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Venezuela, 1899-1999

From 1899 to 1908, Cipriano Castro never went to school; he had been a cowboy who saw no need for booklearning. He captured Caracas with private army, corrupt and dissolute. He was a drunkard, glutton, and libertine. Castro stashed money in United States and British banks. His critics were murdered, imprisoned, or exiled. He called himself the "Supreme Chief of the Liberal Revolutionary Restoration" and the "Moses of the Republic." Bad health led him to take a trip to Paris. He left the government in hands of his chief lieutenant, Juan Vicente Gómez, who took over.
    In the 1908-1935 period,  Juan Vicente Gómez  had no schooling. He had worked as a cattle hand and joined politics through Castro. He ruled 27 years, sometimes through stooges. He had six constitutions, all of which promised civil liberties. They demonstrate that words can be meaningless. Coffee exports rose, boosting the economy because of coffee's centrality, but petroleum became the central part of the economy. In 1918, there was the tremendous development and expansion of oil via foreign companies. With the 1920 petroleum law, Venezuela imposed heavy taxes on oil. The taxes did not slow down oil production. Vicente Gómez worked hard and ate and drank sparingly, unlike his predecessor. He sired many illegitimate children, many of whom he recognized and for whom he provided. He became very rich in office. On his farm in Maracay, he built a 1,000 foot long palace. He had good relations with foreign powers; paid off external debts; built roads; and extended sanitation measures. But he also ruled harshly, employing spies and a secret police. He used torture as a matter of policy. He maintained a strong army to use domestically. He died in 1935 at age of 78.
From 1935 to 1948, there was a movement towards democracy. Eleazar López Contreras, who took over when Gómez died, served from 1935-1940. During that time, he had the presidential term reduced from seven to five years, averted the  civil war that was brewing by encouraging discussion among the various political groups, stopped the practice of using torture and violence, and promoted civil liberties. He created the Pedagogical Institute. He improved state agencies for health and social assistance. In 1936, he had Congress pass the Labor Law which improved the lives of workers. Isaias Medina Angarita. president from 1940 to 1945 allowed political parties to organize. Two democratic parties, Acción Democrática (AD) and the Christian Democratic party (COPEI) were formed; they would eventually rule the country. In 1945, AD activists and young army officers overthrew the government thinking that Medina was not going to hold honest elections in 1945. After a military junta ruled, Rómulo Gallegos of AD ruled as president but the army overthrew him in 1948, for they feared social change.
    From 1948 to 1952, an army junta ruled. When the 1952 elections favored the Unión Republicana Democrática (URD) instead of the military, General Marcos Pérez Jiménez reversed election results and imposed himself as president. He used strong-armed measures combined with a little social welfare to stay in power from 1952 to 1958. He found lots of ways to get rich; his social welfare was primarily in public works where his friends could make money, overcharging for shoddy work. In December,1957, he staged a rigged plebiscite to continue in office for another term, but Democratic Republican Union (URD), AD, and COPEI and some army elements agreed that Pérez Jiménez had to go. On January 1, 1958, they overthrew him and installed a junta to govern until new elections could be held.
    In the December, 1958 election, Rómulo Betancourt of AD won. He would be the first democratically-elected president to serve his full term, 1959-64. Rómulo Betancourt pushed social reform, housing, and agrarian reform. He also spent an inordinate amount of time and money trying to keep the military at bay, a serious issue in a nation where the military overthrew governments without qualms. He had trouble from the left. A group split from within AD and formed the Leftist Revolutionary Movement (MIR). When leftists were involved in unsuccessful revolts at navy bases in 1962, Betancourt suspended civil liberties. Elements of the left then formed the terrorist group, the Armed Forces for National Liberation (FALN). After numerous terrorist acts, he finally arrested the MIR and Communist members of Congress. It became clear that Fidel Castro had been arming the terrorists, so Venezuela protested to the Organization of American States. Betancourt was also attacked from the right. Many conservatives could not stomach him and his policies and would not forget he had been a leftist as a young man. They sought to block him at every turn. They received help from Rafael Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic, who got involved in some Venezuelan military circles. Betancourt had denounced the Trujillo dictatorship; Trujillo responded by trying to assassinate him. In spite of all, Betancourt did not become a dictator and insured that fair elections were held in 1963.
    Raul Leoni of AD served the 1964-69 term. He erred in ending the coalition with COPEI. He had many of Betancourt's troubles with the left, but he beat the guerrillas. Most important, his turning the government over to the freely-elected opposition marked the maturity of Venezuelan democracy.
    From 1969 to 1973,  Rafael Caldera, (Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente or COPEI) Christian Democrat, elected president. This was significant because power was passing peacefully from one party to another. He got the Communist Party and the MIR back into the political party and out of the insurrectionist mold. His regime nationalized gas production. He promoted economic development in the southern part of the country.
    AD returned to power in 1974 with Carlos Andres Pérez. Venezuela had 12.3 million people. By 1975, it had a ten billion dollar a year oil output and 18 billion barrels in proven reserves. In 1975, the GNP was $13.4 billion. In 1977, the population was 25.2 million. In 1976, Venezuela nationalized its foreign-owned oil and iron companies.
    In 1978. Luis Herrera Campíns (COPEI) was elected. He faced a decrease in world oil prices during the early 1980s which undercut Venezuela's economy and caused the nation to borrow extensively. The national debt rose precipitously. In 1983 when Jaime Lusinchi (AD) was elected, he had to cut budgets and renegotiate the foreign debt, but he was unable to curb inflation or encourage employment.
    In 1989, Carlos Andres Pérez returned to office in 1989 amid demonstrations and riots sparked by deteriorating social conditions. In 1992, Pérez survived two attempted military coups, but in 1993 he was removed from office on corruption charges; he was later convicted and sentenced to jail for misuse of a secret security fund. Octavio Lepage served out his term.
    In 1994,  Rafael Caldera Rodríguez again became president after breaking with COPEI and running under the National Convergence banner. He unveiled austerity measures in 1996 and privatized some state-run companies. Oil prices dropped, causing an economic slowdown. Problems arose with its neighbor Colombia over the latter's drug traffickers.
    Politics changed in 1999 with the election of  Hugo Chávez Frías. He ran as the candidate of the Fifth Republic Party: Patriotic Pole Coalition. A former army colonel who tried to overthrow Pérez twice. He created his own political movement and won. He called for a halt to privatization of state assets and got a law to allow him to rule by decree on economic matters for half a year. He wanted more power, believing that it necessary to get the country moving. In 1999, a new constitution was adopted in December which created a strong presidency with the right to serve consecutive terms, a unicameral legislature, and a more autonomous military. A leftist, he was disliked by the United States. More and more Venezuelans withdrew their support and demonstrated against his regime. Many feared that he would become a dictator.

Don Mabry
Revised 122703