An abortive plan for German settlement from German Habsburg lands, to be financed through the Fugger bankers, never came to fruition. By the middle of the 16th century, there were still few more than 2,000 Europeans in what is now Venezuela. The opening of gold mines at Yaracuy led to the introduction of slavery, at first with the indigenous population, then with imported Africans. The first real success of the colony was the raising of livestock, much helped by the grassy plains known as llanos. The society that developed as a result — a handful of Spanish landowners and widely-dispersed Indian herdsmen on Spanish-introduced horses — was so primitive that it recalls feudalism, certainly a powerful concept in the 16th century Spanish imagination, and perhaps more fruitful economic comparison to the latifundia of antiquity.
During the 16th and 17th century, the city which constitute today's Venezuela were relatively neglected. The Viceroyalties of New Spain and Peru (located on the sites formerly occupied by the capital cities of the Aztecs and Incas) were more interested in their nearby gold and silver mines than in the agricultural societies of Venezuela. Responsibility for the Venezuelan territories shifted between the two Viceroyalties.
In the 18th century, a second Venezuelan society formed along the coast when cocoa plantations were established, this time manned by much larger importations of African slaves. Quite a number of black slaves were also to be found in the haciendas of the grassy llanos. Most of the Amerindians who still survived had been driven to the plains and jungles to the south where the only ones who took an interest in them were Spanish friars, especially the Franciscans or Capucins, who compiled grammars and small lexicons for some of their languages. The most important friar misión, the name for an area where the monks were active, was created in San Tomé in Guayana.
The Province of Venezuela was under the jurisdiction of the Viceroyalty of New Granada (created in 1717). The Province was then transformed into the Captaincy General of Venezuela in 1777. The Compañía Guipuzcoana de Caracas held a close monopoly on trade with Europe. The Guipuzcoana company did a commendable job of stimulating the Venezuelan economy, especially in fostering the cultivation of cacao beans, which became Venezuela’s principal export. It opened Venezuelan ports to foreign commerce, but this was recognizing a fait accompli. Like no other Spanish American dependency, Venezuela had more contacts with Europe through the British and French islands in the Caribbean. In an almost surreptitious, though legal, manner, Caracas itself had become an intellectual powerhouse. It had its own university since 1721, where you could learn Latin and follow courses in medicine and engineering, apart of course from the humanities. Its most illustrious graduate was Andrés Bello, the greatest Spanish American polymath in his time. In Chacao, a town to the east of Caracas, there flourished a school of music whose director Jose Angel Lamas produced a few but impressive compositions according to strictest 18th century European canons.
Some Venezuelans began to grow restive under colonial control toward the end of the eighteenth century. The Spanish neglect of its Venezuelan colony contributed to that its intellectuals were more avid for learning and had more external sources of information than other more important Spanish dependencies, not excluding the viceroyalties, although one should not go overboard on this point for a solid education was only available to the mantuanos, a Venezuelan name for the white Creole elite. Another name for this class was grandes cacaos, named after the source of their wealth. (To this day in Venezuela the term is used for a presumptuous person.) The mantuanos were nothing if not extremely presumptuous and overbearing and overzealous in affirming their privileges against the pardo (mixed-race) majority of the population. The first organized conspiracy against the colonial regime in Venezuela occurred in 1797, organized by Manuel Gual and José María España, and was directly inspired by the French Revolution, but was put down with the collaboration of the mantuanos because it promoted radical social changes.
It was European events that gestated Venezuela’s declaration of independence. The Napoleonic Wars in Europe not only weakened Spain's imperial power, but also put Britain unofficially on the side of the independence movement. In May 1808, Napoleon asked for and received the abdication of Ferdinand VII and the confirmation of his father Charles IV's abdication a few months earlier. Napoleon then made his brother Joseph Bonaparte, King of Spain. That marked the beginning of Spain’s own War of Independence from French hegemony and partial occupation, before the Spanish American wars of independence even began. The focal point of the Spanish political resistance was the Supreme Central Junta, which formed itself to govern in the name of Ferdinand. The first major defeat that Napoleonic France suffered was at the Battle of Bailén, in Andalusia. (At this battle Pablo Morillo, future commander of the army that invaded New Granada and Venezuela; Emeterio Ureña, an anti-independence officer in Venezuela; and Jose de San Martin, the future Liberator of Argentina and Chile, fought side-by-side against the French General Pierre Dupont.) Despite this victory, the situation soon reversed it self and the French advanced into southern Spain and the Spanish government had to retreat to the island redout of Cádiz. Here the Supreme Central Junta dissolved itself and set up a five-person Regency to handle the affairs of state until the Cortes Generales could be convened.
Word of these events soon reached Caracas, but it wasn’t until 19 April 1810 that its cabildo (city council) decided to follow the example of the Spanish provinces two years earlier. Other provincial capitals--Barcelona, Cumaná, Merida, Trujillo, among them--followed suit. Although the new Junta of Caracas had self-appointed elite members who claimed to represent the pardos, the new government in the long-run faced the challenge of maintaining the alliance pardos, free blacks and even slaves. Given recent history these groups still had grievances against the mantuanos. A segment of the mantuanos, among them a 27-year-old Simon Bolivar, the future Liberator, saw the creation of the Junta as a step toward outright independence.
The Venezuelan War of Independence ensued. It ran concurrently with that of New Granada. On December 17, 1819 the Congress of Angostura established Gran Colombia's independence from Spain. After several more years of war, which killed half of Venezuela's white population, the country achieved independence from Spain in 1821 under the leadership of its most famous son, Simón Bolívar. Venezuela, along with what are now Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador, was part of the Republic of Gran Colombia until 1830, when Venezuela separated and became a sovereign country.
Venezuela needed, or at least that’s what the mantuanos believed, a veteran and prestigious military leader and this they found in Francisco de Miranda. Miranda, who was one of the distinguished products of the 18th-century Caracas enlightenment, had been away from the colony for more than a quarter century, served in the French Revolutionary armies and had lately been residing in Britain, from where he had been trying to instigate Venezuela's independence. The establishment of the Caracas Junta and the break in communications with Spain, permitted him to return unmolested to Venezuela, despite the reservations of some of the Junta members.
Miranda’s father, a Canary islander, had been snubbed by the mantuanos when he formed a Spanish militia. His son Francisco emigrated to Spain, where he obtained a royal officer’s commission. From 1772 to 1783, he fought loyally for Spain in Africa and in the taking of Pensacola, Florida, in 1781 in the context of Spain’s support for the American War of Independence. After being suspected of disloyalty in Havana, Miranda joined the French revolutionary army with the rank of general and his command of the artillery decided the issue in the crucial battle of Valmy in 1792. Here again Miranda was suspected of not being unconditional and he was jailed but survived the Reign of Terror and was exonerated in 1795. It was at this time that Miranda began to dream of creating an independent South American republic, for which he invented the name of Colombia, in honor of Columbus. He personally designed the yellow, blue, and red flag, which are now the national colors used by Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador. In 1806, Miranda invaded Coro, but he could not even sway the population of this small city and he retreated to live in London in a well-appointed house in Fitzrovia. The Caracas Junta sent a mission, which included Bolivar and Andrés Bello, to negotiate for Britain's recognition. Its members also met with Miranda and urged him to come and prepare his native land for war. Miranda accepted and he returned with Bolivar. Andres Bello, who never laid claim on martial ability, remained in London. (He devoted his time to studying, teaching, and writing and eventually emigrated to independent Chile a decade later, where he became a prominent cultural and juridical figure.)
Back in Venezuela, Miranda and Bolívar were pushing for independence, which was declared on 5th July 1811 by a congress of the Venezuelan provinces, which after 1810 had become nine after several regions established themselves as full provinces. The situation in Venezuela, though seemingly close to consolidating independence, was much more fraught. Of the four provinces of the former captaincy general, two, Guayana and Maracaibo, along with the district of Coro (which would prove pivotal), did not favor independence at all. In addition there were no signs that the important ‘’pardos’’ anywhere in Venezuela were enthusiastic about independence, despite attempts to enlist their support. Although the young republic had a legal civilian president, Cristobal Mendoza, Miranda became military generalissimo, after a full civil war with royalist areas started. Ultimately what the First Republic counted on were the mantuanos, who had an uneasy relationship with the former émigré. In Coro, a frigate captain in the Spanish marines, Domingo de Monteverde, gathered a large force of disaffected people from republican areas and marched towards the central cities of Valencia and Caracas. With the rank of colonel in the republican army, Bolívar had put in command of the fortress of Puerto Cabello. Bolívar should have intercepted Monteverde, but he lost control of the fortress to royalist prisoners held there. After this Boívar sailed to La Guaira, the port of Caracas. By July 1812, Miranda took a hard look about him and realized that the republic could not last much longer. The majority of the population, especially the pardos, did not support the Republic and the small mantuano army in Caracas was running short of ordnance. He opened negotiations with Monteverde and had worked out terms of surrender by the end of July, which should have allowed all former republicans to go undisturbed into exile, if they so chose. But when Miranda was about to leave Venezuela from La Guaira, Bolivar and other officers captured and handed him over to the royalists, accusing Miranda of trying to flee with part of the government treasury. With act and with the help of a republican-turned-royalist friend, Antonio Fernández de León, the Marqués de Casa León, Bolívar obtained a writ of safe passage from Monteverde himself. (The marqués had advised Miranda during the negotiations with Monteverde.) Bolívar sailed to Cartagena, which was still in patrot hands. From that moment on, the future independence of Venezuela rested on the shoulders of the young Bolívar, still shy of thirty years of age.
In Spain, the French had been driven out and the restored Ferdinand VII sent a large expeditionary force to Venezuela and New Granada under Pablo Morillo, who had distinguished himself during Spain’s War of Independence. It is often said that the Venezuelan llanos were swarming with caudillos like Boves, but this is an exaggeration. Boves was the only significant pro-Spain caudillo and he was acting in concert with Francisco Tomás Morales, who was a regular officer of Spain. In the Battle of Urica, Boves was killed and Morales took command and carried out mopping up operations against the remaining patriot resistance, which included the capture and execution of Ribas. As was still common in the early 19th century, Morales had his head boiled in oil (to preserve it) and sent to Caracas. (See the Execution of Miguel Hidalgo in Mexico.) Morillo arrived in Venezuela and began operations with Morales. Royalist forces under Morillo and Morales captured Cartagena and Bogotá in 1816. Before leaving for New Granada Morillo had decommissioned most of the irregular forces that had fought under Boves, except those that he took to New Granada. With little prospects, some pardos and llaneros began to join the rebellions that were breaking out against Spanish rule in the broad plains of southern Venezuela. In the meantime, Bolivar chose to sail to Jamaica to enlist aid, which the British refused to provide. From there, he went to Haiti, which had been the first Latin American republic to become independent. With the support of the Haitian president Alexandre Pétion and with the naval aid of Luis Brión, another émigré, who was a merchant from Curazao, Bolivar returned to Margarita Island, a secure republican redoubt, but his command of the republican forces was still not firm. Mariño, who had come back with Bolívar from Haiti, headed his own expeditions and succeeded temporarily capturing Cumaná in 1817. With Brión supplying a small fleet, Bolivar sailed west along the Venezuelan coast to Ocumare de la Costa (the Expedition of Los Cayos), where, in fulfillment of Pétion’s request, he officially proclaimed the end of slavery (although this went unheeded). Morales, back in Venezuela after subduing New Granada, attacked the republican expeditionary force with an army that vastly outnumbered the republicans. Bolívar fled, sailing once again sailed to Haiti with Brión. However, Piar and Gregor MacGregor, a Scottish soldier of fortune, who had previously been active in New Granada, managed to escape with their forces into the interior of the country, defeating Moreles at El Juncal in September 1816 before moving south to Guayana.
Bolívar and Brión returned and tried to capture Barcelona 1817, where they were repulsed by the Spaniards. In the meantime, Piar and Mariño had occupied defenceless Angostura (a city where the Orinoco River is at its narrowest and deepest, hence its name, and is today Ciudad Bolívar), to where Bolivar headed and was chosen as supreme leader of the independence movement. (It was at time that Boílvar ordered the addition of a new star for Guayana to the seven stars on the Venezuelan flag, which represented the number of provinces that originally had favored independence. Since Bolívar plays a central role in the symbolism of the current Venezuelan government led by Chavez, this long-forgotten change was revived in the 2006 revision to the flag.) Once in Guayana, Bolívar quickly cashiered Piar, who had been trying (or was accused of trying—historians still debate this) to form a pardo force of his own, by having him arrested and executed after a court martial in which Brión was one of the judges. British veterans of the Napoleonic wars begun arriving in Venezuela, where they fomred the nucleus of what later became known as the British Legion (although it was really mainly Irish and some gossipy Germans). Morillo returned to Caracas and Morales was given troops to dominate eastern Venezuela, which he did successfully. Francisco de Paula Santander, a New Granadan who had retreated to the llanos after Morillo’s invasion, met with Bolivar and agreed to join forces. Morillo’s other lieutenant, the second in command of the expeditionary force, Miguel de la Torre, was ordered to put down a significant rebellion in the llanos of Apure led by José Antonio Páez. At the time in the Southern Cone of South America, José de San Martín had concluded the liberation of Chile with the essential support of the Chilean Bernardo O'Higgins.
