Caldera established "pluralistic solidarity" as the guiding principle of Venezuelan foreign policy. Among its positive results was Venezuela’s entrance into Ancom upon signing the 1973 Consensus of Lima, which assuaged the fears of the business community by allowing Venezuela to attach a number of special conditions to its membership.
On the one hand, by joining Ancom, Venezuela emphasized its Andean identity. On the other hand, the striking expansion of its investment in the Caribbean Development Bank emphasized the nation’s Caribbean character. Caldera thus began to provide oil-based financial aid to the nations of Central America and the Caribbean, an effort that would be greatly expanded in subsequent years. Although the internal security situation had improved, Caldera adopted a policy of "pacification" toward the remaining armed opposition. The pacification program legalized the PCV and other leftist parties and granted amnesty to
revolutionary activists. The government credited the program for the dramatic decline in guerrilla activity. Its opponents, however, pointed out that the most conspicuous decrease in Venezuela’s revolutionary violence came under Leoni, when Cuba and the Soviet Union changed their policies in the wake of the 1967 death of Ernesto "Che" Guevara in Bolivia and the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
The December 1973 election was a truly pluralistic affair. The twelve presidential candidates ranged from three aspirants of the parties on the left to an even larger number of self-declared representatives of former president Pérez on the right. The MEP, which had moved steadily leftward since 1968, allied itself with the PCV and nominated Paz under the banner of Popular Unity (Unidad Popular), modeled after the Chilean left-wing coalition of the same name that had elected Salvador Allende Gossens in 1970. The URD initially joined the coalition, but the aging Jóvito Villalba later withdrew his party to launch his
own candidacy. The other candidate on the left was José Vicente Rangel of the Movement Toward Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo–MAS), a party that had been founded in 1971 by a group of PCV dissidents with liberal, "Eurocommunist" notions of a modern, election-oriented party. Unlike the Moscow-line PCV, the MAS had little bond to the Soviet Union.
Although the 1973 election was notable for the ideological pluralism represented in the competing political parties, its most important distinction was the primacy achieved by the two principal parties, AD and COPEI. In contrast to 1968, AD converged around the figure of Betancourt’s long-time protégé and minister of interior, Carlos Andrés Pérez, thus passing party leadership to its second generation. Campaigning deep into the rural Venezuelan heartland as well as in the ranchos of all major cities, Pérez managed to recapture much of the populist appeal acquired by Betancourt thirty years previously. The campaign of his opponent, Lorenzo Fernández (also a former minister of interior) was, by comparison, a low-key affair.
On election day an astounding 97 percent of the registered voters went to the polls. Pérez, with 48.8 percent of the valid vote, prevailed against Fernández’s 36.7 percent. Between them, then, AD and COPEI captured nearly 86 percent of the valid presidential vote; the two parties also garnered 43 of the 49 Senate seats and 166 of 200 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. AD attained absolute majorities in both congressional houses as well as in 157 of the nation’s 181 municipal councils. The showing of leftist parties, in contrast, was unimpressive: the Popular Unity coalition gained 5.1 percent; MAS, 4.2 percent; and the URD, a
mere 3.1 percent. "Polarization" was the term used locally to describe the apparent transition of Venezuela’s electoral contests into two-party affairs. It was yet another promising sign in the evolution of a stable system of democracy.
Venezuela had still another reason to be euphoric at the dawn of 1974. The October 1973 Arab-Israeli War had triggered a quadrupling of crude oil prices in a period of only two months. When Pérez assumed the presidency in February 1974, he was immediately faced with the seemingly enviable task of managing a windfall of unprecedented proportions. To combat the inflationary pressures that would result from the sudden addition of some US$6 billion in annual government revenues, Pérez set up the Venezuelan Investment Fund (Fondo de Inversiones de Venezuela–FIV), with the objective of exporting 35 percent of this unexpected income as loans to Caribbean, Central American, and Andean neighbors. The greatest portion of this aid money went to the oil-importing nations of Central America in the form of long- term loans to pay for half of their oil-import bills. Venezuela also loaned out its "excess capital" through various multilateral lending institutions, including the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).
