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The New International, Fall 1957

Juan Parao

Origins of the Venezuelan Revolt

Background < of a Heroic Struggle for Freedom


From The New International, Vol. XXIII No. 4, Fall 1957, pp. 254–269.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The following article by Juan Parao was written a few days before the dictatorial regime of General Marcos Pérez Jiménez was overthrown – a momentous event predicted with prophetic insight by the author. The beginning of Jiménez’ end occurred when the Venezuelan dictator tried to “legalize” his tottering regime by a rigged plebiscite on December 15. The plebiscite boomeranged and touched off, on New Year’s Day, a revolt by Air Force officers backed by some Army units. This uprising was swiftly repressed, but not the widespread, and irrepressible hatred for a regime which, in the words of a New York Times columnist, “implanted a pattern of terror seldom matched in the Hemisphere.”

Pérez Jiménez reshuffled his cabinet to give the military greater voice in domestic affairs, but the revolutionary populace could not be pacified. Anti-Jiménez protests continued. On January 13, the new Defense Minister was forced to flee the country after another attempt to oust Jiménez. A series of student demonstrations ensued, momentarily suppressed by police action.

The following weekend the Junta Patriotica – consisting of all opposition Venezuelan parties – issued a call for a general strike. On Tuesday morning the church bells in Caracas sounded the signal for the general strike and the people responded. Huge crowds massed in the streets shouting “Down with tyranny!” and the fighting with police and army units began. The next day the army went over to the revolution. Pérez Jiménez could crush the revolt of the military officers, but not a revolt by an entire, aroused nation.

Comrade Juan Parao, a Venezuelan socialist, is a left-wing activist in Venezuela’s leading political party, the Accion Democratica. He has written a detailed and stirring account of the actual revolutionary events published in Labor Action of February 24 and March 10, 1958.

* * *

In the summer of 1957 some Venezuelan liberals entertained a faint hope that the Pérez Jiménez dictatorship might be willing to “fade away” and hand over the power to a conservative democrat like Dr. Rafael Caldera of the C.O.P.E.Y. (Christian Democratic Party). The groundlessness of that hope became obvious as soon as Caldera announced his willingness to run as an opposition candidate. Caldera was jailed and C.O.P.E.Y. – the last political party which until then was allowed a theoretical existence – was outlawed. Pérez Jiménez proclaimed that the “New National Ideal” in whose name he is ruling is incompatible with the existence of any political parties whatsoever. The “New National Ideal” means, according to the ideological hacks of the dictatorship, “the union of the great Venezuelan family in a common task of national construction, undisturbed by party strife, demagoguery and politicking.”

The plebiscite which confirmed the continuation of Pérez Jiménez’ rule was prepared painstakingly. On November 4, Minister of the Interior Vallenilla Lanz appeared before a joint session of both houses of Congress and read the Executive’s proposal for an electoral statute: the election would be a mere plebiscite, with no opposition candidates. Every citizen, male and female, above 18 years of age, and also all foreigners who had resided in the country for more than two years, would vote “yes” or “no” on the question of Pérez Jiménez serving as president for another term.

All electoral propaganda was to be strictly forbidden.

Within hours of the presentation of this bill, all State Governors, Prefects and Civil Chiefs (township representatives of the central government) went into action. They sent prepared statements, endorsing the electoral bill and praising the “genius” Pérez Jiménez, to every business firm, professional association, rural community and association of foreign residents within their jurisdiction, with strict orders that the paper be signed by every member or employee of these organizations. The collected "statements of support,” “petitions,” and “enthusiastic manifestoes” were published in all major newspapers. For several weeks, page after page of these newspapers was filled by thousands of signatures. Approximately 400,000 to 500,000 Venezuelans were thus forced to sign statements in favor of the dictator’s “re-election.” A refusal to sign on the part of a capitalist would have meant financial ruin. Refusal on the part of a worker or office worker would have meant immediate arrest.

The students of the University of Caracas and of various secondary schools were the only ones to organize large-scale demonstrations, protesting against the “electoral” law. Special riot squads of the National Guard (military police) broke up the demonstrations, wounded and arrested a number of students, and then invaded the University buildings, destroying class rooms, laboratories and libraries in an unprecedented outburst of vandalism. In addition to the students’ protest, a “Patriotic Junta,” representing different classes and parties, spread illegal leaflets, urging the population to protest against the “elections.”

In order to understand the social nature of the Venezuelan dictatorship and to reach conclusions regarding future perspectives, it is necessary to cast a brief look at Venezuelan economic and political history, and also at the history of the present regime itself.

THE SPANISH CONQUERORS WHO invaded the Venezuelan wilderness in the early sixteenth century were attracted by two economic factors: gold and land. The young merchant class of Spain and of the Empire lusted for the former, while impoverished nobles, dispossessed by rising commercial capitalism, arrived in the new world to conquer territorial fields. The gold-seekers represented the relatively more progressive element among the conquistadores, and among them the Spanish kings recruited their colonial administrators and supervisors. The land-seekers, who established plantations in the South American colonies, constituted a feudal, anti-centralist element. The planters’ feudalist hostility towards the mercantilist-capitalist monarchy was to explode into open rebellion at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

It should be pointed out that the feudal system became rooted less strongly in Venezuela than in other provinces of the Spanish Empire. In Venezuela there were no relatively advanced agricultural natives on whom the conquerors could impose feudal rule directly (as in Mexico or Peru). The pre-agricultural Indians of Venezuela proved incapable of efficient slave labor, and African Negroes had to be imported to work in the gold mines and on the coffee, cocoa and sugar plantations. Aside from the Negro slaves, the Spanish colonists ruled over a serf class which was mostly composed of mestizos, instead of being purely Indian as in Mexico or Peru. Only a part of the cultivated land in Venezuela became feudal; much of the country’s agriculture consisted – and still consists today – of tiny plots of land cultivated mainly for direct consumption by primitive, semi-nomadic independent peasants. Thus the backwardness of the country rendered direct and immediate feudalism impossible, and made the importation of foreign slaves necessary. The capitalist nature of the slave trade forced the colonists to adopt more flexible and modern economic methods than those of classic feudalism. At the same time, the sparsity of the population and the abundance of fertile land in the wilderness enabled at least half of the Venezuelan peasants to remain outside the feudal relationship and to practice a pre-historic type of free agriculture.