The year of 1818 was a stalemate with the patriots based in Angostura and free-wheeling in part of the llanos, and Morillo entrenched in Caracas, triumphant in eastern Venezuela, and operating in the llanos as far as Apure. This is the time during which Marx claims that Bolivar dilly-dallied and lost one skirmish after another, also saying that European officers in Angostura were egging him on to attack the center of Venezuela, which Bolivar did attempt but was defeated at La Puerta. At the time it is true that, under James Rooke, there were over 1,000 European soldiers in Venezuela. But Morillo had larger forces, and not just of Spanish line troops but also of pardos still loyal to the Spanish crown.
In 1819, Bolivar proclaimed the creation of Great Colombia with Venezuela and New Granada. New volunteers arrived in Venezuela, though most, like those that preceded them, were in essence mercenaries probably under the illusion that there were fortunes to be made in Venezuela, which was hardly the case. There is no evidence that the British government was backing them, but since Spain was no longer a British ally, it wasn’t hindering them either. In Europe, generally, Bolivar’s name was known as was the Spanish American movement for independence, which had the sympathy of every liberal-minded person, as did the independence of Greece, then also in the process of emancipation. Morillo had his hands full and pardos were starting to look towards patriot leaders. Campaigns in eastern Venezuela began turning the tide for independence and in the llanos Paez defeated Morillo and Morales in Apure. This cleared the way for Bolivar and Santander to invade New Granada, where, in Pantano de Vargas, the Spaniards were defeated in a battle in which the British Legion played a central role and its commander, Rooke, was killed in action. In the battle of Boyacá (1819), Spanish power was crushed in New Granada, except in the south. Paez occupied Barinas and, from New Granada, Bolivar invaded Venezuela.
After a certain point, the Venezuelan war of independence cannot be disentangled from the Argentine war of independence, even though they occurred through parallel but separate and distant political processes and only converged in Perú. In Buenos Aires, a junta similar to that of Caracas had been established on 25 May 1810, but the interior of Argentina, which was still called La Plata (silver)—the name “Argentina”, from silver in Latin, was first adopted in 1826— either out of royalism or fear of the capital remained fractious until Gen. Jose de San Martin brought it to heel between 1814 and 1817.
In Spain in 1820, liberal military, under Rafael Riego, established a constitutional monarchy, which precluded new Spanish invasions of America. Before being recalled to Spain, Morillo signed a truce with Bolivar. Miguel de la Torre was left in command of the royalist forces. The truce ended in 1821 and Bolivar had all available forces converge on Carabobo, a hilly plain near Valencia, to face de la Torre and Morales. The defeat of the Spanish right, which is credited to the British Legion, whose commander Thomas Farrier fell, decided the battle. Later memoirs by the European legionnaires said that Venezuelan troops fled in this action, but, as Venezuelan losses, including two important commanders, were high, this is a fabrication. The remnants of the royalists tried to resist in Maracaibo and Puerto Cabello but by 1824 all had been reduced by Mariano Montilla and Jose Prudencio Padilla. After Carabobo, a congress met in Cúcuta, Santander’s birthplace, and approved a federalist constitution for Great Colombia.
The liberation of Quito obeyed both strategic and jurisdictional reasons. There was a Quito-Pasto-Popayán royalist axis which was a thorn on the side of Great Colombia, more accurately its bottom. Jurisdictionally, Quito was a dependency of the viceroyalty of New Granada and Bolivar always believed that the new Spanish American nations should keep to the approximate borders they had under colonial jurisdiction, which was not a question so much of aggrandizing Great Colombia as of trying to prevent future border disputes. There was an additional factor and it was that Guayaquil, Quito’s port, had declared its independence and needed support. Peruvian soldiers under orders from San Martin, then occupying Lima, had arrived in Guayaquil. A young Venezuelan general, Antonio Jose de Sucre, had shown his mettle in previous campaigns and Bolivar sent him with troops by sea to Guayaquil while he invaded from the north. Bolivar defeated the royalists early in 1822. But Pasto was opposing his advance. After failing twice to march directly on Quito, Sucre occupied Cuenca and from there, leading a coalition army in which probably Colombians and British or Irish were a marginal majority—it must be kept in mind that most of both the patriot and royalist sides usually never concentrated above brigade size (5,000 men)—he marched on Quito and occupied the side of the Pinchincha volcano facing the city. The Spanish commander tried to outclimb him but the patriots in the end got the best of their enemies in hand to hand combat. In both Bolivar’s and Sucre’s advances, the British Legion participated importantly, although it was definitely not the winner of the battles. Sucre entered Quito and then turned north and repressed the extremely recalcitrant Pasto royalists, making it possible for Bolivar to join forces with him.
San Martin had not invaded the interior of Perú where Spanish viceroy Jose de la Serna had his forces intact. When the Colombian liberation of Quito had been accomplished, he sailed to Guayaquil for a “summit of Liberators” with Bolivar. The two leaders met in secret and there has been much useless speculation about what they talked about. Some believe that San Martin wanted to claim Quito; others that he sought Bolivar’s help to defeat the Spaniards in Perú. San Martin was a strictly military man. He did not like intrigues and he was not prominent in the political infighting in Buenos Aires. As he was uncomfortable in the political world of Lima, which had not been especially keen on liberation, it is likely that he did ask Bolivar to finish the war in Perú, upon which both generals were agreed on its strategic necessity for the consolidation of South American independence. As the viceroyalty of La Plata, from which the independent United Provinces of La Plata had emerged, had once been the administrative center for Upper Perú (today’s Bolivia), and additionally there had been two previous Platean invasions of the region, it is also likely that he indicated his country’s interest in Upper Perú. Be that as it may, San Martin left Lima, went back to Buenos Aires, and shortly later emigrated to London, where he spent the rest of his life.
Bolivar was summoned to Lima, which is also likely as Peruvian aristocrats by now knew that their loyalty to Spain could become a drawback once Perú had become independent. The Spaniards still occupied the port of Trujillo in northern Perú, which Colombian forces secured (1823). Bolivar landed in El Callao, the port of Lima, but skirted the fort where a Spanish force was holed up and only surrendered in 1826. In Lima itself he was named dictator. Bolivar and Sucre went after the royalist forces which they beat in the battle of Junin (1824), which consisted of cavalry charges on both sides. Bolivar went back to Lima and Sucre chased La Serna’s army and defeated it in the battle of Ayacucho, considered the landmark victory of South American independence for it involved the highest number of troops ever engaged in the wars of independence (possibly around 20,000 in all). While these events were going in South America, in the USA, which already had 42 years as an independent state, president James Monroe enunciated in 1823 the doctrine that bears his name declaring the Western Hemisphere, except Canada, its area of influence and warning European powers not to encroach on it. Bolivar’s response to American claims of hegemony was the convocation of the Congress of Panamá, which was held in June-July 1826 and which the USA did not attend. Sucre went on to Upper Perú, apparently without Bolivar’s authorization, and he defeated feeble local resistance and created the Republic of Bolivia (1825), named after Bolivar. Bolivar made public the letter in which he reprimanded Sucre, but he wrote the constitution for Bolivia, which he considered his legislative masterpiece. Sucre became president of Bolivia.
Although Bolivar was feted in Lima and his political ascendancy was never disputed, neither Perú nor Bolivia were hospitable to Colombians. Peruvians themselves were probably a majority on both sides in the battle of Ayacucho. Besides, in Venezuela, nominally a province of Great Colombia, Paez, backed by the former mantuanos (and now the ruling clique in Caracas), tentatively initiated the separation of Venezuela in 1826. Bolivar returned post haste to Bogotá, where vicepresident Santander complained about the Venezuelan insubordination. Bolivar traveled to Caracas and seemingly put Paez in his place (1827). Sucre left Bolivia the same year. Santander was disappointed and on top of that he opposed Bolivar’s plans to implant the Bolivian constitution in Great Colombia, for which a convention was convoked in the town of Ocaña. Thus began the rivalry between Santander and Bolivar. In 1828, in view of the political opposition he was facing both in Venezuela and New Granada and that his Great Colombia was coming apart, Bolivar named himself dictator. He escaped an assassination attempt with the help of his mistress, Manuelita Sanz, a lovely pardo woman from Quito. Santander was exiled but Jose Prudencio Padilla, the pardo general who had helped corner Morales after Carabobo in Maracaibo, was executed instead. The Peruvians were now emboldened and invaded Guayaquil. Bolivar had to return to Quito in 1829 to repulse them, which didn’t take much doing for the invasion fizzled before Bolivar arrived. Back in Bogotá, Bolivar pleaded for unity and, though he had offered to resign various times during his career, this time, when Great Colombia had a new constitution (not Bolivar’s Bolivian one) and a president, Joaquin Mosquera, Bolivar finally did resign in 1830. At that point, Paez not only had declared the second independence of Venezuela but promoted a campaign of vituperation against Bolivar. Seeing the state of things, Quito followed suit, under Venezuelan general Juan Jose Flores, and Sucre was assassinated while riding alone through a thick forest on his way to that city. A downcast Bolivar rode to the coast with the intention of leaving the country, but he was truly exhausted and very sick. He died in Santa Marta, Colombia, at the age of 47.
How does this summary on Bolivar stack up to “Marx’s Bolivar”? Bolivar was not cowardly in any possible sense of the word, but, as military commander, he tended to be cautious. He was fond of power despite his protestations that he only wanted to be an “ordinary citizen”. And he also relished the tributes that were showered on him. It is no secret that he was a ladies’ man. He was a good dancer and easy with compliments. Although this story is an obvious fake and there is no conceivable reason why its Peruvian author, Ricardo Palma, a pardo nostalgic for the viceroyalty, should have invented it, it tells that, when Bolivar first entered Lima, there was a maiden waiting in his chamber. Afterwards, a bloody cloth was waved aloft to the people as evidence of her virginity and Bolivar’s virility, an odd display which, it has been said, was something of a ritual in rural Sicily. But Palma goes a bit further and claims that this cloth was the origin of Perú’s flag, which is white in the center and red on both sides. The report of Bolivar sacking Bogotá has no grounds. We already explained that Bolivar besieged Cartagena because it refused to obey Bogotá. Bolivar did not lose any significant battle against Morillo. The skirmishes in the llanos during Morillo’s offensive obviously indicate that he was engaging in guerrilla warfare, which is what Spaniards had done against France. Bolivar only retreated when the odds were too high against him. Cowards are not usually endowed with a tenacious will, and this no one begrudges Bolivar. The foreign legionnaires under his orders did yeoman duty but by themselves they never would have won a single battle, and Bolivar always gave them their due. Bolivar’s aide de camp during his campaigns after Angostura was the Irishman Daniel O’Leary, who also compiled the largest number of accounts and documents about Bolivar and the Colombian wars of independence. Bolivar never supported Venezuela’s separation from Great Colombia. Aside from proclamations, he never kept his word to Pétion to free the slaves, but that would have been as if Robert E. Lee, who freed his own slaves, had tried to impose their emancipation in the Confederacy. Bolivar did seem have something about pardos, but Piar was engaging in sedition when Venezuela most needed unity and it is certain that Padilla, who was also pardo, did participate in the plot to kill Bolivar.