The FIV loan program engendered considerable international goodwill on behalf of Venezuela, particularly among the recipient countries. Building on that prestige, Pérez and Mexican president Luis Echeverría Alvarez (1970-76) founded the Latin American Economic System (Sistema Económico Latinoamericano–SELA). SELA, with headquarters in Caracas, had twenty-three Latin American nations as its initial members in 1975. It was formed to promote Latin American cooperation in international economic matters such as commodity prices, scientific and technological exchange, and multinational enterprises and development projects.
SELA, it was hoped, would help create the building blocks of a "new international economic order," in which the developing nations of the southern hemisphere would challenge the economic hegemony of the developed nations of the north.
Pérez’s aggressive stance on behalf of the Third World helped to cool Venezuela’s traditionally warm relations with the United States. Other contributing factors to this change included Venezuela’s displeasure with both the revelations of extensive covert intervention by the United States against the Allende government in Chile and the reluctance of the United States to begin negotiations with Panama over future control of the Panama Canal. The major irritant, however, was OPEC’s petroleum policy, marked by OPEC’s 1973 price increases, and the embargo on oil shipments to the United States instigated by the Arab members of OPEC during the October War. Despite the fact that Venezuela had increased its oil shipments at that time in order to meet United States needs, the United States retaliated against the embargo by excluding Venezuela, along with the other OPEC-member nations, from the 1974 Trade Act, which created the Generalized System of Trade Preferences to lower tariffs on designated imports from developing nations. Proud of never having denied the nation’s oil to the United States, even during periods of war and political tensions, Venezuelans took offense at what they saw as unwarranted punitive action by the United States.
At home, President Pérez put aside his promised intention to "manage abundance with the mentality of scarcity," and embarked on a spending spree designed to distribute Venezuela’s oil wealth among the citizenry. Price controls that subsidized the public consumption of food and other commodities were introduced. Government-authorized wage increases, combined with foreign exchange controls that subsidized imports, led to periodic buying binges of Japanese stereos and televisions, German automobiles and cameras, and clothing and processed foods from the United States. Per capita consumption of Scotch whiskey soared to a level among the world’s highest. Government subsidies assumed a variety of other forms as well: in 1974, US$350 million in debts owed to state agencies by the Venezuelan farming community were simply cancelled.
The Pérez administration initiated various other programs to spur employment. The 1974 Law of Unjustified Dismissals made it very difficult for employers to fire workers and mandated ample severance payments to those who did lose their
jobs. Public employment doubled in five years, reaching 750,000 by 1978. Although unemployment levels thus dropped precipitously, Venezuelans’ traditional disdain for hard work increased, leaving many necessary jobs either unfilled or filled by a growing number of indocumentadosas (undocumented or illegal aliens) from Colombia and Brazil.
Although these subsidy and employment programs theoretically sought to improve the lot of the poor, in fact, the actual outcome was that a significant portion of the population continued to live in a state of misery. Income distribution was less equitable in 1976 than it had been in 1960, and one study found that fully 40 percent of the population nationwide were ill fed and undernourished. This contrast of widespread poverty amidst urban development and the conspicuous consumption of the middle and upper classes was particularly damaging to Pérez, who had been elected with a public image as a "friend of the people." AD’s failure to address adequately the needs of the poor would plague the party during the 1978 electoral contest.
The government continued, as it had been doing for nearly four decades, to put a large portion of its petroleum revenues into building an industrial base, with the objective of generating future income after the nation’s oil reserves had been depleted. With massive amounts of money to spend, emphasis was now placed on large-scale, high-technology infrastructure and industrial development projects. The Pérez administration’s Fifth National Plan, conceived during the mid-1970s and scheduled to become operative in 1977, accordingly called for some US$52.5 billion in investments over a five-year period.
In an effort to minimize the bureaucratic entanglements entailed by such a major increase in the fiscal responsibilities of the central government, funding was instead vested in autonomous and semi-autonomous entities. The four years following the 1973-74 oil boom saw the creation of no less than 163 such entities, including textile and lumber companies, a hydroelectric consortium, shipbuilding firms, and a national steamship company and airline. By 1978 the budget outlay for state-owned enterprises and decentralized agencies was 50 percent higher than the federal budget.