Nevertheless, when the Creoles (native-born people of Spanish descent) declared their independence from Spain in 1811, theirs was basically the revolt of a feudal landowning class against a Spain which until that time had been forcing them into the framework of its monopolistic mercantilism. The Creole’s first uprising was at least half reactionary: the freedom of trade which the Republicans demanded was the freedom to exploit their slaves and serfs without restraints imposed by royal law. The serfs and artisans not only did not follow the republican movement in 1811–1812, but actually turned against it and crushed it bloodily, sensing quite correctly that the Napoleon-influenced Spain of that time was more likely to protect their human rights than was the Creole squirearchy. Only after the defeat of the first republican uprising did the towering personality of Simon Bolivar begin to dominate events. Bolivar, a Creole aristocrat himself, but deeply imbued with the ideas of the French revolution, understood that Latin American independence could only be achieved by the broad masses, in the name of democracy. By one of those acts of free will of which men have been capable at all times, Bolivar broke out of the framework of his own class. He compelled the frightened and demoralized Creole aristocracy to proclaim the abolition of slavery and the equality of all citizens in 1815. The peasant masses, led by the guerilla general, J.A. Paez, came to the aid of the Republic, chased the Spanish army out of Venezuela, moved on into Colombia, and joined with the revolutionary forces there. Bolivar, torn between democracy and aristocracy, ignored the peasants’ half-conscious leanings toward a social revolution and led his men southward across the Andes, in one of the most far-flung and titanic military campaigns ever undertaken. He liberated Ecuador and Peru, then hastened back to Venezuela, proclaimed the Republic of Greater Colombia (Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador) and called on all nations of the Western hemisphere to establish a Pan-American Union which was to be the nucleus of a future union of free republics of the world. But while the Liberator was battling the royalists in Ecuador and dreaming of universal justice amidst the glaciers of the Chimborazo, the Creole feudalists, wealthy and secure in their new role of furnishers of agricultural goods to Britain, reorganized the liberated provinces in their own way. Democratic radicalism was repressed: slavery was preserved despite Bolivar’s decrees; the new republics disintegrated into groups of squabbling warlords’ domains.

The Venezuelan landlord class was divided into Conservatives and Liberals. The former party was composed of the wealthiest feudal lords, while the latter represented the smaller landowners and the merchants. The peasants and artisans supported the Liberal Party sporadically, but remained politically passive at most times. Constant deadlocks between Conservatives and Liberals rendered the feudal class incapable of parliamentary-democratic self-government. Lower-class chieftains and warlords rose to power as dictators of the country, basing themselves on their army, and exacting tribute from both the Conservatives and the Liberal oligarchy. Many of these dictators rose to power on the crest of democratic waves, but inevitably degenerated into reactionary despots after a few years. The former guerrilla general Jose Antonio Paez, the brothers Monagas and the efficient though megalomanic “civilizing autocrat” Guzman Blanco were the most important among the post-Bolivarian dictators.

In the fifties of the nineteenth century, Venezuela was tom by a bloody civil war. The Liberals decreed the definite abolition of slavery and called on the people to support them against the Conservative upper oligarchy. The popular response frightened the Liberal squirearchy, who had not intended to start a revolution. Under the leadership of the peasant general Ezequiel Zamora, the serfs and former slaves arose, massacred a considerable portion of the ruling class – which in its turn slaughtered many thousands of peasants – and burned down half the country’s plantations and lordly mansions. But the revolution fizzled out; neither Zamora nor any of his followers had a clear political consciousness; decimated by slaughter, famine and pestilence, the Venezuelan peasant-artisan class fell back under the political and economic domination of the squirearchy.

The economic disasters resulting from the civil war brought Venezuela under the creditor rule of Britain, France and the United States. European and North American imperialism struggled for control of the Venezuelan market during the last decades of the nineteenth and the first decade of the twentieth century. When European powers sent warships to blockade the Venezuelan coast in 1903, the United States, armed with the Monroe doctrine and the Big Stick, energetically bade them to depart. North American mining companies (gold and asphalt) obtained sizeable concessions in Venezuela. But the Venezuelan agrarian ruling class, under the government of presidents Crespo and Castro, made use of the imperialist rivalry to prevent the predominant economic penetration of any one foreign power.

In 1909 oil was discovered in western Venezuela. Shortly afterwards, the warlord Juan Vicente Gomez overthrew the government and became president. He ruled as an absolute dictator for twenty-seven years, granting unlimited concessions to foreign oil companies. The establishment of oil camps produced an exodus of peasants from the agricultural lands toward the wells and land ceased to be primarily a means of production to become an object of speculation. Soon not only all industrial goods but also most foodstuffs had to be imported from abroad. A new class of importers and agents of foreign firms, composed partly of foreigners and partly of members of the native oligarchy, developed swiftly.