Contrary to what is often said, the Venezuelan 19th century after independence was not one continuous civil war during which one caudillo followed another without rhyme or reason and the victors liquidated the defeated as a matter of course. As in all human affairs everywhere, there were patterns of political ascendancy, downfalls, and resurgences. The same geographical reasons that had made possible the formation of Venezuela as a distinct national entity separate from New Granada during the colonial period, also made Venezuela a country difficult to govern. Venezuela had various regions: the Andes, the plains that stretched from the borders with New Granada to the Orinoco delta, Guayana, the Maracaibo basin, the Coro region, the Barquisimeto region, and central Venezuela formed by the axis Caracas-Valencia and its surrounding areas. The llanos were further subdivided into the eastern part which included the Cumaná region (and the island of Margarita by extension), the Apure llanos, and the central and western llanos. Except for the llanos, where there were no geographical barriers between them, the other regions were separated from each other by either outright mountain ranges or rough mountainous terrains. The distinction between the eastern and the central and western llanos was due to political precedents and circumstances. The eastern llanos, and Guayana, had practically fought their own war of independence within the over all war of independence. They also had outlets to the sea. The central and western llanos, which politically were considered extensions of Caracas (except Barinas), had various accesses to the central region. The Apure llanos were a prolongation of the central llanos. The western llanos, with the capital in Barinas, had been a province separate from Caracas, but they were in effect (the same as Apure) part of the same social, military, and political landscape.
Upon independence, Venezuela was possibly the most impoverished country in Spanish America. In 1800, the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt had estimated the population of the province of Venezuela at around one million. A calculation made by Agustin Codazzi, an Italian officer and engineer who chose Venezuela as his homeland, put the population at 810,000 Whether these figures are reliable or not, it is undeniable that after over a decade of incessant warfare, Venezuela’s population must have gone down, if not from the wars themselves, from the unstable social conditions they engendered. Venezuela had no means of communication outside of the caminos reales (royal roads) from the colonial period. There existed a stone-paved camino real from Caracas to La Guaira and there were earthen roads that crisscrossed central Venezuela from Caracas to Valencia and from the center to the llanos. In the llanos themselves, there were the trails made by cattle-herders from one town to another. In the rest of Venezuela, roads were no better than mule tracks that followed lines of least resistance. Caracas had started re-building itself when the war for independence ended, but by all measurable social standards the city had deteriorated from its colonial apogee. It had no public buildings of any note. Its cathedral would have been considered a minor church in México. In terms of social organization, Venezuela had inherited the colonial distinctions between the minority ruling whites, the majority un-enfranchised pardos, and the slaves. Government was mostly a local affair. The country was 90% or more rural and the regional caudillos exerted their authority from their own large land holdings through the small towns that acted mostly in name as capitals in all the regions. Despite its relative insignificance as a city, Caracas was the symbol of political power and its control was considered to some extent legitimating. In brief, Venezuela was not a cohesive country, but the political forces that determined its history were not entirely arbitrary or chaotic.
In the seventy years from 1829 to 1899, by one official tally, Venezuela had thirty presidential terms, but this leaves out some transitional presidencies bringing the figure to 41. In reality, there were 28 terms which were not transitional and these were filled by only sixteen presidents. This is not to say that Venezuela was not an unstable country. During the same period, there were at least thirty insurrections, but the majority of these were suppressed. The usual pattern was that some local usually white caudillo would “recruit” an “army” of 100 or more pardos and make a pompous “revolutionary” proclamation. If this caudillo had some measure of charisma, he could put other caudillos on his side and with the total of recruited pardos march on Caracas. Most of the time this pattern did not succeed, but sometimes it did, and when this happened Venezuela had a period of relative political tranquility. A successful caudillo was one who could get other caudillos to put down for him the minor insurrections that cropped up here and there. There were other features of note. In Venezuela, as if the caudillos had a tacit understanding among themselves, there were no political executions with but one minor exception. All a significant caudillo had to fear from failure was either jail, usually short term, or exile. However, these privileges did not extend to the pardos, who were easy to recruit, easy to punish, and easy to forget once a caudillo was in power.
Roughly, the 19th century history of Venezuela can be divided into the following periods: (1) the José Antonio Páez ascendancy (1829-1847), during which he had the support of Carlos Soublette; (2) the Monagas ascendancy (1847-1858); (3) the Great War of the Caudillos (1858-1863); (4) the Federalist period (1863-1870); (5) the Antonio Guzmán Blanco ascendancy, whose main caudillo supporter was Joaquin Crespo (1870-1887); and (6) the civilian presidencies and the Crespo ascendancy (1887-1899).
Páez was a pardo, but he won his spurs during the War of Independence and nobody in Venezuela could contest his right to govern, especially as the white oligarchy in Caracas supported him warmly. Páez once named as his successor the civilian José María Vargas, which provoked the first of the failed insurrections. This is often attributed to a militaristic reaction, but in fact Vargas had royalist antecedents and those who tried to overthrow him were veteran officers of the War of Independence. The i can only hope that she says yes to this dearest encounter leader of the insurrection was José Tadeo Monagas, whose base was the eastern llanos, but as Páez had no effective authority there, Monagas suffered no consequences for his insubordination. Besides Monagas had as much a right as Páez to be considered one of the “liberators” of Venezuela and he had the additional credential that, whereas Páez had turned his back on Bolivar’s Great Colombia, he, at least in principle, had manifested his allegiance to it until its disintegration was irremediable.
Soublette was an honest but lackluster president, in some ways a foil to Páez, and he could not prevent the “election” of Jose Tadeo Monagas to the presidency in 1847. It is the accepted wisdom that all the “elections” that are mentioned as occurring in the Venezuelan 19th century were sham or non-existent, but this is not exactly accurate. There were elections, but these were held at the municipal level and of course the pardos had no vote. This tradition of indirect elections through local councils would last in Venezuela until 1945. There were three Monagas presidents: the elder José Tadeo, the younger José Gregorio (always at the side of his brother, but a competent officer in his own right), and José Ruperto, son of José Tadeo, but he was not president during the Monagas ascendancy but during the Federalist period. Why the eastern llanos were so fertile in caudillos was due to that its economy was open to international trade and the exports from that region (cattle, hides, coffee) were staples of the Venezuelan economy.
The two Monagas brothers were at first respectful of the central Venezuelan oligarchy. But then they dissolved congress and succeeded each other by decree. During his presidency, Jose Gregorio abolished slavery. A reaction against the Monagas was led by Julián Castro from Valencia. He was the first military ruler who had not fought in the War of Independence. Castro was a creature of the Caracas-Valencia oligarchy and not very effectual. During his presidency, there was a proliferation of aspiring caudillos in Caracas itself and he exiled them all. This was what provoked the Great War of the Caudillos, called in Venezuelan historiography the Guerra Federal or the Federalist War, although federalism was not what these men really had in mind. Castro was not competent either as president or as soldier and he handed power to the civilians of the oligarchy, who were soon being overwhelmed by insurrections in the central and western llanos. Páez, who had been exiled by the Monagas, was called backed from the USA, but he was no longer the caudillo he once was and he had to surrender to the leader of the federalists, Juan Crisóstomo Falcón. One result of the War of the Caudillos was that the official denomination of Venezuela was changed from “republic” to the “United States of Venezuela”, a national name it had, as well as the motto “God and Federation”, until a dictator in the mid-20th century changed it back to “republic”.
Falcon had been an excellent caudillo, but he made a feckless president, especially as he was wont to spend a lot of time in his native Coro. He was succeeded by weak presidents from central Venezuela. Jose Ruperto Monagas tried to save the federalist government, but he was no match for the greatest of the guerrilla leaders, Antonio Guzmán Blanco, who had spent much of his public life as Venezuelan ambassador at large. When he came to power, he did not do so in the name of federalism, which he once espoused, but as a liberal. Venezuela was a country of peripheral enclaves, defined by ports through which international commerce was carried on. These enclaves were the source of customs revenues, which, with some foreign loans, were the main fiscal resources of the Venezuelan government. Caracas had its port of La Guaira, to which it had been connected by a railroad. Valencia was linked to Puerto Cabello. Maracaibo constituted an enclave in itself. It was the outlet for coffee, mostly by river and lake Maracaibo from Táchira, in the Venezuelan Andes, and from Colombia. The eastern llanos had an excellent natural harbor near Lecherias, but its potential was not discovered until well into the 20th century with the rise of the oil industry. The telegraph had been introduced since the 1850s, but it went from Caracas to Valencia.
Guzmán Blanco was the most sophisticated Venezuelan president during the 19th century. He was also the most charismatic of the caudillos. He was adept at contracting loans for Venezuela, from which he amassed a small fortune. Guzmán Blanco had ambitious goals for Venezuela. He wanted to make Caracas a mini-Paris and he did build some theaters and a capitol, but these projects were on a very minor scale. He was also good at progressive legislation. He declared education free and obligatory for all Venezuelans, but Venezuela still had no roads, so his decree was wishful thinking. He did build the railroad from Caracas to Valencia and tried in other ways to modernize the country, but the facts were stacked against him in a country of over one million square kilometers with a wild and inhospitable topography and its some 1,200,000 inhabitants living mostly in rural areas. The political stability of Venezuela was principally the doing of his principal lieutenant, Joaquin Crespo, a pardo from the central llanos.
Guzmán Blanco probably got bored of ruling Venezuela and he decided to retire to Paris in 1887 at the age of 59. He died there in 1899. He had left behind statues of himself and other reminders of his prolonged direct and indirect rule. Also, he left a country in relative peace. His appointed successor, Hermógenes López, was a colorless caudillo, who inaugurated some of the projects Guzmán Blanco had started, among them a submarine cable to Curazao, which linked Venezuela to the rest of the world, and the Valencia-Puerto Cabello railroad. Lopez was replaced by the civilian Juan Pablo Rojas Paúl with Guzmán Blanco’s far-away blessing. Crespo, who thought he should have been chosen president, went into exile and started planning his own revolution. Rojas Paúl actively promoted an anti-Guzmán popular reaction in Caracas and other cities. He turned power over to another civilian, Raimundo Andueza Palacios, who forgot the cardinal rule of relying on caudillos for support, a power vacuum which Crespo promptly filled in 1892. Ambitious but unassuming, Crespo ruled until 1898 and handed power to Ignacio Andrade, but Crespo was the military mainstay of the government. In suppressing a serious threat to the government he was killed in action and Andrade was left to fend for himself.
For a complete list of Venezuelan leaders, see List of Presidents of Venezuela.
Of all the regions of Venezuela, the Andes and Guayana had not participated actively in the many insurrections that had plagued the other parts of Venezuela. The llanos had been the great battleground of most of the confrontations between caudillos, whose struggles over-spilled into Barquisimeto. Coro had been the favorite landing site for most of the rebellions, especially the Great War of the Caudillos. Maracaibo at one time tried to go autonomous and had to be taken by arms. Guayana was so under-populated it hardly counted. But the Andes was another story. It was the richest region of Venezuela through the export of coffee. It had a healthful, high-altitude climate. It probably accounted for perhaps half the total population of Venezuela. Malaria and yellow fever and other tropical scourges had become endemic in the llanos. A rebel from Trujillo, the Andean province closest to central Venezuela, had once tried and failed at rebellion. But in the 1890s the Andeans, especially in Táchira, started flexing their muscles. When Crespo was killed, Venezuela entered a period of uncertainty as Andrade was not himself a caudillo and he was Crespo’s placeman. In 1899, the Tachirense Cipriano Castro, a short-tempered and highly ambitious man, formed a real army with Andean recruits and the support of his friend Juan Vicente Gómez. Castro met practically no resistance on his march to Caracas. His forces were larger now under the command of Gómez. As was to be expected, the new government was like lighting not one but many fuses to many enterprising, aspiring caudillos. Castro was himself courageous, but he did not need to take the field: he had Gómez, who in two years of active campaigning with his Andean troops put down not only the on-going rebellions, but even made sure that there were not to be any more rebellions by placing Andean lieutenants and Andean troops in all the regional capitals of Venezuela.
There are two things about Castro who few deny: he was a debauchee with an insatiable taste for cognac and he was a daredevil in foreign relations defying Europe as if he had a navy and adequate coastal defences. Many Venezuelans consider Castro a great patriot but in fact, when he got embroiled with his Venezuela's European creditors, he did not hesitate to invoke the Monroe Doctrine in defense of his country’s sovereignty. Guzman Blanco had tried to have Britain recognize Venezuelan sovereignty to the Essequibo river, in modern terms over half of the state of Guyana. Britain ignored this claim but in 1887 in tried to extend the boundary far into the actual territory of Venezuela prompting the first Venezuelan appeal to the Monroe Doctrine. The USA in 1895 asked that Britain submit its claim to arbitration, which London refused at first creating tension with Washington. There was some eye-winking on the two sides and finally Britain accepted arbitration, which validated its rejection of the Essequibo river boundary, and accepted a broad interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine. Castro had nothing to do with this affair, but he inherited from his predecessors a burden of foreign debt which he refused to honor. An international fleet of European gunboats blockaded Venezuela’s coasts in 1902. With the Guiana border precedent in mind, Castro invoked again the Monroe Doctrine. Germany was aggressively pursuing its siege in western Venezuela, where there was a large colony of German merchants in Maracaibo, and this preoccupied the Theodore Roosevelt administration, which told the Germans to back off. But at the same time it told Castro that the Monroe Doctrine did not apply to unpaid debts. The debt question was sent to the Hague Tribunal which faulted Venezuela. Castro was reluctantly forced to start paying up. But the total cancellation of the overdue bills did not occur under his government.