The centerpiece of this state-directed program of industrial development was the massive industrial complex at Ciudad Guayana. Located near major deposits of iron and other raw materials in the vast Guiana highlands, the complex was placed under the supervision of the Venezuelan Corporation of Guayana (Corporación Venezolana de Guayana–CVG). Ciudad Guayana was developed during the early 1960s as an effort to decentralize industrial development away from Caracas. It attracted considerable private as well as public investment–most notably the Orinoco Steelworks (Siderúrgica del Orinoco–Sidor), a CVG subsidiary–and grew quickly; by 1979 its population reached 300,000. During the Pérez administration, Sidor benefited from massive new investments, including a US$4 billion project designed to increase its refining capacity five-fold. The government erected modern, large-scale aluminum and bauxite refineries and massive hydroelectric projects with a vision of converting the Orinoco Basin into a Venezuelan Rhineland.
In January 1975, the government cancelled the iron ore concessions of subsidiaries of two United States-owned firms (United States Steel Corporation and Bethlehem Steel) operating in the Guayana highlands. It was not an unexpected move, as local ownership of raw-material extraction had been frequently addressed during the 1973 presidential campaign. The nationalization process took place smoothly: the two companies accepted US$101 million in compensation and agreed to sign one-year management contracts to provide continuity in the operation of the mines during the transition.
Congressional approval, the following August, of a bill nationalizing the petroleum industry had also been anticipated. The fourteen foreign oil companies involved did not object vigorously to the move; the Venezuelan government had granted them no new concessions since 1960, and their share of the profits from the petroleum they extracted had dropped to 30 percent. The US$1 billion they received, though only a fraction of the replacement cost of the assets they surrendered (including 12 oil refineries with an aggregate capacity of 1.5 million barrels of oil per day, along with some 12,500 oil wells), was generally believed to be as fair and generous a compensation as possible under the circumstances. The fourteen foreign firms were consolidated into four autonomous entities, modeled after the four largest of the foreign enterprises, and placed under the administrative supervision of the Venezuelan Petroleum Corporation (Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A.–PDVSA), a holding company fashioned out of the CVP. General Rafael Alfonso Ravard, who had managed the CVG in a highly efficient, technocratic manner quite atypical of most government ventures, was chosen to head PDVSA.
The Pérez administration had devised its grandiose Fifth National Plan under the assumption that rising oil prices would boost government revenue throughout the 1970s. Instead, Venezuela’s oil income leveled off in 1976, then began to decline in 1978. Foreign commercial banks, awash with petrodollars deposited by other OPEC nations, provided loans to make up the shortfall so that Venezuela’s development program could proceed on schedule. On the one hand, the banks saw oil-rich Venezuela as an excellent credit risk, while on the other hand, the autonomy of Venezuela’s state firms allowed them to borrow excessively, independent of central government accounting. To expedite their receipt of this external financing, the autonomous entities opted for mainly short-term loans, which carried higher rates of interest. As a result, by 1978 the public-sector foreign debt had grown to nearly US$12 billion, a five-fold increase in only four years. An estimated 70 to 80 percent of this new debt had been contracted by the decentralized public administration.
Between the vast increase in oil revenues before 1976 and the immense foreign debt incurred by the government, the Pérez administration spent more money (in absolute terms) in 5 years than had all other governments during the previous 143 years combined. Perhaps inevitably, a lot of money was squandered in mismanagement and corruption. Despite expansive overseas programs to train managers of the new public entities, the lack of competent personnel to execute the government’s many sophisticated endeavors became painfully evident. The delays and myriad cost overruns that ensued formed the backdrop of frequent malfeasance by public officials. Overpayment of contractors, with kickbacks to the contracting officers, was perhaps the most rampant form of graft. Featherbedding and the padding of payrolls with nonworking or nonexistent employees also became common practices.