Through the growth of the oil industry and of import-export firms, a native proletariat was born. Many tens of thousands of landless and jobless peasants and agricultural workers moved to the oil concessions and to the industrial centers. A network of highways was built – mostly by chain gangs of convicted criminals or political prisoners, who died by the thousands in the process. The great feudal lords, who were holding both the economic and the political power in the interior of the country, were curbed by Gomez, who killed or imprisoned some of them, confiscated their immense estates and placed his own henchmen in political control of the provinces. He thus transformed pure feudalism into a commercial and capitalist dominated, centrally controlled feudalism. In a way, he played the same role which the absolute monarchs of the sixteenth century played in Europe, except for the fact that he was not working simply for a native commercial oligarchy but also – and even primarily – for foreign imperialism. Inasmuch as Venezuela had become absolutely dependent on the export of a single productoil – and inasmuch as the dominant economic power – the United States – was in a position to dictate any terms to her, she was a colony, as dependent as she had been at the time of the Spanish domination.

THE TRANSFORMATION OF A PART of the oligarchy into a commercial and capitalist class, and the growth of a proletariat, produced important psychological phenomena among the educated groups. A generation of liberal and radical intellectuals grew up during Gomez’ long reign. A series of conspiracies against the dictator failed, partly because the revolutionary intellectuals had not yet learned to seek mass support. Gomez repressed the conspiratorial activities with the utmost bestiality – he hanged his enemies by their testicles, or stifled them in their own excrements – and a whole generation of revolutionaries was forced into temporary exile, to other Latin American countries, or to Europe. Venezuela’s finest men of letters – Romulo Gallegos, Andres Eloy Blanco, Rufino Blanco Fombona – belonged to that generation. So did the men who later were to become the leaders of her modern political parties – Jovito Villalba, Gustavo Machado, Rafael Caldera, Romulo Betancourt. Sociologically, these men were sons of the small squirearchy – the old middle class. In their thought and action they expressed the stirrings of the small landowners, small merchants, native manufacturers – and ultimately of the workers and peasants – against the Gomez- led feudal-commercial oligarchy and against the rule of foreign capital.

In exile, party programs were elaborated. Four main opposition parties appeared: the nationalist-democratic Republican Democratic Union (U.R.D.) led by Jovito Villalba; the semi-Marxist workers and peasant party Democratic Action (A.D.) led by Romulo Betancourt; the Venezuelan Communist Party (P.C.V.) led by Gustavo Machado. In 1936, the three left-wing groups joined together into a Popular Union, with a militant antifascist and anti-feudalist program.

At the beginning of 1936, Gomez died. His Minister of War, General Eleazar Lopez Contreras, assumed the presidential powers. He allowed the people to hold the streets for several days, to liberate the political prisoners and to lynch the worst among the Gomezist hoodlums. Then he dispersed them with only moderate bloodshed, and established a sort of human Gomesist in the place of bestial Gomezism. He allowed the political exiles to return to Venezuela, but refused to grant them the right to agitate freely. Whenever they did, he scolded them like a father and sent them to jail for a few weeks.

During Lopez Contreras’ rule, Democratic Action and the Communist Party were active among the oil and transport workers, and trade-unions were formed. Lopez refused to give the unions legal recognition, and jailed some of the leaders.

From the death of Bolivar to the presidency of Lopez Contreras, the general pattern of Venezuelan government was thus the following: the feudal-commercial oligarchy, divided into a purely feudal Conservative upper crust and a Liberal lower half, was unable to exercize its class rule directly. A succession of military dictatorships rose to power, with the army keeping the balance between the feudal aristocracy and the small landlords and merchants. From the beginning of the twentieth century, the imperialist influence of the United States superseded the difference between Conservatives and Liberals, and the army became the preserver of a modus vivendi between foreign capital and the native oligarchy.

It should be noted that the dictators and army leaders were usually from the Andes. Time after time, the mountaineers swept down on the strife-torn plains and established their military dictatorships, “reconciling” the different factions within the oligarchy by brute force. From the rise of Gomez on, leadership of the army became practically hereditary within Andean families and clans.

In 1940, Lopez Contreras handed the presidency over to his Minister of War: Isaias Medina Angarita. When Congress elected Medina to be Lopez Contreras’ successor as political chief of the ruling oligarchy and of the nation, the Popular Union presented the novelist Romulo Gallegos as opposition candidate for the presidency. But the Stalin-Hitler pact had caused dissensions within the Popular Union. While the Communists and the democratic nationalists of Jovito Villalba took a bitterly anti-North American and anti-British stand, and advocated neutrality in the war, Democratic Action chose the position of international social-democracy in supporting the Allied Powers as the lesser evil against fascism. The personality of Gallegos, however, won the support of all these groups.

In 1941, after the invasion of the Soviet Union and the entry of the United States into the war, the political situation in Venezuela changed drastically. The invasion of Russia caused the Communists to proclaim their wholehearted support of the Allied war aims. They thus adopted the same position as Democratic Action. The Medina government was moved by Pearl Harbor to expel all Nazis and to place Venezuela completely at the disposal of the Allied Powers for the struggle against the Axis. In so doing, Medina was supported by the Left, and members of the Popular Union entered the government.