In 1908, Castro was too sick to be cured in Venezuela and he left for Germany leaving Gómez in Charge. Castro had not gone further than the outer Antilles when Gómez took over the government and forbade Castro from returning. This was the beginning of a regime that lasted until 1935 and is interwoven with the early development of the oil industry, the greatest influence ever on the history of Venezuela. One of Gómez’s first measures was to start canceling outstanding Venezuelan international debts, a goal which was soon achieved. Under Gómez, Venezuela acquired all the appurtenances of a regular national army staffed and officered almost entirely by Andeans. At the time, the country had a widespread telegraphic system. Under these circumstances, the possibility of caudillo uprisings was curtailed. The only armed threat against Gómez came from a disaffected former business partner to whom he had given a monopoly on all maritime and riverine commerce. Although there are many tales of Gómez’s cruelty and ruthlessness, they are mostly exaggerations by his enemies. The man who had tried to overthrow him, Roman Delgado Chalbaud, spent fourteen years in gaol and he later claimed that he was in ball and chains during all that time. But he was released by Gómez. His son, Carlos Delgado Chalbaud, would later become president of Venezuela. When university students staged a street demonstration in 1928, they were arrested but were soon released. But Gómez was indeed ruthless in throttling all opposition and he allowed a personality cult, but this was as much his doing as that of his sycophants, who were numerous all over Venezuela. Gómez, unlike Guzmán Blanco, never erected a statue of himself anywhere in Venezuela. He was a stickler for legal formalisms, which in essence meant that he introduced new constitutions any time it suited his political ends, although this was also the rule during the 19th century. During his dictatorship, Gómez appointed two figurehead presidents while he kept a tight hold on the armed forces from Maracay, his favorite city, west of Caracas, which he embellished and made the main Venezuelan garrison, a status which it retained until at least the 1960s.
It did not take much geological expertise to know that Venezuela had large petroleum deposits, because the petroleum oozed out from seeps all over the country and there was even an asphalt lake which had formed naturally. Venezuelans themselves had tried to extract oil for a small hand-pumped refinery early in the 20th century. As the word spread internationally of Venezuela’s oil potential two things happened: representatives of large foreign companies came to the country and started lobbying for rights of exploration and exploitation and Gómez established the concessionary system. Venezuela had inherited from Spain the law that the ground surface—presumably, as deep as a plow or a water well went—could belong to individuals but everything under the soil was state property. Thus, Gómez began to grant huge concessions to family and friends. Any one who was close to Gómez eventually would become rich in one way or another. Gómez himself accumulated immense expanses of grasslands for cattle-raising, which had been his original occupation and was a life-long passion. The Venezuelan concessionaires leased or sold their holdings to the highest foreign bidders. Gómez, who didn’t trust industrial workers or unions, refused to allow the oil companies to build refineries on Venezuelan soil, so these were built them in the Dutch islands of Aruba and Curazao. The one in Aruba was for a time the second largest in the world, after the one in Abadan, Iran. Although the Venezuelan oil boom started around 1918, the year when oil first figured as an export commodity, it took off when an oil well called Barroso blew a spout that threw up an average of the equivalent to 100,000 barrels a day. It took five days to bring the flow under control. After that, there was no looking back. By 1927, oil was Venezuela’s most valuable export and by 1929 Venezuela exported more oil than any other country in the world.
It has been said that Gómez did not tax the oil companies and that Venezuela did not benefit from oil production, but this in only a half-truth. The Venezuelan government derived considerable income from the concessions and from taxes of one sort of another, but the original fiscal laws which applied to the oil companies were hammered out between the government and American lawyers. The laws were relatively lenient, but Gómez, who had an acute business sense, understood that it was necessary to create incentives for investors in the Venezuelan oil fields, some of which were very accessible but others were deep in jungles. Oil income allowed Gómez to expand Venezuela’s rudimentary infrastructure and the over all impact of the oil industry on Venezuela was a modernizing trend in the areas where it operated. But in a wider sense, the Venezuelan people, except for those who worked for the oil companies and lived badly but had a steady income, benefited little or not all from the country’s oil riches.
When Gómez took power, Venezuela was a very poor illiterate country. The white/pardos social divide was still very much in place. When Gómez died in his bed in 1935, Venezuela was still a poor illiterate country and if anything the social stratification had been accentuated. Population had grown from perhaps one million and a half to two million. Malaria was the greatest killer. Gómez himself probably had Amerindian ascendants, but he was overtly racist and he was much influenced by a historian, Laureano Vallenilla Lanz, who published a book claiming not inaccurately that the Venezuelan War of Independence was really a civil with the dubious added argument that pardos were a menace to public order and Venezuela could only subsist as a nation ruled by white strongmen. Gómez, for instance, prohibited all immigration from black Caribbean islands. Even though Venezuela’s population in his time was 80% pardo, passports, which were first issued under Gómez, identified carriers by the color of skin, which they still did until the 1980s. Venezuela did change considerably under Gómez. It had radio stations in all the important cities There existed an incipient middle class. But it still had only two or three universities. It was estimated that 90% of families were formed through common-law marriages. The social progress that did take place was through a spontaneous trend towards modernization in which oil played the central role.
Gomez was succeeded by his minister of war, Eleazar López Contreras, a tall, thin, disciplined soldier with a solid education. Before arriving at his post, he served the Gomecista government loyally wherever he was sent, including at one time Venezuela’s eastern land’s end, a village called Cristobal Colón, across from Trinidad. In power, López Contreras allowed the pardo masses to vent for a few days before clamping down. He had Gómez’s properties confiscated by the state, but the dictator’s relatives, with some exceptions who left the country, were not harassed. Gomez never married but he had various illegitimate children. Initially, López Contreras permitted political parties to come into the open, but they tended to become rambunctious and he proscribed them although he did not use strong repressive means, which weren’t necessary anyway as the politicians that led them, called in Venezuelan historiography the 1928 Generation, did not yet have large popular followings. One of the reasons for this hard stance was that, during his first year as president, Lopez Contreras was faced by a labor strike which paralyzed the oil industry in Zulia state, whose capital was Maracaibo, in western Venezuela, where the most productive fields were located. Lopez Contreras had created a labor ministry and his representative there, Carlos Ramírez MacGregor, was ordered to make a report of the situation, which confirmed the workers’ grievances, but he also had instructions to declare the strike illegal, which he did and government forces made the workers return to their jobs, although after that incident the oil companies did start taking serious initiatives to improve conditions for Venezuelan workers. Among the notable goals of Lopez Contreras was a campaign to eradicate malaria in the llanos. This task was finally accomplished during the following presidency through the use of DDT.
The oil strike was led by Rodolfo Quintero and the oil worker Jesús Faría, both communists. The history of Marxism in Venezuela is rather complex, but a brief overview is that communism never sunk roots in Venezuela and its impact on mainstream politics was minimal. Even Chávez today is not a Marxist. His sloganeering has communistic overtones but he has not carried out a systemic communist ordering of society as Castro did in Cuba. Lopez Contreras tried to create a political movement called Cruzadas Civicas Bolivarianas (Civic Bolivarian Crusades), but it did not pan out, for whatever he did had the taint of his background as a pillar of the Gómez regime. Even the name “crusades” was suspect with its clerical overtones. Constitutionally, López Contreras finished Gómez’s last term and in 1936 he was elected by the docile congress for the term ending in 1941.
After a vote in the same congress for the 1941-1946 term, López Contreras handed power to his war minister and personal friend, the Andean general Isaías Medina Angarita, who in many ways made a strong foil to his predecessor. He was stout and good natured and did not make excessive demands on himself. Medina Angarita legalized all political parties, including the divided communists: some were hard-line, the Machado brothers of a traditional Caracas family; and others, gradualists or conciliatory, led by Luis Miquilena, an union leader who supported Medina’s step-by-step approach and for a time was allied to one of the Machado brothers. Under Medina there was an indirect democracy, which followed the 19th century custom of elections at the municipal council level. But Medina was committed to a still restricted but wider national democratic election. For that he had officialdom in all the Venezuelan states form a pro-government party named Partido Democratico Venezolana or PDV (Democratic Venezuelan Party). But the real genius at political organization was Rómulo Betancourt, who created from the bottom up what was in effect a pardo party with a strongly reformist, but not Marxist, agenda.
In exile Betancourt had flirted with communism but he was realistic enough to understand that he wasn’t going to get very far along that path. Medina fostered the further professionalization of the Venezuelan officer corps. Among others, he sent Capt. Marcos Pérez Jiménez to the Peruvian military academy, which was reputed in Latin America as being very efficient, where the young Andean officer had as professor Gen. Manuel Odria, later to become dictator of Perú. Another Peruvian influence on Venezuelan politics was Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre, who tried to create an inter-American alliance of leftist anti-imperialist parties, which vaguely fitted Betancourt’s own program. Another up-and-coming officer was Carlos Delgado Chalbaud, the son of the anti-Gomez conspirator previously mentioned. Delgado Chalbaud had spent most of his life in France, where he studied engineering and later attended the St. Cyr military academy. He returned to Venezuela in 1939 and was promptly commissioned in the Venezuelan army by Lopez Contreras. Because of his background, Delgado was the undisputed leader of a group of conspirational officers, among whom the second most important was Pérez Jiménez.
As the 1945 elections approached, Betancourt, who knew how large his national political base was now, accepted Medina’s invitation to participate in them on the tacit understanding that the official candidate, Diogenes Escalante, would win with the support of Accion Democratic or AD Acción Democrática (AD), as Betancourt’s party had been named. In exchange, the following elections would be totally democratic. Escalante was party to this agreement, but on his return to Venezuela from Washington, where he was ambassador, to participate in his own election, he started mumbling and making incoherent statements. The man was insane! Medina then made a mistake, which was to choose a substitute for Escalante without consulting AD. Betancourt was incensed and thus it was that the strongest political party in Venezuela and the military conspirators, none of which had a rank higher than major, made a deal whose consequences were to be long-lasting. In October 1945, the military declared themselves in open rebellion in Caracas and Betancourt called on the people to stage a civilian uprising. Medina resigned, but it is generally acknowledged that the army, except for the rebels, was on his side and could have put down the pardo adecos as well as arrest the insubordinate officers. This is believable because the army was the making of Gomez and Lopez Contreras and even Medina. It was a disciplined institution. But there was the other historical antecedent and that was the long history of violence in Venezuelan politics during the previous century and Medina did not want a bloody civil war on his hands.
A junta was formed which was headed by Betancourt with Delgado as minister of defence. Fully democratic elections were held for congress, in which it was shown that AD under Betancourt had indeed become the party of the vast majority of Venezuelans. Two other parties were founded: COPEI (Independent Electoral Committee), by the pro-clerical Rafael Caldera, whose party later was later re-baptized Social Christian COPEI; and URD (Republican Democratic Union), which was joined by Jóvito Villalba, considered one of the greatest orators in Venezuelan history, and made over practically into his personal party. Since the death of Gomez, the following governments had been gradually increasing oil taxes. In the junta, energy minister Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo decreed a 50-50 sharing agreement with the oil companies. The junta also took other daring measures. Catholic schools, which were the best in the country, were forced to close temporarily while a new national curriculum was elaborated. Agrarian reform was approved. But most noticeable was that bureaucracy, which previously had been kept at the barest possible minimum, made a phenomenal forward leap, and not just because of all the reforming that had to be done but also because AD had to reward its more prominent backers.
The white/pardo divide was in theory demolished although in practice not many pardos could fulfill even the lowest requirements for civil service, into which nevertheless many entered. A national educational campaign was inaugurated, but fundamentally, as the majority of Venezuelans were still illiterate, all this amounted to was that the few who could read would be teaching the many that could not. There was a national election for the presidency in 1947, which the adeco candidate, the talented novelist Romulo Gallegos, won, again by a huge margin. But at the time there was much discontent in the middle class, which was Caldera’s mainstay—he got 262,000 votes—not to speak of the upper crust; and of course the officers who had ushered AD into power were on the lookout for the main chance. There was no particular incident that set off the bloodless 1948 coup, which was led by Delgado Chalbaud. There was no popular opposition. This might have meant that the odds were too great or that the pardo masses had not noticed any particular improvement in their lives despite the incessant government propaganda. All prominent adecos were expelled. The other parties were allowed but muzzled.