By the time of the December 1978 elections, these issues had brought serious doubts to the voters as to the competence and the probity of the AD government. AD’s candidate Luis Piñerua Ordaz lost to COPEI’s Luis Herrera Campins by a little over 3 percentage points. The loss had less to do with the program presented by either candidate than with the public’s rejection of the free-spending, populist style of President Pérez. Otherwise, the 1978 campaign was most notable for the vast sums spent by the two major candidates on North American media consultants. More than any previous electoral contest, this campaign was conducted on television, increasing the relative importance of image over substance. The two major parties captured almost 90 percent of the
total vote; a divided left shared 8.5 percent of the total among four candidates. In the subsequent June 1979 municipal council elections, however, the MAS, MEP, PCV, and MIR presented a united slate that captured a more impressive 18.5 percent of the vote.
Announcing during his March 1979 inaugural address that Venezuela could not continue as a "nation that consumes rivers of whiskey and oil," President Herrera promised to assume an austere posture toward government fiscal concerns. Public spending, including consumer subsidies, was ordered cut, and interest rates were increased to encourage savings. When the Iranian Revolution and the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War caused oil prices to jump from US$17 per barrel in 1979 to US$28 in 1980, however, Herrera abandoned his austerity measures before they had had a chance to yield results.
Early on in his term of office, President Herrera also pledged to pursue policies aimed at reviving the moribund private sector. The first of these measures, however, the elimination of price controls, only contributed further to rising inflation. As with his commitment to austerity, the president failed to persist in his pledge to business; yielding to political pressures from the AD-dominated Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela–CTV), in October 1979 the administration approved sizable wage increases. Meanwhile, the number of those employed by state-owned enterprises and autonomic agencies, which Herrera had promised to streamline and make more efficient, proliferated instead. The administration initiated, among other projects, a huge coal and steel complex in the state of Zulia, a new natural gas plant with 1,000 kilometers of pipeline, a new railroad from Caracas to the coast, and a bridge linking the Caribbean Isla de Margarita with the mainland, running in the process a deficit of some US$8 billion between 1979 and 1982. A retired Venezuelan diplomat, writing in The Miami Herald in 1983, noted that, "There must be examples of worse fiscal management than that of Venezuela in the last eight or nine years, but I am not aware of them."
The lack of confidence in President Herrera’s economic management by the local business community contributed significantly to a precipitous decline in the growth of real gross domestic product from an annual average of 6.1 percent between 1974 and 1978 to a sickly -1.2 percent between 1979 and 1983. Unemployment hovered around 20 percent throughout the early 1980s.
An unexpected softening of oil prices during late 1981 triggered further fiscal problems. World demand for oil–on which the Venezuelan government depended for some two-thirds of its revenues–continued to decline as the market became glutted with oil from newly exploited deposits in Mexico and the North Sea. The resumption of large-scale independent borrowing by the decentralized public administration came amidst publicly aired disagreements among various officials as to the magnitude of the foreign debt. Not until 1983 did outside analysts agree on an approximate figure of US$32 billion.
Compounding growing balance of payments difficulties, rumors of an impending monetary devaluation precipitated a wave of private capital flight overseas in early 1983. While the Central Bank of Venezuela (Banco Central de Venezuela–BCV) president argued with the finance and planning ministers over what measures to adopt to meet the growing crisis, some US$2 billion left the country during January and February alone. At the end of February, the government at last announced a system of foreign exchange controls and a complicated three-tier exchange system. Under this system, the public sector retained the existing rate of US$1=B4.3, selling bolívars to the private sector at a higher rate of US$1=B6.0 or more, while a free-floating rate was established for tourism, "nonessential" imports (luxury items), and other purposes. At the same time, price controls were reinstated to control inflation. The annual increase in consumer prices, which had hit a peak of 21.6 percent in 1980, fell to 6.3 percent for 1983.
Seeking a way out of the dismal economic situation, the Herrera administration decided to transfer a greater share of ever-growing government expenses to PDVSA. The Central Bank of Venezuela appropriated some US$4.5 billion of PDVSA’s reserves to pay the foreign debt, thereby throwing the petroleum corporation’s autonomy to the wind. Partisan politics began to play a larger role in the selection of members of PDVSA’s board of directors. In September 1983, Ravard was forced out as head of PDVSA and replaced by Humberto Calderón Berti, who as minister of energy had spearheaded the effort to bind the oil giant closer to the central government. The rapid politicization of PDVSA drew criticism both at home and abroad and cost the government credibility as well as its good credit rating with foreign banks. The unceremonious firing of the highly respected Ravard was condemned by both candidates for the December presidential election and was reversed by the new administration the following February.