The war brought extraordinary prosperity to Venezuela. Commerce flourished and expanded; native light industries were founded; the native bourgeoisie and a new petty bourgeoisie, increased by a considerable inflow of anti-fascist refugees from Europe, gained rapidly in importance; the proletariat grew and became more insistent in its demands. Under the stimulus of international anti-fascism and of the economic upsurge of the young commercial and industrial middle class inside Venezuela, Medina, supported by the Left, began to apply progressive policies. While increased oil exports enriched both the feudal- commercial and the bourgeois middle class, the Venezuelan government declared the trade unions legal and granted them the right to bargain collectively and to strike. It made American and British oil companies raise their tax and royalties payments to 40 per cent of the total profits. The increased government revenue was used for progressive public works. Slums were cleared and low-cost housing units built; schools and hospitals mushroomed; an advanced social security system with free medical care, unemployment insurance and maternity and old-age pensions was introduced. A new labor code established collective bargaining, minimum wages, maximum hours, industrial health and safety controls, compulsory bonuses, labor courts, generous indemnization for dismissals, etc. On the political level, freedom of action for all non-fascist parties was established.

THE MEDINA GOVERNMENT WAS NOT a formal democracy in the parliamentary sense, but it was extremely democratic in content. The reactionary militarists, who had constituted the main influence on the presidency at the time of Gomez and Lopez Contreras, were evicted from responsible posts; Medina surrounded himself with democratic civilians. Trade union representatives and leaders of all democratic political groups had ready access to him. The will of the organized bourgeoisie and of the working class was at least partly expressed by this government.

The Medina government constituted a transition between feudal-oligarchic and bourgeois-democratic rule. Slowly the democratic influence in it was growing. The anti-fascist climate of the times, and the fact that a part of the feudal aristocracy was modernizing itself and taking up capitalist activities helped to stimulate democratic development. Eventually a new party was constituted, the Venezuelan Democratic Party, with Medina at its head. This party included most of the former groups of the Popular Union, with the exception of Democratic Action, which kept its autonomy and acted as a loyal opposition.

BY 1945, DEMOCRATIC ACTION felt that Venezuela was ripe for more than a transition to bourgeois democracy. The democratic transformation of Venezuela could not be carried to its completion by the bourgeoisie itself, under a political leadership which was still partly Andean militarist. Only the working class, peasantry and petty bourgeois (small businessmen, professional men, students, etc.) could carry out the program of bourgeois democracy and at the same time lay the basis for socialism. Democratic Action never expressed this line of thinking in Marxist or even simply in sociological terms, but its program very definitely stated that complete political democracy, a land reform, anti-imperialist measures tending towards the economic independence of the country, drastic social reforms and trade union rule should lead the nation toward the establishment of a “native” form of socialism. The program of Democratic Action was very similar to that of the Revolutionary Party in the Mexican revolution and to that of A.P.R.A. in Peru. Democratic Action’s membership was recruited mostly among the working class (including white collar workers) and partly among intellectuals and small businessmen. The party was influential in the trade unions.

The fact that Democratic Action was a two class party, representing both the lower middle-class struggle against the upper bourgeois and the feudal oligarchy, and the working class struggle against capitalism in general, was reflected in ideological differences among the party’s leaders. The Secretary-General of the party, Romulo Betancourt, a former Communist who had turned violently anti-Stalinist, had a position comparable to that of European social-democrats. He was an implacable enemy of feudalism and of militarism on the one hand and of Stalinism on the other. At the same time, however, he underestimated the dangers resulting from United States imperialism. He advocated a social struggle inside Venezuela against the upper classes, forgetting to some extent that in a semi-colonial country social movements must be linked to a struggle against national servitude. He believed that North American imperialism could be overcome through reasonable negotiations with U.S. liberals. At the same time he was intransigent, and through his dogmatism antagonized the sections of the labor movement who were under Stalinist influence, as well as independent leftists who would have liked to give critical support to A.D. if allowed the chance.

At the other extreme, Democratic Action included a group which considered the struggle against imperialism to be the first and main task, and felt that the national industry, threatened by the importation of foreign merchandise, should be supported and strengthened. This group was willing to consider temporary and limited alliances with the C.P. and with the middle-class nationalist Republican Democratic Union.

Betancourt represented the labor wing of Democratic Action insofar as he advocated an immediate struggle against native as well as foreign capital, and at the same time he represented a section of the small importers, who were anti-feudalist but closely linked to foreign capital and opposed nationalist economic measures.

The thoroughly anti-imperialist wing of the party – including the writer Romulo Gallegos – represented the revolt of the working class and of small manufacturers not only against the local exploiters but against the whole international imperialist system which rendered local exploitation inevitable. Betancourt seemed to have the most revolutionary position at first sight, but actually his program implied action within the framework of a "reformed” imperialism, while the anti-imperialist wing – which we shall henceforth call the left wing – advocated a revolution against imperialism as a whole, including the nationalization of the oil industry, creation and protection of native industries under economic planning, and a strictly neutralist position internationally.

While Democratic Action felt that the Medina regime was unable to bring about real democracy in Venezuela, another group of men also opposed the government bitterly: the young army officers. On the one hand, they represented the resentment of the new bourgeoisie against the feudal aristocracy. On the other hand, they were moved by the purely professional ambition to reinstate the army in the position it had enjoyed at the time of the early dictators: arbiter between different classes and interest groups. Inasmuch as the army in its role of "arbiter” has always tended eventually to lean toward the most reactionary class, no Latin American military coup d’etat can be truly progressive. Any civil government, no matter how rightist, offers a better chance for a democratic development than a military government. Any movement which strengthens the power of the army is filled with implications that are ultimately reactionary. In spite of this, in October 1945 Democratic Action reached an agreement with the young officers of the army for the overthrow of the Medina government.