Delgado Chalbaud was twice a betrayer, but Venezuelan historians tend to speak well of him, analogously as they argue in America that John F. Kennedy would not have allowed the Vietnam war to escalate. But both positions are contrafactual, hence un-provable. What is often said is that Delgado Chalbaud was planning to restore Venezuelan democracy. If that was his intention, he did not get the chance to accomplish it. One day in November 1950, as he was being driven unescorted through a wooded part of Caracas towards the presidential palace, he was cut off by cars and kidnapped. His captors took him to an isolated house in southern Caracas. All versions of this incident are more or less agreed that someone’s gun went off wounding the leader of the kidnappers, that Delgado was then hustled out of the car and he confronted his abductors, and that finally they shot him to death. The main kidnapper, who was bleeding badly, was soon captured and later, in the then official version, he was killed trying to flee. No one accepts this version, which is why it is widely believed that it was his political partner, Pérez Jiménez, who had Delgado Chalbaud assassinated.
Delgado had formed a triumvirate with Pérez Jiménez and Luis Felipe Llovera Páez. With his death the remaining triumvirs chose a civilian president, Luis Germán Suárez Flamerich, who was dismissed by the military in 1952, and the ambitious Pérez Jiménez became dictator with the consent of Llovera Páez, who was an obscene non-entity. The former majors, who had risen to colonels in the democracy, were now generals. Pérez Jiménez himself was physically not very impressive. He was short, balding, and tubby, and read speeches monotonously, although surely on the personal level he must have had some magnetism. He was a megalomaniac of much character that when a Time magazine interviewer asked him what Rome’s greatest legacy was, he said, : “Its ruins”, apparently wanting to give the impression that while the ruins of Rome were all that remained of its greatness, his own will surpass them with his grand-scale building projects. In some ways, this is understandable. Pérez Jiménez, ulike the rest of Venezuelans, received a thorough education from the militay academies he had attended and graduated from with highest honors. By the time he came to power, Pérez Jiménez had developed a flare for fascist opulence and boasting about his projects in making Venezuela the major power of South America. The greatest of Venezuelan writers at the time (and for a long time after that) was Arturo Uslar Pietri and he became famous on television with analytical biographies of great historical figures. Uslar Pietri has a felicitous phrase: “Sow the oil”, which became a national slogan meaning that the state’s oil income should be productively invested. But in Venezuela “sowing the oil” implied “sowers” and the country did not have too many of these. In fact, it was the undeclared understanding that “sowing the oil” really meant “give Venezuelans employment by creating government jobs”.
The other reason for Pérez Jiménez’s “ruins revelation” was that what he intended to do as president, apart from becoming rich, which he did, like Gomez, with his own military and civilian cronies, was to build and build and build, and here too he was undeniably successful. It is only fair to point out here that while Gomez did become immensely rich, he never had in his life a foreign bank account (as ignorant as he was, not to mention the time n which he was living), and even though Pérez Jiménez in relative terms was not as rich as Gomez, all the dollars he accumulated went offshore. Pérez Jiménez also had an efficient secret police, but the stories about tortures and killings were, like those about Gomez, mainly inventions by the frustrated adecos, although whoever in Venezuela tried to be active clandestinely was sure to be either imprisoned or shot if he resisted. Also like Gomez, Pérez Jiménez had a theoretician, Laureano Vallenilla Lanz, who happened to be the son of Gomez’s own historian and had his father’s persuasions. Like the father, this Vallenilla was also a racist. It was he who authored the immigration policy of the regime. By the time Pérez Jiménez had all the power in his hands, which despite his uninspiring qualities he did manage to do, Venezuela had around five million inhabitants. Depending on which measures you apply, the country can be said to have been under-populated. If you consider, for instance, that population density is not necessarily good, then it could be argued that Venezuela was not under-populated but under-educated. The idea that Vallenilla Lanz and Pérez Jiménez had was to open the doors of the country to as many Europeans as wanted to come, with which they, and many non-pardo Venezuelans, believed that two flies would be killed with one swat: the country’s population would grow, but not with more ignorant pardos: with Europeans who brought with them, however lowly they might have been in their own countries, a higher average education than Venezuelans had. But this backfired for the immigrants were precisely from countries that had given rise to the existence of pardos--a euphemism for bastardy and ridiculous illiteracy.
Up to a point, this kind of social engineering might have been defensible, but the immigrants, who came from Spain, Portugal, and Italy on the rationale that they would adapt better to Venezuela and Venezuelans would adapt better to them (than, say, to Swedes), did not emigrate from their countries to give Venezuelans lessons in civics. They came for a better income and probably the majority of the some two million who did come started returning as soon as they had made enough to live better in their own lands. This counter-flow became massive during the 1980s, when Venezuela’s economy started sliding down like a luge. It is possible that the proportion of the white population in Venezuela might have increased slightly. Many of the emigrants did make a lot of money and chose Venezuela as their country, but as to industrializing or increasing agricultural production, their effect was not and is not noticeable; and this for the simple reason that the Venezuelan government considered that diversified industrial development was its responsibility and private citizens of any nationality—in this sense, it can be said that Venezuela is perhaps the most un-discriminatory country in the world—were given ample rights in the areas of commerce, of services, and of other ancillary activities. Despite this insidious racism, it was under Pérez Jiménez that the mythification of the Amerindian caciques, who supposedly had resisted the conquistadors everyhere in Venezuela, was given a big boost, especially when an exchange house founded by an Italian immigrant brought out a series of souvenir gold coins in which each cacique was depicted with facial traits that were invented out of whole cloth by Pérez Jiménez’s laureate painter, Pedro Francisco Vallenilla. Despite his rigorous Catholic upbringing, Pérez Jiménez also encouraged the underlying animism of Venezuelans when he erected in the middle of Caracas’ first speedway a statue of Maria Lionza, a sort of Amerindian goddess who sits atop a tapir and is much worshipped in a jungle sanctuary in Yaracuy in central Venezuela.Of course, this was a terrible blow to what was developing as a policy of 'ethnic improvement', for having had Swedes, after one measures the tremendous social and intellectual backwardness of today's 'Chavismo', would have made the country a sanctuary of envious qualities. What a waste now...But it should have been predictable as Pérez Jiménez himself was part of the 'pardo' legacy.
Pérez Jiménez was so cocksure that he was doing a good job as dictator, that he scheduled elections for 1952 with his official party against COPEI and URD, which had only managed puny showings against AD in the presidential election of 1947. When the time came to vote, Venezuela’s pardos wanted their adecos back and the exiled leadership of the party let it be known that it wanted URD to win. As the results started coming in showing that AD was still the political top dog in Venezuela, Pérez Jiménez shut down the polls, and the country, and after a few days, during which he probably was making sure that he counted with the loyalty of his generals, he published results that were so lopsidedly in his favor as to seem ludicrous. Pérez Jiménez thus inaugurated himself for another five years as president, and just as he had intended from the beginning. he went on spending on infrastructure and way beyond this to gigantic industrial, agricultural, and power-generating projects. In foreign affairs, Venezuela was a faithful ally of the American government, although servile would probably be more to the point. When the government of the socialist Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala was implementing real social reforms in a country that badly needed them, Venezuela was host to a conference of the OAS (Organization of American States) in which Guatemala was ostracized. Shortly afterwards the CIA sponsored a coup in which Arbenz was overthrown. Pérez Jiménez also changed entirely the face of Caracas with a building program such as the city had not seen since Guzman Blanco, and compared to what Pérez Jiménez built, Guzman’s buildings, one of which Pérez Jiménez had cut at the nose, were dwarfs. The author of this “face lifting” was Luis Malausena, whose taste was in all to Pérez Jiménez’s sense of grandeur and went from the ultra-modern to a non-descript “neo-classicism”. The Caracas that one sees today is, then, the unimaginative creation of a character whom no one remembers, and no one probably will as, after he made millions upon millions, he fled the country with Pérez Jiménez never to be seen again. Caraqueños, incidentally, have never complained about the legacy of Malausena. As a significant footnote, Hugo Chávez Frias was born in 1954 in what, as he tells it, was a thatched hut.
By the end of 1957, it was time for a presidential election. Pérez Jiménez thought he had learned from the 1952 political debacle and instead of an election he decreed a plebiscite on his government. He probably knew he wasn’t going to win this one either, so the results were foreordained. The people who queued to vote were civil servants and indirect employees of the government and its subordinate companies and institutions, who were instructed to show some proof that they had voted for the regime, usually by presenting the “no” card, although this was a silly ploy. All the government needed was a turnout, and that is what it got. Economically, Venezuela apparently was not doing so badly, but the signs of prosperity were mostly in the cities, and the countryside, where half of Venezuelans still lived, had social indexes way below what would have been expected from such a fiscally rich country.
Pérez Jiménez’s illegitimacy was so patent that some officers were conspiring to overthrow him. There was also some cautious civilian clandestine agitation. On the last day of 1957, a military uprising coordinated by officers of air and tank forces struck, but the coordination was not that good. The air force rebels flew over Caracas and dropped randomly some bombs while a commander started out from Maracay with a column of tanks. Somehow the signals got crossed, the tanks turned back, and the pilots fled the country. These officers probably thought that Pérez Jiménez would turn tail in the face of this demonstration, but the bulk of the armed forces remained loyal. However, this show of defiance did set off a sequence of events which eventually made Pérez Jiménez fear for his political survival. The underground civilian opponents started goading the people in Caracas, where they needed little goading and were out in the streets whenever and wherever they could. The repressive secret police rounded up all civilian suspects, but this was like trying to do the little Dutch boy trick. The popular resistance to the government was not just a pardo thing and reached to all levels of society. The navy had taken a non-committal attitude in a situation where its guns were not of any service. It was not in on any conspiracy. There were signs of restiveness in the land forces with some officers working to rules, so to speak, but there was not at any time a military insurrection. But the crowds were getting bigger and bigger. Finally, with various suitcases stuffed with dollars, Pérez Jiménez took off in his private DC-3 and sought refuge in the Dominican Republic, where his resilient colleague, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, had been ruling since 1930.
What followed the flight of the dictator is as amazing an incident as the history of Venezuela contains. Pérez Jiménez had been unsure of whom to trust. He was arbitrary and authoritarian but there is no evidence that he was particularly courageous. Like Guzman Blanco, he possibly considered that hanging on to power was not worth the effort, especially considering that his fortune would allow him to live royally outside of Venezuela. When he fled, the country was for all practical purposes acephalous. The Caracas masses had no leader, first, because no one in the streets had the stature to be one, and, second, because any potential leader was in jail. For various days before his hasty departure, Pérez Jiménez had not been giving any inspiration or even orders to the army generals loyal to him, which were still a majority. There were junior officers here and there acting on their own. A military committee was functioning in the military academy. When these officers received word that Pérez Jiménez had left, they felt reasonably enough that it was up to them to exercise authority. Thus it was that Wolfgang Larrazábal, an admiral who owed to Pérez Jiménez his rise in the services and who had never manifested any disaffection to him, was chosen to lead the country solely because he outranked every one else. Had Pérez Jiménez ordered the commander of the Caracas garrison to arrest any officer not at his post and to put the fear of volleys into the crowds, he would have been obeyed, so in some way it redounds to his credit that, like Medina Angarita before him, he ran because he did not want bloodshed, although Medina had not run at all but had been imprisoned and released. As soon as it became unmistakable that Pérez Jiménez was out, the exiled politicians started streaming in. Larrazábal was made head of a civilian-military junta. Overnight, without having lifted a finger to deserve it, Larrazábal became the idol of Caracas, though in the rest of Venezuela the pardos were still adecos to the tip of their tails (as they say in Venezuela).
1958 is a crucial year in Venezuelan contemporary history. Larrazábal was a fluke. He had no more legitimacy than Pérez Jiménez and no sooner was the new government installed, committed to democratic elections before the end of the year, than the question of who really had overthrown Pérez Jiménez, the military uprising or the Caracas masses, became a disquieting issue. The original rebellious officers felt that they were entitled to rule and started brewing their own conspiracies. But Larrazábal was generally accepted as the leader of the armed forces. Most importantly, the political parties, which were busily rebuilding their national organizations, gave him their total support, including the few but vociferous communists. As before, it was Betancourt who proved the master organizer through his revived AD party. Another source of support for Larrazábal was that he decreed demagogic measures to conciliate the discontented masses. These measures were being adlibbed and one in particular, the most influential, was completely irrational.