By historical standards, the 1983 electoral campaign was a dull affair. Enjoying a substantial lead in opinion polls from the start, AD’s Jaime Lusinchi coasted to an easy victory over former president Caldera, who was burdened with both the miserable record of the outgoing COPEI administration and the undisguised hostility of his fellow copeyano, President Herrera. Lusinchi, a physician with no previous administrative experience, ran a campaign that focused on the failings of the Herrera administration, and won the contest on December 4 with 56.8 percent of the valid vote, the highest percentage gained by a candidate since the dawn of the democratic era in 1958. Caldera gained 34.9 percent, while the combined vote of the two candidates on the left totaled 7.4 percent.
Although the 1983 elections again demonstrated the predominance of the two major parties, the record of ineffective government (known locally as desgobierno), corruption, an increasing foreign debt, and a growing list of unaddressed socioeconomic problems all contributed to a widespread disillusionment with the political process among the electorate. After twenty-five years of gradual consolidation of democracy in Venezuela, doubts had emerged as to the future stability of the much-cherished democratic political process that had proven so elusive before 1958.
Pérez was reelected to a nonconsecutive term in 1988 and launched an unpopular austerity program. Military officers staged two unsuccessful coup attempts in 1992, while the following year Congress impeached Pérez on corruption charges. President Rafael Caldera Rodríguez was elected in December 1993 to face the 1994 collapse of half of the country’s banking sector, falling oil prices, foreign debt repayment, and inflation. In 1997, the government announced an expansion of gold and diamond mining to reduce reliance on oil.
Leftist president Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías took office in 1999, pledging political and economic reforms to give the poor a greater share of the country’s oil wealth. A constituent assembly was formed to rewrite the constitution in July 1999, followed by the creation of a constitutional assembly made up of Chavez’s allies that replaced the democratically elected Congress. Chavez’s assumption of greater power prompted charges that he is establishing a left-wing dictatorship. Chavez was reelected to a six-year term in July 2000. Troops were called in to quell serious protests over the election in several cities. In 2000 Chavez visited other OPEC countries, becoming the first foreign head of state to visit Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War. He is close to President Fidel Castro of Cuba, which receives Venezuelan oil at reduced prices.
In December 2001, business and labor organizations held a work stoppage to protest Chavez’s increasingly authoritarian government. In April 2002, tensions reached a boiling point as workers reduced oil production to protest Chavez’s
policies. Following a massive anti-Chavez demonstration during which 12 people were killed, a coalition of business and military leaders forced Chavez from power. But international criticism of the coup, especially in Latin America, and an outpouring of support from the president’s followers returned Chavez to power just two days later. After the coup, Chavez remained highly popular among the poor, despite the desperate state of the economy. Venezuelan labor unions, business organizations, the media, and a good part of the military remained substantially less enchanted.
Beginning in early December 2002, a general strike was called by business and labor leaders. By January 2003 it had virtually brought the economy, including the oil industry, to a halt. Strike leaders pledged to continue until Chavez resigned or agreed to early elections. But in February 2003, after nine weeks, the strikers conceded defeat. In August 2003, a petition with 3.2 million signatures was delivered to the country’s election commission, demanding a recall referendum on Chavez. The Chavez government challenged the referendum process rigorously, and petitions submitted in September 2003 and February 2004 were rejected as invalid. The electoral board finally accepted a petition in June 2004 and scheduled the referendum for August 15. Chavez, who had been shoring up his standing with the Venezuelan poor during the delays, won the referendum with an overwhelming 58% of the vote. The opposition alleged fraud, but international observers confirmed that there had been no irregularities. Chavez’s hand was
clearly strengthened, and by the spring of 2005, his popularity rating reached 70%, due in large part to his social spending programs. In December 2005 parliamentary elections, Chávez’s Fifth Republic Movement won 114 of 167 seats, and the remaining seats were won by his allies. The opposition boycotted the election, maintaining they could not trust the pro-Chavez National Electoral
Council. President Chávez won reelection in December 2006 with 63% of the vote.