MANY ASPECTS OF THE “OCTOBER revolution” remain obscure. Democratic Action was undoubtedly sincere in its desire to establish a regime which would lead the country toward a form of socialism. On the other hand, the Medina government continued working in a progressive direction. Plans had just been drafted for a new agreement in the oil industry, which would give the Venezuelan government 50 per cent of the total oil profits in the form of taxes and royalties. The United States was worried about the fact that Medina continued to be supported by the Stalinists. The cold war was about to start. Inside Democratic Action, the pro-United States wing headed by Romulo Betancourt was in the majority. Even though Democratic Action showed revolutionary tendencies, the United States may have felt that it was a bulwark against Communism. In any event, the State Department granted de jure recognition to the revolutionary Democratic Action government almost immediately.

The overthrow of the Medina government (October 18–20, 1945) was the work of the army forces led by the young officers and of armed civilians belonging to Democratic Action. Bloody fighting took place in Caracas and other cities for two to three days. Houses and estates belonging to notorious reactionaries were looted and sometimes burned. The role of the Democratic Action militias was important both in defeating the Medinist police and security guard troops, and in preserving law and order after the fighting was over. The militia was instructed by the revolutionary government to disband and to hand over its arms after the end of the fighting. The monopoly of armed might was thus retained by the army. Democratic Action mistakenly believed that the dismissal of the reactionary generals and colonels from the army sufficed to make the country safe for democracy.

The labor-middle class revolutionary junta headed by Romulo Betancourt decreed a number of progressive measures: it put the 50–50 agreement with the oil companies into the practice; it extended and improved social security and the labor legislation introducing compulsory profit-sharing and the establishment of works councils; it drew up plans for a sweeping land reform (which was never carried out); it granted full freedom of action and expression to all political groups; it curbed the power of the church and reduced the privileges of religious schools; it built hospitals and schools, undertook a large campaign against malaria, tuberculosis and venereal diseases, organized rural education programs and anti-illiteracy campaigns. Most important of all, the junta completely cleared the administration of reactionaries, Gomezists and Andean oligarchs, and placed revolutionary members of the popular classes in all leading positions. At the same time, Democratic Action awakened the working class and the peasantry to political consciousness and activity, through the holding of mass meetings and rallies throughout the country. This latter aspect of Democratic Action’s activities frightened and enraged the oligarchy and bourgeoisie including even the nationalist radicals of the U.R.D. – more than any other. Before 1945 most political struggles had only involved the oligarchy and upper bourgeoisie. Democratic Action brought the working masses to play an active historical role, and therein lies its greatest merit.

Through elections based on direct and universal suffrage (for the first time in Venezuelan history), a Constituent Assembly was elected. The following parties were represented in this Assembly: Democratic Action (with an absolute majority), the Communist Party, the Republican Democratic Union (middle-class nationalist) and a right-wing opposition party: C.O.P.E.Y. (Christian-Democratic). Although the opposition loudly complained about Democratic Action’s “demagoguery,” everyone tacitly agreed that the elections to the Constituent Assembly had been fair and honest.

The constitution which was elaborated by this Assembly reflected the ideas held in common by Democratic Action, the Communist Party and, to a lesser extent, the U.R.D. It was one of the most progressive democratic charters ever established, similar, in many ways, to the Mexican constitution.

Under Democratic Action leadership, the trade union movement grew mightily. A new trade union federation was founded: the Federation of Venezuelan Workers. Unfortunately, this resulted in a split in the labor movement: the Communist-influenced unions refused to join the Federation. Eventually the Federation joined the I.C.F.T.U., thus broadening the gap between itself and the unions which remained loyal to the C.T.A.L. (Latin American section of the W.F.T.U.). The leadership of the Communist-led unions was divided as a consequence of a split within the Communist Party. A group of dissident Communists founded a group called the Proletarian Revolutionary Party, which was labelled “Trotskyite” by the orthodox Stalinists. Although the P.R.P. undoubtedly had Trotskyists in its ranks, its orientation was essentially syndicalist, i.e., it preached direct action, preferably violent, and the general strike, and refused to participate in parliamentary politics. The P.R.P. obtained control of one of the two transport workers’ unions. The other transport workers’ union was led by Democratic Action and belonged to the Federation. The oil workers also were divided into two unions, with Democratic Action controlling the larger, and the Stalinists the smaller of the two.

As the trade-union movement grew in strength, strikes broke out in all industries. Production decreased sharply in some branches, foreign capital threatened to desert the country, and the upper classes gave forth a shout of alarm.

IN DECEMBER 1947 ELECTIONS were held for a constitutional government to succeed the revolutionary junta. The novelist Romulo Gallegos, Democratic Action’s candidate, was elected president of the Republic. The C.P. and U.R.D. asked to be allowed to participate in the government but Gallegos, carried to power by an absolute majority of the electorate, formed a homogenous Democratic Action cabinet.

Although Gallegos was president, it was common knowledge that the party apparatus, and therefore the administrative machinery of the country, were thoroughly controlled by Romulo Betancourt. Gallegos himself disagreed with Betancourt in many respects. Gallegos belonged to the intransigently anti-imperialist wing of party, and looked with some misgivings at Betancourt’s strong sympathies with the United States. Betancourt had carried out, among other things, a project establishing a 50–50 partnership between the Venezuelan government and Mr. Nelson Rockefeller for the establishment of a “Venezuela Basic Economy Corporation,” intended to stimulate the growth of native industries and the development of agriculture. Democratic Action’s left wing agreed with the Communists and with the Republican Democratic Union in that Mr. Rockefeller’s interest in Venezuela was not an unmitigated blessing, but out of party solidarity refrained from saving so loudly. In any event, Betancourt’s influence in the party and the government remained so preponderant, as against that of the left wing, that people commonly referred to the Party Secretary as “Big Romulo” and to President Gallegos as “Little Romulo.”