A so-called Emergency Plan was put into place which consisted in hand-outs to those who could claim they were unemployed. These popular subsidies were far above what the average Venezuelan earned in the rural areas and there followed inevitably a flood of migrants to Caracas, a city that before had few shantytowns, and settled and built shacks on the hillsides on the eastern and western edges of the valley in which Caracas nestles. The population of the city soon doubled with these rural, barely educated newcomers, who were obviously strongly pro-Larrazábal but were also a potential source of political de-stabilization. The pardos in effect became a force to be reckoned with in the forthcoming elections. But before these took place many things were occurring. The officers who felt they had been cheated staged various insurrections, even to an “invasion” by one of them from Colombia who managed to take over San Cristobal, the capital of Táchira state. All these conspiracies were contained although some required drastic means and at one point the Larrazábal government was in real danger of being toppled. The armed forces were instrumental in quelling the revolts, but each time there was one, Caracas mobs went wild prodded by the politicians.
The most menacing of these popular riots was provoked by the visit to Venezuela of vice-president Richard Nixon and his wife Patricia. He represented the Eisenhower administration, which had conferred on Pérez Jiménez the Medal of Honor for his crucial role in sanctioning the imperialist American overthrow of Arbenz. The Venezuelan government had not anticipated the raging public reaction to this emissary from Washington, possibly because it thought that it had assuaged public indignation by allowing the hysterical daily denigration of the former dictator. Venezuelans were not that versed in foreign affairs, but the communists were and it was at their instigation that crowds assaulted Nixon’s motorcade along an avenue that ran close to where many shantytowns had grown, ironically not far from a huge apartment complex that Pérez Jiménez had built for workers. Before the Venezuelan army intervened—preventing a ready-to-go Marines intervention—Nixon’s car had been rocked back and forth, its windows had been smashed, and the vice-president and his wife had been thoroughly drenched in spit. As would be expected, once safe in the American embassy residence, Nixon let loose with imprecations and he returned quickly to the USA. It says well of him that when he reported on his trip, which was meant as a fact-finding and conciliatory gesture to Latin America, he stressed that his country was partly to blame for the unfriendly reception in Caracas.
As the elections approached, the parties initiated talks to form an united political front in defence of democracy, which implied, if not a single candidate chosen among them, at least an understanding for future cooperation in ruling Venezuela democratically. The really significant pact that emerged during 1958 was the unspoken one by which, mainly Betancourt, agreed not to mess with the military in any way and let them run their own house. The military in their turn pledged that they were not to allow politicization within their ranks to the extend that they renounced to even the right to vote, which was made compulsory for the rest of Venezuelans. The foxy Betancourt, who sometimes is referred to as the “father of Venezuelan democracy” (much less in recent times than before), insisted that the communists were not to be included in the political talks, and excluded they were but took it very calmly. The chances of one candidate were slim and nothing came out of the negotiations except a well-meaning consensus that the parties would stick together in the defence of democracy from whatever threats might arise in the future. This meant that the electoral process was on and that each party had to look itself.
AD knew that it was still the most popular party all over Venezuela and Betancourt was its choice for candidate. Caldera had no rivals in COPEI, the party he founded, and he entered the political fray counting on the conservative middle class. Villalba and his URD party adopted an opportunistic strategy, which was practically an admission that they could not compete with the AD national pardo popular base. It was the pardo masses in Caracas that Villalba was targeting when, instead of postulating himself, he chose Larrazábal, who also had the communist with him, to be the URD candidate. Larrazábal turned over the provisional presidency to a civilian and he went on campaign. When the results were in, Betancourt was elected for the term that ended in 1964, but this time by a plurality and not the absolute majorities that AD had gotten in 1946 and 1947. Caracas was no longer an AD redoubt. The city from then on became an electoral maverick that could swing in any unforeseen direction and this time it went all out for Larrazábal, who came in second. Caldera did not do badly in third place and received proportionally more votes than he had in 1947. But the Venezuelan panorama was cloudy at best. Part of the 1958 demagoguery was that the UCV (Central University of Venezuela), which likes to style itself “casa primada” (first house of Venezuelan learning), was granted “autonomy”, which meant that the police were barred from the University City; and starting in 1960 it became a bastion of an insurrection that leftists started to recoup the chance they thought they had missed when Caracas was so politicized that they could get crowds in the streets by snapping their fingers, although Larrazábal’s showing with mainly URD votes should have taught them that they weren’t as popular as they thought, that they were not popular at all, to put it bluntly. Under its autonomy status, the UCV gave sanctuary to every leftist movement and its rectors were complicit with the communists or themselves Marxists. It got so bad that Caldera, when he finally got his shot at being president, was forced to close it for a year. But, as things in Venezuela have a way of taking surprising turns, when Chávez began to “revolutionize” Venezuela, the UCV was collectively, though mildly, opposing his regime.
Betancourt inaugurated his presidency as a moderate, except on the issue of dictatorships, for which he applied the idealistic foreign policy that Venezuela would not recognize dictatorial government anywhere, particularly in Latin America, but including the USSR, which was an USA pleaser. The “Betancourt doctrine” was un-realistic, for Venezuelan democratization occurred in the midst of a marked tendency in the rest of Latin America towards authoritarianism. He was also un-realistic in reviving Venezuela’s claim on British Guiana to the Essequibo river and he had all maps of Venezuela show this large territory as part of the country albeit as disputed. The British allowed free elections in their dependency in 1961, but when a Marxist, Cheddi Jagan, won them, it annulled the results and after three years permitted new ones which were won by a man, Forbes Burnham, who turned out to be as leftist, or more, as Jagan, and a monumental bungler to boot. The point is that when British Guiana became independent Guyana in 1966, the Venezuelan claim became an undecipherable legal tangle, but Venezuelan maps to this day still look as Betancourt had them drawn. That the Venezuelan claim was bogus populism had its most perplexing demonstration when the Guyanese allowed the mad Messiah from California, Jim Jones, to establish a religious community right next to the Venezuelan border in 1977. The Venezuelan minister of foreign affairs at the time, Simon Alberto Consalvi, only found about the Guyanese sleight-of-hand when a California representative went to Jonestown to investigate complaints from constituents about missing relatives. When the congressman got there in November 1978, the suicidal followers of Jones, many of them blacks, first shot him dead and then 917 of them, including 276 children, committed suicide with cyanide-laced Kool Aid. Jones too killed himself.
In other things, Betancourt was very realistic. He respected the virtual autonomy of the armed forces and he did all he could to keep on the good side of Washington. Betancourt was a great hater, and he held two particular grudges: Pérez Jiménez, for obvious reasons, and Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, the Dominican dictator against whom in his youth, with Jose Figueres of Costa Rica, he carried on an active subversive opposition. The first of these targets of his ire led him to undercut developmental projects which would have been beneficial to his country. His hatred for Trujillo almost cost him his life, although in the end it was Trujillo who lost his. Pérez Jiménez had left in place the basic plans and projects for the further modernization and for the heavy industrialization of Venezuela. Guayana had large iron deposits. The infrastructure for exploiting them was laid as well as the complementary huge steelworks. Communications had been a priority and Venezuela was endowed with a network of roads and bridges that covered the territory where over 90% of the population lived. Half or more of these were improved surface and all they lacked was the asphalt paving. This system linked with the many blacktops that the oil companies had built in eastern and western Venezuela. These had been traced for exploration and exploitation, but they also served for the use of the general population and were now linked to the national highway system. Pérez Jiménez had built motorways from Caracas to Valencia and from Caracas to the port at La Guaira. By 1955, you could drive from one end to the other of Venezuela in a matter of days where before it would have taken weeks, months if the rainy season hampered travel. In addition, Pérez Jiménez had begun the construction of a coherent railway system, although he had not had time to go further than the railroad from Puerto Cabello to Barquisimeto. Pérez Jiménez had also created government subsidiaries, called “institutos autónomos” (autonomous institutes)—the “autonomous” was supposed to mean non-political, but its real function was to allow them to negotiate foreign loans—that were to build waterworks and electric power plants in all important urban centers. To this end he had started the construction the huge Caroni river dam which in time was to provide the entire country with a reliable electric grid. Betancourt’s government adopted the plans and the administrative system for carrying them out that the dictatorship had left in place.
But the politics of repudiation had to have its pound of flesh and Betancourt and his cabinet also cancelled some crucial public works merely because they were initiatives taken by Pérez Jiménez. The railroads were scrapped with the argument that Venezuela did not need them having so much asphalt it could expand the road network at a lower cost. Pérez Jiménez had built a large reservoir in the central llanos with the irrigation potential to make Venezuela an exporter of rice. The adecos in power built instead a small hydroelectric dam for Caracas upstream and effectively starved the rice-producing scheme which was only realized to a fraction of its planned area. In time most of the land that would have been irrigated was converted into cattle ranches, the traditional but at that point inessential llanos economic activity. In addition to the government–financed development projects, Pérez Jiménez was not averse to protectionism and incentives to local industries, but the Betancourt government made a fetish of import-substitution and instead of allowing the free importation of industrial goods for which Venezuela did not have the training, it tried to force foreign suppliers to build plants in the country for the assembly or packaging of finished products that were allowed tariff-free into the country. The automobile “industry” was the import-substitution model. Venezuela still does not manufacture car engines and all that the Betancourt and successive governments achieved was to assemble cars, which did give some Venezuelans employment—some parts suppliers, like makers of windshields, also prospered—but made the cars more costly than if they had been imported entire from Detroit to feed Venezuela’s car-mania. But economic nostrums and interventionism went beyond that. The government had opted for “guided planning” and what this meant was that businesses were strictly regulated through a system of controls that went from the permission to start one to limits on where and on how they should operate. The author of this “developmental strategy” was Jose Antonio Mayobre, a former communist and Betancourt’s economic guru. All of this required more government employees and again, as after 1945, the Venezuelan bureaucracy bloomed, as it would go on doing with each new president until it reached a paroxysm under Carlos Andres Pérez, Betancourt’s personal secretary and future president. Another trusted Betancourt minister was Leopoldo Sucre Figarella, who considered that a long bridge to complete the Caracas-Valencia motorway was unnecessarily expensive and he had the six-lane highway constructed along the mountain contour, but the ground beneath was not firm and this section of the motorway started sliding and during the following decades the cost of shoring it up was at least ten times what the bridge would have cost.
But the real pound of flesh that Betancourt got was much more than a pound, more like the entire weight of Pérez Jiménez. The ex-dictator had gone from the Dominican Republic to Miami, but Betancourt had him accused of filching in the state treasury, which was true (although the evidence was circumstantial), and the Venezuelan supreme court convicted him. Venezuela asked the John F. Kennedy administration for his extradition and to every one’s surprise the USA complied betraying an unconditional ally it once medaled. Pérez Jiménez was first held in the Miami county jail and was finally sent to Venezuela to finish the term in a comfortable prison. In all he spent five years in calaboose.
All of the economic policies of the Betancourt government were underwritten by the Kennedy administration through the Alliance for Progress which used Venezuela as the exemplar for all of Latin America. The ideology behind this was a package called “development economics” expressed in a work by the economist W.W. Rostow, who described economic progress with the “take-off metaphor”: a developing economy was like an airplane which got its motors running, taxied to the head of the runway, then sped along until it took off, which was the historical moment of self-sustaining growth. There were many other ideas of this sort. Another was the “trickle down effect”, which posited that, as an economy developed, its lower social strata would benefit from the achievements of free enterprise. But in Venezuela free enterprise was a very relative concept because of the proliferation of government regulations, not that Betancourt had anything like a “command economy” in mind, for the rights of private property were never meddled with. The trickle down effect took the form of political clientelism through which state hand-outs and local state-created posts, some purely nominal, were financed at the lower pardo levels. This was the rule in the Caracas shantytowns, but also in the rural and semi-rural areas where adeco loyalties were firm. The Betancourt government expanded educational facilities of all sorts on a large scale. New universities were created. Vocational and crafts schools were founded. Pérez Jiménez’s immigration policy was halted. Paradoxically, Venezuelans were not doing basic jobs, such as plumbing and carpentry, and a new and larger wave of immigration swept over the country mainly from Colombia, much of it illegal. Venezuela became for its neighbor what the USA was for México. There was no pardo discrimination—as such this had never existed in Venezuela—but when it came to upper echelon positions in and out of the government, Venezuelan whites and foreigners were generally preferred to the average Venezuelan. With Betancourt, Venezuela started becoming a nation of social parasites. But Venezuelans themselves had no trouble with that.
