Case Study: Venezuela, January 1958

In January 1958, Venezuela had been under a military dictatorship since the overthrow of the democratically elected government led by the center-left Acción Democrática (Democratic Action Party, or AD) a decade earlier. With the assassination of coup leader Colonel Delgado Chalbaud in 1950, General Marcos Pérez Jiménez achieved de facto control, officially gaining the title of president two years later. A technocratic authoritarian, Jiménez restructured and modernized the Venezuelan armed forces to assure their loyalty, including making efforts to separate the officer corps from civilian society (Trinkunas, 2005, 67-68).

Despite the technocratic pretenses of the government, the regime was characterized by crony capitalism that won allies among conservative civilian elites but began to alienate some junior officers. The Venezuelan military had also been experiencing divisions since the coup, with the majority solidly behind Jiménez. Nevertheless, a strong minority was open to the possibility of limited civilian rule. As dissent also grew within the civilian population, Jiménez established a new police force within the Interior Ministry called the Seguridad Nacional (National Security Force), which eventually wielded more power than the regular armed forces.

The Resistance

Despite the repression and corruption, rapid economic growth and impressive development projects initially limited dissent. By most appearances, Jiménez appeared to be firmly in control. Opposition parties were banned and most leading opposition figures either went into exile or were jailed. Jiménez also enjoyed the strong support of the United States, the hegemonic power in the hemisphere. Small-scale acts of armed resistance by the Venezuelan Communist Party were easily crushed.

Despite this, civil society grew dramatically during this period, and clandestine opposition movements had begun to emerge by late 1956. In addition, women formed organizations and became active in the resistance, taking advantage of the greater political space they had relative to men (in large part because the dictatorship did not take them seriously). Posing as wives, mothers, or sisters, they were able to share messages between jailed opposition leaders and the underground resistance (Galván, 2013, 68-69). The Catholic hierarchy, which had been generally friendly with the government, began to distance itself in face of growing repression as Monseñor Rafael Arias Blanco, the archbishop of Caracas, denounced the violence of the government (Scheina, 2003, 230).

Popular discontent greatly increased when the country was hit by a recession in the fall of
1957, as a result of a drop in oil prices. The first major street protests took place when, instead of holding competitive elections as promised when Jiménez’s five-year term expired, the regime announced a plebiscite on whether or not he should be allowed to remain in power for an additional five years. The December 15 vote was discernably fraudulent, as the regime claimed victory with an 85% in favor within two hours of the closing of the polls.

A poorly organized coup attempt on January 1, 1958 was defeated, revealing divisions in the armed forces that emboldened the growing civilian opposition. On January 9, the underground opposition known as Junta Patriótica engaged in civil disobedience and street actions. Tens of thousands poured out onto the streets, particularly in the poorer neighborhoods of the capital Caracas, shouting “Down with the chains!” (Da Silva, 2013, 59). The government cracked down harshly, even closing the country’s high schools and universities to suppress student protests. Professional organizations representing doctors, lawyers, engineers and professors began organizing, and trade unions mobilized. Various national institutions which had until then largely been silent— including the College of Engineering, the Venezuelan Association of Journalists, and prominent business organizations—issued manifestoes against the regime.

On January 13, Acción Democrática, the largest opposition party, joined the Junta Patriótica and encouraged its members to join the protest. Though largely nonviolent, rioting, raids on government buildings, and attacks on security forces took place, including some exchanges of gunfire. An estimated 300 protesters were killed in the course of the insurrection.

A general strike was called for January 21, resulting in a virtual paralysis of all social and economic activity in the country. Most businesses closed voluntarily, though others were forced to close by protesters. The following day, naval units in Puerto Cabello, located about 200 kilometers west of Caracas, rebelled. Jiménez ordered the nearby Valencia army garrison to attack the rebellious seamen, but the commander refused.

Meanwhile, several destroyers with marine detachments began sailing towards La Guaira, the port just north of the capital. The dictator then ordered an army unit based in Caracas to attack La Guaira, but the commander instead stationed his forces in the hills between the port and the capital to protect the navy. In Caracas itself, cadets at the military academy revolted and were surrounded by troops from the Bolivar Battalion, but they refused to fire. Jiménez then tried to negotiate with the rebellious army and navy units, but they refused to compromise, instead demanding his departure. He fled to the Dominican Republic early on the morning of January 23 (Trinkunas, 60-61).

A Provisional Government Junta was established under the leadership of a Governing Board to oversee the restoration of democracy, consisting of Admiral Wolfgang Larrazábal as its chairman, along with four Army colonels. Protests of military domination continued, and military officers were soon replaced by prominent businessmen and other representatives of independent sectors, with journalist Fabricio Ojeda becoming chair. Democratic elections were held by the end of the year, resulting in a victory for the AD presidential nominee Rómulo Betancourt.

The Aftermath

Venezuela’s three main parties—the AD, COPEI (Social Christian Party), and Unión Republicana Democrática (URD)—signed the Puntofijo Pact which guaranteed power sharing and the maintaining of democratic institutions. During subsequent decades, Venezuela remained South America’s most stable democracy as much of the rest of the continent suffered under right-wing military dictatorships. However, the pact resulted in exclusionary politics and increasingly corrupt plutocratic rule, with growing social and economic inequality, compounded by a boom and bust cycle from the country’s oil- based economy.

The 1998 election of left-wing populist Hugo Chavez, a former lieutenant colonel who had led an unsuccessful coup in 1992, ushered in a period of radical social and economic reform and increasingly polarized politics. While re-elected three times in what were generally seen as free and fair elections, increasing state power and suppression of civil liberties, combined with economic mismanagement and corruption, led to growing dissent. He remained popular, however, particularly among the country’s poor.

While engaging in various forms of nonviolent resistance, the elite-led opposition initially attracted little support beyond the more privileged segments of society. A right- wing coup in 2002 was reversed in just four days as a result of popular protests and divisions within the security forces. Upon his death in 2013, Chavez was succeeded by his vice president Nicolás Maduro, who increased political repression and the state’s authoritarian reach. In response to these developments, civil resistance led by the growing and increasingly diverse opposition has grown dramatically, as has government repression.

Interestingly, both the Venezuelan government and the opposition celebrate and claim the legacy of the 1958 pro-democracy uprising. Armed communist guerrilla movements emerged in the 1960s, but never gained much traction. Even though policy choices were driven through a process of elite bargaining, civil society groups continued to grow, exercising their influence on the local level, and helping the country maintain democracy while most of the continent suffered under dictatorship.

Republished from Civil Resistance Against Coups: A Comparative and Historical Perspective by Stephen Zunes with permission of author.