During this period, right-wing groups, often linked to C.O.P.E.Y., conspired to overthrow the government. A military putsch was crushed in the city of Valencia. Other conspiracies were discovered. A number of right-wingers were arrested, but released again after some time. At the same time, ninety-five per cent of the press was anti-governmental, attacking Democratic Action either from the Right or from the Stalinist viewpoint.

DURING THE FIRST MONTHS of 1948, social unrest grew more and more intense. Whole sectors of industry and commerce were paralyzed by strikes; clashes between workers and police were frequent. Democratic Action’s constantly growing working-class membership began to demand the nationalization of basic industries, including oil, and for the immediate application of the land reform. Betancourt continued, however, to hesitate between the right and the left, verbally backing the workers but refusing to take up a revolutionary and anti-imperialist course of action. The oil companies wished for Democratic Action’s downfall; the United States government worried about the growth of all sorts of Marxist influences in Venezuela; the Church screamed about godlessness and spread ridiculous rumors to the effect that Democratic Action was drawing up plans for the hanging of all priests and the raping of all nuns. The same bourgeois and anti-feudal officers who had supported Democratic Action in 1945 now decided that “the uneducated masses are getting out of hand” and got ready for a coup d’etat.

The most varied sources of information agree in that United States officials seem to have had a hand in the preparation of the coup d’etat. While this cannot be proved, it is obvious that the oil companies and the American government had the strongest reasons to hope for the stemming of the rising proletarian-peasant tide. On the other hand, it should be remembered that United States exporters had every reason to be satisfied with the Venezuelan situation. Venezuelan social unrest, unsupported by any progressive, socialist-oriented intervention on the part of the government, harmed the native manufacturers, prevented the expansion of national industrial production, and made large-scale imports of foreign finished goods more necessary than ever. Perhaps this explains why certain North American magazines, which reflect the opinion of big business, were and still are remarkably friendly toward Betancourt: while a section of the American bourgeoisie was interested in overthrowing Democratic Action, another section was well pleased with the Venezuelan disorder.

When it was already too late, Betancourt finally decided to take up the revolutionary course of action for which the party’s left wing had been calling for a long time. To defend the regime against an army coup, he began feverishly to distribute arms among the workers, students and Spanish Republican immigrants. But the army was ready; the Left was weakened and disorganized by its internal dissensions, and at the end of November 1948, Democratic Action was overthrown without a fight.

A MILITARY JUNTA COMPOSED of three colonels (who had been majors or captains in 1945) took over the administration of the country. The members of this triumvirate were: Colonel Carlos Delgado Chalbaud, Colonel Llovera Paez and Colonel Marcos Pérez Jiménez. Delgado Chalbaud was president of the junta.

The junta immediately dissolved and crushed Democratic Action and jailed all leaders of the Federation of Venezuelan Workers. The Communist Party was allowed to continue its existence and to publish its newspaper for more than a year after the military coup. The Venezuelan bourgeoisie, whom the military junta represented, knew perfectly well that Democratic Action, with its tremendous influence on the masses, was far more dangerous than the Communist Party, which was smaller, and whose immediate program did not advocate revolutionary policies but only nationalist resistance against North American influence. The Communist Party was finally outlawed in 1950. It is interesting to note that the working class leaders of the C.P. were all sent to concentration camps or killed, while the leaders of bourgeois origin were sent off into exile in a rather leisurely way.

The small, noisy and ineffective P.R.P. was allowed to continue its existence for a few months after the outlawing of the C.P.; then it disappeared also.

Government henchmen were placed at the head of the trade unions and strikes were made illegal in practice, though not in theory. The progressive social legislation created by Medina and by Democratic Action was preserved, however, and continued to be enforced in most cases.

Political prisoners (their number varying at different moments between 1,000 and 7,000) were sent to concentration camps in the wilds of Venezuelan Guiana. The worst concentration camp was established on the swampy, malaria-ridden island of Guasina in tn the Orinoco delta. Many political prisoners – particularly those of working class extraction – died as a consequence of disease, undernourishment, blows and tortures. Some were shot “while trying to escape.”

All important administrative positions were occupied by army officers, who established a regime of unprecedented corruption, thievery and administrative blackmail.

The military regime was backed by two groups: the national bourgeoisie (native manufacturers and landowners) and United States imperialism with its native commercial agents and other hirelings. Balancing itself between these two groups, whose interests were contradictory but who were united by a common fear of the working class and the small peasants, the army was able to profit from both. The native manufacturers were made to pay exorbitant bribes in return for protective tariffs, while foreign capital was forced to accept national protective regulations and to share the profits with Venezuelan investors and the army, in return for a guarantee against strikes or nationalizations.

It should be emphasized that the Venezuelan national bourgeoisie is in no way a revolutionary class. It is identical with the old feudal oligarchy. Like Japan, Venezuela has taken up capitalism, not through the destruction of feudalism by a bourgeois revolution, but through the peaceful transformation of feudal into capitalist property. The feudal landlord has bought a factory – that is all. There has been no structural transformation of society. The native capitalists of middle class origin did not remain a separate class; they were absorbed by the modernized oligarchy.