But the biggest problems that Betancourt in power faced was merely surviving, even in a personal sense. The underlying cause of the instability was that the 1958 elections had settled the issue of who had the right to govern democratically, but this was not as many disgruntled officers saw it, because they still felt very strongly that it was the armed forces and not the “people” who had overthrown Pérez Jiménez. This created an indescribable mélange of partisans of Pérez Jiménez, rightists who were calling Betancourt a communist in disguise, and new insubordinate officers who were clamoring for a “real revolution”. During his first year in power Betancourt was the object of an assassination attempt through a control-remote car bomb. He suffered minor lesions. The Dominican dictator Trujillo, who himself was assassinated by his own disaffected officers in 1961, was blamed, but the actual perpetrators were Venezuelans. Then, military insurrections in Carúpano and in Puerto Cabello, which were supposed to take place conjointly in 1962, instead followed upon each other. The promoter among the military of these rebellious movements was a then little-known personage called Manuel Quijada. The military held their part of the 1958 agreement with Betancourt and suppressed them. But the strangest of all the movements against Betancourt, and the least effectual—although Carúpano and Puerto Cabello can only be described as aberrations—came from the communist left.
Fidel Castro occupied Havana in January 1959. He was considered a reformist compared with the unscrupulous mulatto dictator Fulgencio Batista, a man who as a sergeant had carried out his first coup in Cuba back in 1936. The first sign that Castro was different from all the caudillos that Latin America had ever had, was that he ordered the public executions of over a hundred Batista army men and policemen, although he himself had benefited by a pardon from Batista when he had tried to take over a military barracks in 1953. Once in power, Castro never concealed his anti-Americanism and in 1961 he claimed that he was and had always been a Marxist-Leninist. Venezuelan leftists, and especially the communists, were watching, and they came to the unreasonable conclusion, not entirely unlike that of the rightist officers who had plotted against Betancourt, that the 1958 “revolution” had been hijacked at its most popular and effervescent and that they were going to attempt a repeat of Castro’s real revolution. Urban guerrillas were formed even as in Congress leftists were clamoring against Betancourt. The subversive cells carried out some sensational acts, one being the daylight robbery of an exhibition of Impressionist painters sponsored by France at the Venezuelan art museum. In another more deadly action they shot and killed eight Venezuelan soldiers in the back to steal their weapons. Betancourt put his aide Pérez in charge of repression. The leftist deputies were arrested. The urban insurrection was brought under control, but the communists and their leftist allies took to the hills with the intention of repeating the pattern of Castro’s rural guerrillas. Betancourt wanted to back the American proposal at an OAS conference in Costa Rica to expel Cuba from that body, which was achieved, but his own foreign minister, Ignacio Luis Arcaya, refused to obey and abstained in the final vote.
In the elections of 1963, the adeco Raúl Leoni, a long-time ally of Betancourt from the times of Gomez, won handily. Caldera came in second. The Larrazábal political phenomenon was eclipsed and Villalba on his own did poorly. AD was still the pardo party par excellence, but Caracas was definitely lost. Leoni’s government was unexceptional, but it was Leoni who had to liquidate the remnants of the communist insurrection, for which he put the army in charge of the country with carte blanche to be as ruthless as it had to. But in fact it was the communist guerrilleros themselves who brought about their own liquidation. They had no rural support whatsoever. Unlike guerrillas all over the world, they did not control villages and lived from hand to mouth. They knew they were no match for the army and avoided confrontations. Castro had been hoping that Venezuela would be the second act of the Latin American revolution and he tried to supply the Venezuelan guerrillas. This was in keeping with the theory of what could be called the “permanent agrarian revolution”, which the French intellectual Regis Debray had expressed in the widely circulated book Revolution inside the revolution, and Ernesto “Che” Guevara had been trying to carry out first in Africa and later, fatally for him, in Bolivia. Castro sent a trusted officer, Manuel Ochoa, to assess the Venezuelan guerrillas and the report that he brought was thumbs down, which effectively ended Cuba’s intromission in Venezuelan affairs. By then the Venezuelan leftists had given up on violence and were seeking legalization, but Leoni did not offer it. Ochoa was later tried and executed by Castro on an unlikely charge of drug-smuggling.
The elections of 1968 proved conclusively that Venezuela had an indisputably working democracy. But there are a few caveats. During the Betancourt presidency AD had produced a radical offshoot led by Domingo Alberto Rangel, but as it was illegalized it could not participate in the 1963 elections. AD had a core of pardo leaders and still another offshoot was led by one of these, but they were clobbered in the same elections. The rural clientelist system was definitely working. But during 1968, according to the Buggins turn rule that the party applied, a referendum was held in which the two rival adecos were Luis Beltran Prieto Figueroa, the living symbol of the party’s inter-racial credentials, and Gonzalo Barrios, a politician who was the leading light in the so-called “Parisian circle” within the party and whose turn it definitely wasn’t. As the referendum was an internal party affair the true results are not really known. It is as likely that Prieto Figueroa won as that he didn’t, but the party hierarchy claimed that Barrios had and Barrios became the official candidate. Pietro Figueroa was very miffed and he formed his own party whose secretary general was another pardo, Jesus Angel Paz Galarraga. Caldera was anything if not obstinate and he had been the losing Social Christian COPEI candidate in the elections of 1947, 1958, and 1963. This time (1968)Caldera’s perseverance paid off and he won against runner up Barrios by the slim margin of 30,000. In another Latin American country this would have provoked turbulence, as even in America Bush’s electoral margin in 1999 did in a legal sense, but not in Venezuela. Caldera thus became president by the skin of his teeth. Prieto Figueroa came in third, but amazingly a party that had been formed by nostalgic Pérezjimenistas and had no organization whatever obtained around one fourth of the vote for Congress, and this was happening in less than ten years since the dictator’s overthrow.
Democracy functioned but it was not fulfilling everybody’s expectations. Pérez Jiménez himself was elected to a seat in the Senate, but when he returned in the belief that Venezuela had to be respectful of election results, the adecos had already had their complaisant judges issue orders of arrest on one pretext or another and at the airport Pérez Jiménez was mobbed by adeco thugs and he fled Venezuela looking very scared never to return from his Madrid mansion. This was a clear demonstration that elections in Venezuela had to be won by the right people or else. And not only that: the democratic Venezuelan government wasn’t even respectful of Venezuelan civil liberties as was shown when Caldera had a highly disrespectful magazine with a respectable circulation, called Reventon, shut down by the military with the unlikely charge that it had insulted the armed forces by saying that some soldiers were gay (statistically inevitable) . In his political past, Caldera had been pro-business, but in his incarnation as president he increased government intervention in the economy. He was hamstrung by Congress, which was controlled by the adecos, so bureaucracy was kept at the same level it had been, but the new government applied unabashedly the “to the victors belong the spoils” practice. The leftist parties, of which now there were many more than in 1958, were legalized. Towards the end of his government, oil prices increased sensationally but fiscal revenues came into the state’s coffers too late for Caldera to use them to shape up his party’s muscles. There was also an eye-popping building boom in Caracas but suspiciously the new constructions were going up but not into the market.
The reason for this situation was that polls, which in Venezuela usually are very accurate, had been showing that the adecos and their presidential candidate, Betancourt’s enforcer, Carlos Andrés Pérez, were going to win the elections and a spike was sure to occur in the economy, which had been stagnating not so much because of anything that Caldera had done as because AD blocked him and government spending had not increased as much as he would have liked. Many people were skeptical that Venezuelans would choose such a controversial figure as Pérez, but when the results were in they showed he had won a clear a victory, but, what was even more important, AD had an absolute majority in Congress: the pardo masses were still adecos to the core (1973). Pérez’s appeal was not only to the unwashed but also to the elite and the middle class, for, it was widely reported in political circles and the media, that his political advisor Diego Arria created his public persona as a well-tailored man and in general refurbished his "image". Diego Arria was a politician who served under Caldera and was appointed by Perez as mayor of Caracas where his constructive ideas did not prosper. Arria was investigated for corruption and there is an arrest warrant pending against in Venezuela. After serving a stint as Venezuelan ambassador to the UN under the second Perez administration, he settled in New York.
Pérez was given a mandate by Congress to rule by decree for 100 days and then 100 days more. He also had a fiscal fortune in his hands such as no Venezuelan president ever had. And Pérez didn’t lose time to start spending it. He commissioned a report on government which was prepared and carried out by Arnoldo Gabaldón. It contained a blueprint for bureaucratic expansion as few times have been seen in history anywhere, except perhaps during the early years of Bolshevism in the newly created USSR. Gabaldón himself was named to a super-ministry which combined public works and communications. As it was impossible to hire every Venezuelan, Pérez decreed that all public places should have bathroom attendants and that every elevator the country over should have an operator, although Venezuela had only had one or two hand-operated elevators before the Pérez Jiménez building euphoria. Contracts were handed out with abandon and Venezuelan’s applauded with gusto. Pérez proclaimed that the oil wealth would not be squandered and founded a huge fund for “productive investments”. This fund was exhausted very quickly. Congress had surrendered its power of fiscal oversight, one of the historical bases of democracy. Corruption went up incalculably and there was even a case in which Venezuela bought a meat-freezing ship named the Sierra Nevada which was anchored to store part of the immense quantity of imports that were being handled. The commissioner’s fee here was well known as well as its recipient, who was never even tried. Ferries were bought in Scandinavia for routes between Venezuelan and the offshore Dutch free ports. Their windows could not be opened and they were not equipped for the Venezuelan heat. On any given day, one could see dozens of ships queuing to unload in all Venezuelan ports, which meant that demurrage charges were huge and were obviously passed on to consumers. But consumerism was the whole point to it all. The bolivar, Venezuela’s currency, was so over-valued that almost anybody in Venezuela with a minimum of initiative could go to Miami and bring a suitcase load of goods which were sold to customers, usually friends or neighbors. Even servant quarters were in the net of this informal import economy. In Miami, Venezuelans became known as “gimme two” (of anything, at any price).
The only area in which Pérez showed scruples against rampant consumerism was in the TV industry, in which, possibly under pressure from retailers with large inventories of black-and-white sets, he refused to allow color TV sets until far into his administration, although you could buy them in the free-port island of Margarita and could see color TV in Caracas, where color broadcasts had been going on from before. He also delayed the construction of the Caracas metropolitan underground, presumably because it had been initiated by Caldera. Crime in the streets was another by-product of the Venezuelan oil economy, although this could only partially be blamed on the new riches—obviously, with so much spending going on, thugs had easy marks any where—but mainly on the thousands of guns that had been put into circulation during the leftist insurgency which Pérez battled. But the government did nothing effective to address the problem, which still plagues Venezuela. Pérez simply ignored it.
The vulgarity and rot that was eating into Venezuelan society is difficult to describe in terms that would seem comprehensible, although foreign academics went on talking about Venezuelan society as if it were normal and not in the grasp of a collective frenzy. Yet Pérez's credentials as a nationalist leader were not soiled, in fact for many they were enhanced, because in 1975 he nationalized the iron industry and in 1976 he jumped further and nationalized the oil industry. As by that time Venezuela was equipped to manage it, not much harm was done by that in itself, but with all the new collaterals that the government could offer, Pérez, after having gone through the “surplus” for investments, started taking out international loans, and not small ones but sizable ones. Pérez “statized” the Venezuelan economy to such a degree that the paper load to open a business was so heavy that a service branch was created called “permisologia” (approximately, the “science” of permits), to which businessmen had to recur as a matter of course if they wanted to get the necessary bureaucratic approval. Permisologia was not meant to deter foreigners and it was more burdensome on Venezuelan small entrepreneurs than on any other economic sector. Leftists were in a dazzled quandary, because, on one hand, they hated Pérez’s guts, but, on the other, they couldn’t complain about the state’s interference as that was part of their own social and economic agenda. Labor unions, which in Venezuela were corrupt and pervasive and AD-managed, stood solidly behind Pérez.
One thing that can be credited to Pérez is that he introduced legislation to protect the environment, whereas Caldera had tried to build a road into the vast southern area of Venezuela known as Amazonas which his government wanted to settle and exploit. As soils there are barren, all that could have been achieved would have been the destruction of forested areas where only Amerindian tribes and missionaries, both Catholic and Baptist, lived. By the time that Pérez was through with Venezuela, it was palpable that its society was more unequal than it ever had been: the pardos had been done in again, and as to economic diversification, there was essentially none. Even import-substitution in the automobile industry went down the drain when Pérez started importing Dodge Darts and selling them at subsidized prices. You might be wondering how Pérez got another chance to rule Venezuela and the story that follows will explain it. Chávez, incidentally, entered the military academy in 1975, because, as the story he tells goes, he wanted to join the armed forces baseball team and from there jump to the majors. Apparently, his pitching arm was not good enough.