On the military junta, Carlos Delgado Chalbaud represented the most moderate and liberal tendency. He was an honest man personally, and sincerely believed in an eventual return to bourgeois democracy – a liberal regime from which the non-bourgeois parties would be excluded. He deplored corruption and failed to understand that corruption was the very reason for existence of army rule. In 1952 he was assassinated.

Suspiciously enough, the killers were shot by the police, so that they were unable to testify in court. Pérez Jiménez has been suspected of organizing the assassination himself, in order to get rid of his rival for absolute power. It seems more likely that he did not participate in this sinister affair actively, but that he knew about the plan, allowed the assassination to take place, and then destroyed the evidence of his passive connivance.

As soon as Delgado Chalbaud was dead, Pérez Jiménez announced that elections would be held in the near future.

UNDER THE IMPETUS OF COLOSSAL oil exports, the accumulation of native capital had made great progress in Venezuela between 1948 and 1953. The native manufacturing and investing bourgeoisie clamored for a larger and larger place in the economic world. While Delgado Chalbaud had leaned to the side of foreign capital, Pérez Jiménez was more sympathetic with the native bourgeoisie, and more disposed to intensify nationalist economic measures. The United States government did not view Pérez Jiménez’ personality with pleasure, and both internal and external interests thus pushed the dictator o permit opposition candidates to run against him in the 1953 elections.

The two opposition parties which still existed were the Republican Democratic Union, which put up Dr. Jovito Villalba as presidential candidate, and the C.O.P.E.Y., with the candidature of Dr. Rafael Caldera. The C.O.P.E.Y. had shrunk to a tiny group of idealistic Christian-Democrats. The bulk of the party’s former rightist membership had deserted and joined Pérez Jiménez’ “Independent Electoral Front.”

Villalba was supported by all democratic and radical elements in the country. Democratic Action and the Communist Party, through their illegal resistance groups inside Venezuela, exhorted the masses to vote for the U.D.R. Bourgeois as he was, Villalba suddenly found himself to be the leader of the working class and the lower middle class. He campaigned radically, advocating the nationalization of the oil industry, a land reform and the expulsion of foreign capitalists and strike-breakers. He rejected Pérez Jiménez’ offer of an electoral alliance.

The people elected the Republican Democratic Union to power with an overwhelming majority.

Alarmed, the United States government made it known to Pérez Jiménez that it fully supported him as against Villalba’s “communists.” Heartened by this North American endorsement, Pérez Jiménez carried out a second coup d’etat. He arrested Villalba and put him on a plane to Mexico. He dissolved the Republican Democratic Union, imposed a strict censorship on the press, and published faked “election results” which gave him a large majority. He also imposed on the people, by decree, the senators, representatives and even municipal councillors who were to govern them for the next few years.

He had shown the United States how essential he was as a bastion against proletarian-peasant revolution. In return for the service he rendered the imperialists by keeping the workers down and by safeguarding the interests of the oil industry, he was now free to work for the native bourgeoisie and to intensify his program of economic nationalism.

Through ever more severe protective tariffs he made it unprofitable for foreign firms to export finished goods to Venezuela. Henceforth, in order not to lose the Venezuelan market, they had to invest capital inside Venezuela and set up subsidiary factories in partnership with Venezuelan capital. From 1953 on, the industrialization of Venezuela thus made gigantic progress. In a process of “decolonization,” the country ceased to be a mere supplier of raw material and market for finished goods, to become an investment market. The native bourgeoisie thus won a large share in investment fields which had been closed to it formerly. Nevertheless the great majority of capital invested in Venezuela continues to be foreign, so that basically Venezuela is still dependent on the good or bad will of foreign interests.

The Pérez Jiménez government furthermore encouraged the development and diversification of agriculture. For the first time since the end of the nineteenth century, Venezuela became, by 1956, self-sufficient in all the most important food products.

The national bourgeoisie and the foreign investors need healthy and technically advanced workers, and the military government has accomplished a gigantic task of slum clearance, construction of low-cost housing units, construction of schools, almost total elimination of malaria and syphilis. Within ten years the Venezuelan people, which was one of the most disease-ridden on earth, has come to be healthy. The level of nutrition remains low, but the natural growth of the population, as a consequence of the reduction of child mortality, is soaring (2.3% in 1956).

These constructive works, like the destructive ones, are being carried out with bourgeois-military brutality. The workers are placed in the huge, modern, impersonal government apartment buildings by force, without having the slightest say in the matter. Technical progress, made necessary by the rise of the national bourgeoisie, is forced down the people’s throats, and any independent action or thought on the part of the working class is repressed with the greatest ruthlessness. The shadow of fear – fear of the secret police, the security guard and the concentration camp – hangs very visibly and individually over everyone. Furthermore, the health and housing programs do not make up for the fact that prices and profits are rising steadily while wages remain stationary or almost so. The working class’s relative share in the total national income has been reduced.

TO SUM UP, WE CAN SAY that Venezuelan history has been that of struggles between rival groups within the feudal and semi-feudal oligarchy. From 1909 on, the contradictions between foreign imperialism and native manufacturing interests was added to the conflicts within the country. The people (workers, peasants, lower middle class) participated in politics only sporadically, supporting the more liberal among the ruling class groups, but failing to rise to the level of independent action. The army was, and still is, the arbiter between large and small feudalists, and between imperialism and native capital. And, above all, it carries out the traditional army task of defending the oligarchy against the urban and rural poor, against the vast, still undifferentiated masses, within which the industrial worker, the peasant and the small shopkeeper are still allies in a common struggle.

Which political groups represent the best potentialities for a revolutionary struggle tending in the general direction of socialism?

C.O.P.E.Y. is negligible. It represents merely a few idealistic and conscience-stricken members of the oligarchy itself.

The Republican Democratic Union is unreliable. It is bourgeois and anti-Marxist. It represents the new middle class (liberal professions, small native manufacturers). It wants a national capitalism, independent of foreign imperialism. Sincere as its anti-imperialism may be, it is destined to be caught between the real adversaries – the oligarchy and the workers and peasants. Forced to chose sides between these major antagonists, it will ultimately chose the side of reaction. Its present attitude, even in exile, shows that it is terrified at the idea of a social revolution of the masses. It wishes to replace the military dictatorship by a “good,” middle class, nationalist dictatorship. It blames Democratic Action for “stirring up the good but barbarian masses which are not yet ready for full self-government.”

THE COMMUNIST PARTY IS ALSO unreliable. It consistently places nationalism first and social revolution last. It wishes to fight for national economic independence on the basis of a union of several classes, including the section of the national bourgeoisie which is not linked up with foreign capital. The rank and file members of the party are heroic, devoted, incorruptible, truly revolutionary. Some of the leaders are admirable too. But the party’s dependence on Russia, its tendency to import read-made foreign formulas to deal with a specifically Venezuelan situation, its sectarianism and intolerance, its undemocratic and hierarchical organization, its readiness for long-term cooperation with upper-class nationalists – all these are negative factors. Furthermore, the elections of 1947 showed that the CP enjoyed the support of only a rather small section of the workers, peasants and of the lower middle class.

That leaves Democratic Action. The party is far from perfect. The Betancourt group has dangerous bureaucratic and sectarian tendencies, and at the same time it is over-ready for compromise with imperialism. The left-wing of the party is subjectively admirable but lacks a clear program on the basis of which it could neutralize the personal influence and the political line of Betancourt. But, in spite of this, it is the only party which is a true, native outgrowth of the exploited classes. It had the confidence of the masses and could win it again. It has resistance groups within Venezuela and remains in touch with the people.

Venezuelan independent revolutionary socialists in exile should work in Democratic Action. They should combine the struggle for a Marxist education of the party members with a practical struggle against the bureaucratic methods and policies of the Betancourt leadership. Inside Venezuela, they should try to join the illegal party. If this is not possible, they should establish their own illegal groups, formulate their programs and be ready to join Democratic Action individually or in groups, whenever it may become possible to do so.

Struggle for democracy within the party, Marxist education, strengthening of the anti-imperialist, “third camp” tendency: these are the tasks which Venezuelan independent socialists should undertake within the ranks of Democratic Action.

WHAT CAN BE DONE AT PRESENT and in the near future?

The main weakness of the dictatorship is the discontent of the oligarchy itself.

The Venezuelan bourgeoisie has to pay a heavy price for the military protection it enjoys: from the traffic cops to the president of the country, every group in the national administration collects bribes. To avoid a fine for improper parking, one pays a bribe of 20 bolivares (US $6); to obtain an identification paper without waiting all day, one pays 40 bolivares ($12); to obtain a government contract for the construction of twenty apartment buildings, one pays a bribe of 3.85 million bolivares ($1 million). Furthermore, a bourgeois goes to jail as easily as a worker – free speech is impossible even for the wealthiest oligarch. And in the last place it is a fact that the oligarchy includes sensitive men and women who detest the corruption, cruelty and obscene “new rich” attitude of the ruling gang on moral grounds – though they detest the “communist mob-rule” of Democratic Action even more.

Large sections of the oligarchy long for a decent, dignified, humane, civilian semi-democracy. The cynicism with which the December “elections” have been prepared, the obscenity with which governmental smut sheets like La Prensa smear the exiled opposition leaders (the dictatorship tries to discredit its enemies by implying that they are all homosexuals) – these things have helped to stir up bourgeois and oligarch resentment against the infamous little fat man whom journalistic hacks call "the eagle from the Andes.”

The political parties in exile are in tacit agreement on the following issue: the immediate and most urgent task is the overthrow of the dictatorship and its replacement by a civilian parliamentary government, no matter how conservative such a government may be. For the moment, the liberal sections of the bourgeoisie and the Left can and must work together for the accomplishment of that first, basic task. This understanding has been expressed in the illegal, anti-governmental pre-election propaganda of the “Patriotic Committee” (Junta patriotica). The Junta patriotica, which spread leaflets calling for free elections, represented the opposition of members of all classes against Pérez Jiménez.

In the same way, the student riots, which brought about the violation of the University grounds and buildings by the security guard, were carried out by students pledging allegiance to all parties, from C.O.P.E.Y. to Democratic Action and the CP.

The socialist Left, working in or with Democratic Action, has two general tasks:

  1. Bring about a union of all anti-dictatorial forces, including those of the liberal bourgeoisie, to overthrow the Pérez Jiménez government, in tactical cooperation with the liberal members of the army itself;
  2. At the same time, carry out an intensive political campaign among the working class. If the working class can be brought to take an active part in the overthrow of the dictatorship, and to stand as an independent social and political force as soon as the first liberating task has been done, the democratic struggle can then be pushed on into a more advanced phase.

The fulfilment of the first task – overthrow of the dictatorship and and re-establishment of bourgeois democracy – may come about very soon. The preparation of the second task – independent class action of the workers and peasants – will require much patience, courage, devotion and, unfortunately, time.

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Last updated on 13 January 2020