When the next elections came around in 1979—in Venezuela, presidents and congress were elected in the same election for five-year terms—AD fielded the unexciting Luis Piñerua Ordaz and the Social Christians selected Luis Herrera Campins. The latter did not have anything new to offer except rhetoric, but in the campaign he was like a charging boar. It really didn’t matter what he said, because the adecos were in a no-win situation disillusioned as they were with Pérez and unignited by Piñerua, and Herrera defeated his adeco adversary although not by a large majority. Venezuela had demonstrated once again that at the ballot level it was a working democracy. Few presidents had practiced winner-takes-all as Herrera Campins did. Even full-blooded Social Christians who had worked for the Pérez administration were fired. But Herrera did have in his cabinet a few figures that were not copeyanos, among them Manuel Quijada, the former anti-democracy conspirator. (Later, Quijada was one of the political advisors of Chavez before the former paratrooper won the presidency.) For the Venezuelan Central Bank he named the economist Leopoldo Diaz Bruzual. The latter was a protégé of and advisor to Reinaldo Cervini, a very rich man who had life-time tenure at Pro-Venezuela, a kind of semi-official institute founded to promote Venezuelan industrialization. Cervini doubled as Maecenas to communist intellectuals, who would physically confront any one who dared criticize their patron. Herrera Campins toned down the showiness of his predecessor, even though his government had another windfall when oil prices rose dramatically again in 1983. Venezuela had increased its indebtedness beyond the levels attained by the Pérez government. There was much talk at the time of “bipolarity”, the belief that Venezuela was stuck forever in the cycle of AD-COPEI ruling alternatively, but following the same policies of high-spending, high-bureaucracy, and a statized economy. Unknown to any one but themselves, a group of junior-grade officers had formed a clique called the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement (MRB in Spanish) and it was led by then Captain Hugo Chávez Frías. One brash foreign policy initiative taken by Herrera either should have gladdened or encouraged militarists in Venezuela. When the Argentine military dictator and “dirty war” veteran, Leopoldo Galtieri, had the Falklands invaded in 1982, Venezuela officially, though not materially, backed the Argentine move, although most Venezuelans were not aware of Argentina’s claim on the islands and weren’t even fully informed of the government’s action.
When dollars flooded Venezuela again, economists began talking of “overheating”, although it wasn’t clear whether they knew what they were talking about. It was pseudo-technical jargon, but Díaz Bruzual was among the adherents to this idea, if not actually the economist who got the “overheated” ball rolling. In the USA, president Jimmy Carter was fighting inflationary pressures and interests rates there, and in the industrialized nations generally, went up to unheard of levels. In Venezuela, a Canadian bank was offering interests as high as 21%. But because of the overheating thesis, Diaz Bruzual applied an old law whereby interest payments above 12% were considered usurious and illegal. Dollars started flowing out of Venezuela in the billions and the central bank, which had always been zealous about national reserves, took fright at their growing depletion, but instead of counter-acting with incentives to reverse the outward flow, the bolivar was officially devalued by over 50% on its previous 4.5 to the dollar. The government, in brief, was not going to subsidize the bolivar at its previous rate. But the measure encouraged a further massive flight of dollars and the government then clamped full currency control.
There had been a brief period of exchange controls during the early years of the Venezuelan democracy, but Venezuela had never seen anything like this before. It was the end of “prosperity”, or what Venezuelans considered it to be. In Venezuela, statistics of unemployment are always used to show that the economy is or is not doing alright. The truth is that Venezuelan statistics were, and are, often meaningless, sometimes taken from development plans that did not materialize—such as saying that housing had gone up by such and such a percentage which was what the government had planned but not necessarily what it accomplished—and among the most flagrant fictions were employment indexes. Venezuela is an underdeveloped economy, and in all such economies, not just Venezuela’s, employment includes sub-employment, which has never been officially recognized or defined, for there is no way that a country with a per capita GDP of around $5,000, or whatever below real economic development standards, can be said to have employment rates comparable to those in America or Europe. Nobody ever has known what the real, steady, and well-paid employment rate is, and “well-paid” only means near or slightly above the average national income per capita. It was in these conditions that the 1983 elections came about.
The adecos chose Jaime Lusinchi and Caldera once more stood up for his party COPEI. The divided socialists offered Teodoro Petkoff and José Vicente Rangel. Petkoff had broken with the communist party and, with the veteran leader Pompeyo Marquez, had founded in 1971 the Movement towards Socialsm (MAS in Spanish), which was more or less inspired by the Prague Spring, when Czech communists tried to liberalize their country in 1968. MAS was still Marxist but edging to left of center. Rangel was the son of a general during the Gómez autocracy, but he entered politics in 1958 as a moderate leftist. Rangel denounced the abuses of the adeco governments of Betancourt and Leoni—he accused them of allowing the secret police and the army to torture detainees—and he was the MAS presidential candidate in 1973 and 1978, both times doing badly. Teodoro was particularly disliked by adeco pardos, perhaps because he was red-headed and freckled. Teodoro was always trying to displace Rangel as his party’s choice and finally, in 1983, the two men had a chance to test each other’s popularity.
Much of the campaign was taken up by an “underground” debate about Lusinchi’s mistress, Blanca Ibañez, and adecos insisted that his legal wife had simply “to bite the bullet”. When the results were in, bipolarity worked and the adecos proved that they still had the pardos on their side by garnering 56% of the vote, the highest margin ever in a Venezuelan election. Caldera was down, but, as we shall see, definitely not out. But there were two novelties in the results: although Petkoff got more votes than Rangel, together they got 7% of the vote, which the left had never before achieved, although it is questionable whether Teodoro at that point was in any way the radical he had been before. Another result was that abstentions were 12% and this was significant because, as we saw, voting was compulsory in Venezuela and by and large Venezuelans had been very dutiful in this respect, and now they showed that not voting was catching on. This tendency has gone up consistently since then and in all of Chávez’s victories non-voting Venezuelans have not been on average below 40%.
Corruption had always been an issue in Venezuela, but under Lusinchi it became the main issue and most Venezuelans considered that corruption, and not sheer incompetence, was the root of all of society’s ills. Lusinchi had divorced his wife and married Blanca Ibañez, who was considered very influential behind the scence and was blamed for abuse of power and nepotism. The Venezuelan economy stagnated and the country at the end of Lusinchi’s regime was reportedly bankrupt. It would be reasonable to surmise that this should have been the end of bipolarity in the next elections, but it would be wrong. In the 1988 elections, the two ruling parties got a total of 93% of the vote. Petkoff fared very badly but abstentions went up to 18%. The winner was none other than Carlos Andres Pérez, for his second term. (In the Venezuelan constitution you could be re-elected as many times as you wanted as long as it wasn’t in successive elections.) The question was: how could a country whose descent into insolvency began with Pérez, who had botched so badly his first term, when corruption flourished as never before, have re-elected him with a majority that was barely less than the one Lusinchi got? This enigma has various explanations. That pardos were still adecos is an obvious one. The opposition to bipolarity did not have a leader. But especially, Venezuelans of all hues simply remembered that during Pérez’s first term there had been a lot of money in circulation, things over-all had not been so dismal, and somehow they figured that Pérez could perform the miracle of making Venezuela “prosperous” again.
But Pérez was not the hand-out king he had been before. He had become a closet liberalizer and globalizer. His economic adviser was Moisés Naím, today an influential editor in America, and he defined the presidential economic agenda, which included no price controls, privatizations, and laws, or their elimination, to attract foreign investments. Naím began at the lowest rung of economic liberalization, which was freeing controls on prices and a modest increase in that of gasoline, which in Venezuela is sacrosantly very low. In February 1989, barely into his second term, Pérez faced a popular uprising, which he had the army crush with a death toll of 276, according to government officials. It is known as the “caracazo” (from “Caracas”), where the rioting and looting was on an unforeseen scale. Chávez then was working on a political sciences degree at the Simon Bolivar University, where he was not likely to imbibe revolutionary ideas, for its rector had written a doctoral dissertation on the German philosopher Edmund Husserl and anyway the staff had many adecos.
Pérez and Naím went on with their reforms, which had the full backing of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the Venezuelan economy started picking up, but only slightly and Venezuelans, who are not very keen on capitalist globalization, were resentful. Rightly or wrongly, Pérez, who after his first presidency was a rich man, was singled out as Mr. Corruption himself. The MBR officers started plotting seriously and on 4th February 1992 they struck. Chávez was a lieutenant-colonel, but generals were involved in the coup attempt. Its immediate objective was to capture Pérez, who had recently returned from a junket. They almost had him cornered in the presidential palace, but he managed to escape to the presidential residence and from there he got loyal troops to corner Chávez in turn and arrest him. In exchange for prompting his co-conspirators to lay down their arms, Chávez, fully uniformed and unbowed, was allowed to speak on television to the entire nation. A Venezuelan anti-corruption hero, and as pardo as they come, had been born.
On 27th November 1992, officers of higher rank than Chávez tried to overthrow Pérez but this time around the conspiracy was easily put down. Pérez’s downfall came when a legal process was begun to force to him reveal how he had used a secret but legal presidential fund, which he resolutely resisted. With the supreme court and congress ranged against him, Pérez was imprisoned, for a while in a detention center, and then under house arrest. He handed the presidency in 1993 to Ramón J. Velásquez, an adeco politician/historian who had been his presidential secretary. Though nobody has charged Velásquez with corruption, his son was involved in an illegal pardon for drug-traffickers, but was not charged. Velázquez oversaw the elections of that year, and these were at once familiar and unique.
Caldera, who had been candidate for the presidency six times and won once, wanted to have another go, but COPEI this time resisted, led by Herrera Campins, and Caldera founded his own brand-new political movement, called Convergencia. COPEI chose a mediocrity from within its ranks. The adecos chose the pardo Claudio Fermín. Petkoff had seen the futility of trying again and backed Caldera. Even Velázquez got into the act. When the returns were in, Caldera won and in the process shattered the strict bipolarity thesis. Abstentions reached a record of 40%. The main reason Caldera, who was 86 years old, won was in essence the same as for Pérez’s victory in 1973: everybody knew him and the middle classes, probably decisive for the only time in Venezuela’s history, thought that he could do the miracle that had been expected of Pérez, that is, in some manner to get the country back on track to the “good old times”.
Once back in the presidential palace, Caldera re-imposed exchange control, which had been lifted under Pérez, and started ruling as if re-living his undistinguished presidency of 1979-1983. The economy plummeted and then Caldera decided to backtrack, and chose Petkoff to do the job. The steel corporation Sidor was privatized, and the economy continued to plummet. He released Chávez and pardoned all the military and civilian conspirators during the Pérez regime. He didn’t know it but this generosity, which was part of a long Venezuelan tradition, would blow up in his face. In 1998, Hugo Chávez Frías was elected President, definitely crushing the traditional political establishment, which even in congress could obtain only a low number of seats, mostly of adecos for Social Christian COPEI was virtually wiped out.
Hugo Chávez, a former paratroop lieutenant-colonel who led an unsuccessful coup d'état in 1992, was elected President in December 1998 on a platform that called for the creation of a "Fifth Republic", a new constitution, a new name ("the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela"), and a new set of social relations between socioeconomic classes. In 1999, voters approved a referendum on a new constitution, and in 2000, re-elected Chávez, also placing many members of his Fifth Republic Movement political party in the National Assembly. Supporters of Chávez call the process symbolised by him the Bolivarian Revolution, and organise themselves in open, local, participatory assemblies called Bolivarian Circles.
Chávez's policies have faced strong opposition from a vocal minority. A business-labor general work stoppage was called in December 2001, followed by an attempted coup in April 2002, and another general work stoppage in December 2002, shutting down the state oil company PDVSA for two months and crippling the Venezuelan economy.
In August, 2004, Chávez faced a recall referendum, but 59% of the voters voted to keep Chavez in office. During the run-up to the election, government deputy Luis Tascón published on his web page the list and identity card numbers of those who had signed the petition to hold the referendum against Chávez. A statistical study by Roberto Rigobón and Ricardo Hausmann said they had found statistical evidence that the electoral council had manipulated the electoral audit. The Organization of American States and the Carter Center certified the voting results as representative of the votes cast, and Jimmy Carter stated that in his opinion it was fairer than the voting process in Florida during the 2000 U.S. Presidential election.
In December 2007 Chavez suffered his first electoral defeat as constitutional changes proposed by the president, some of which would have increased the power of the presidency, were voted down. The referendum saw a very high level of abstention by the standards of recent polls in Venezuela.