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Carnival in Caracas

The Politics of the Barrios of Venezuela

by Talton F. Ray
California, 211 pp., $7.00

Conflict and Political Change in Venezuela

by Daniel H. Levine
Princeton, 285 pp., $13.00

Political Mobilization of the Venezuelan Peasant

by John Duncan Powell
Harvard, 259 pp., $8.50

¿Socialismo para Venezuela?

by Teodoro Petkoff
Fuentes (Caracas), 139 pp.

Petroleo y Dependencia

by Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo
Sintesis Dos Mil (Caracas), 248 pp.

During his early days as a journalist the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, had come to regard Caracas as “an apocalyptic, unreal, inhuman city.”1 Reporting for the Venezuelan magazine Momento, he wrote about the military and popular revolts that led to the overthrow in January, 1958, of Venezuela’s last dictator, General Marcos Pérez Jimenez. He witnessed street fighting in the shadows of the huge government office towers in the plaza of Silencio, the siege by the mob of the headquarters of the dictator’s secret police, the Seguridad Nacional, and the riots a few months later that greeted Vice President Nixon as his motorcade edged its way through hostile crowds massed in front of the slatternly furniture and appliance stores that line Avenida Sucre in the working class district of Catia. That seemed a time of hope, when peasants came to the cities to build new houses and democratic politicians returned from jail and exile to form new governments, when Venezuela, as García Márquez told me later, was “the freest country on earth.”

For nearly 400 years Caracas was a tile-roofed town picturesquely cradled in a narrow valley. Only in recent decades has Venezuela’s oil prosperity crowded the valley floor with luxury apartments and offices connected by looping freeways that twist like roller coasters amid such landmarks as Sears (the most profitable overseas branch), the headquarters of Shell de Venezuela and Creole (Exxon) Petroleum, the old Nuevo Circo bullfight ring that is used these days for political rallies, and the twin sports stadiums built by Pérez Jimenez, who has lately made a political comeback.

The oil money has drawn great numbers of people into Caracas; Venezuela has had one of the world’s most intense peasant migrations to the cities of the twentieth century. The ravines descending into the Valley of Caracas, and the hillsides surrounding it, are covered with rancho squatter shacks that force their way into the asphalt city of public works and government budgets. The skyline of western Caracas is dominated by the tall public housing projects built by the dictator and called superbloques—fifty-one pastel-colored towers overlooking the acres of rancho shacks like stained temple monuments presiding over the rubble of a bombed city. In The Politics of the Barrios of Venezuela, one of the best of the many studies of Latin America’s urban squatters that have appeared in recent years, Talton F. Ray stresses “the close connection between political change and urbanization.” In Latin America during the past generation this has meant squatter land invasions at the time of revolutions and elections. With his intimate knowledge of the rancho slums gained in three years’ service with the volunteer organization Acción, Ray writes that the overthrow of Pérez Jimenez in 1958:

…ushered in a new and entirely unprecedented phase of [squatter] development. Restrictions on land settlement were immediately lifted, and families poured out of their crowded ranchos to grab up vacant land on the outskirts of the cities as quickly as possible. When campesino families still in the countryside heard about the new opportunities, the flow of migration speeded up tremendously…. So concentrated was the trend that today more barrios trace their origin back to those first twenty-four months following the Revolution than to any other period.

Pérez Jimenez’s overthrow in 1958 was also followed by years of political confusion, During those years Venezuela went through a series of barracks revolts and an outbreak of guerrilla warfare that was more sustained and bitterly fought than Fidel Castro’s Cuban insurrection a few years earlier. These were uprisings from the right and left against the reformist government of President Rómulo Betancourt (1959-1964), who was accused by conservatives of being an undercover communist and by revolutionaries of having sold out to US imperialism, especially to the foreign oil companies operating in Venezuela.

In spite of this intense opposition, Betancourt and his Acción Democrática (AD) party became the first popularly elected government in Venezuela’s 150-year republican history to finish its constitutional term of office. This was, incidentally, the only success of the Kennedy Administration’s policies of reform, counterinsurgency, and encouraging private investment in Latin America. However, democracy survived in Venezuela because most people wanted something better than dictatorship and were afraid of political chaos. AD had a large popular following (now diminished) and Betancourt fought tenaciously for survival, even after his hand was mangled in a bomb explosion in 1960 during an assassination attempt organized by the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo.

During the 1960s, AD suffered three major splits that cost the party its electoral majority. Still, while the Social Christian COPEI party of President Rafael Caldera is now in power, its social policies and its connections with big business are difficult to distinguish from those of AD. Whether Venezuelan democracy can continue will be tested in this December’s presidential and congressional elections.

Has the democratic political system worked? Daniel H. Levine stresses the notable achievements of the post-1958 period of his study, Conflict and Political Change in Venezuela:

With only three years of civilian rule in the first half of this century, [Venezuela] has built since 1958 one of the few effective, competitive, democratic political orders in Latin America. Ridden with conflict, civil violence, and systematic guerrilla warfare since the early 1960s, it has nevertheless managed three peaceful transfers of power in recent years (1958, 1963, 1968). These were the first consecutive transfers of power through mass popular elections in the nation’s modern history, and the 1968 elections [narrowly won by COPEI] marked the first time power had ever been handed over to an opposition party.

Levine’s book describes well the bitter fights of the 1940s and 1960s over the question of Catholic vs. secular education, and he shows how the revolutionary student movement at the Central University in Caracas fell apart while trying to promote the guerrilla insurrections of the 1960s. He argues that Venezuelans have been so divided among themselves and their political parties have been so weak that “extreme appeals [were] required to reach and activate a following not normally enrolled in organizations.” This helps to explain why the battle between Catholic and anticlerical zealots over state control of education got out of hand and led to the overthrow of the first AD government (1945-1948) by the military coup that set up Pérez Jimenez’s dictatorship. However, after the dictator’s fall in 1958, the two major parties, AD and COPEI, were able to settle the Church-state issue quietly in private negotiations. Levine believes that the growth of AD and COPEI has tended to cool down Venezuelan politics by isolating extremists and providing ways for people to take part in political life.

He may be overstating his case, however, and underestimating the underlying weaknesses of Venezuelan society. He overlooks the widespread disenchantment today in Venezuela with the recent performance of the democratic parties and the squandering of government oil revenues on a monumental scale. The clearest sign of this disenchantment is the extraordinary political comeback of Pérez Jimenez himself. Freed in August, 1968, after five years in jail for stealing public funds2 the bald pudgy ex-dictator ran for a Senate seat, from Madrid, four months later, conducting no campaign and spending no money. To everyone’s surprise, he swept all but one of Caracas’s sixteen parishes, winning the most votes in the same poor districts where people had poured into the streets to oust him ten years before.

Notwithstanding his many failings, Pérez Jimenez did preside over the giddy economic boom that began toward the end of the long dictatorship of Juan Vicente Gomez (1908-1935) and that expanded sharply after Pérez Jimenez himself took power in 1948 by a military coup. According to the late Chilean sociologist Jorge Ahumada, “The gross domestic product increased by 8 percent per year between 1936 and 1958…. In the history of the Western world there has been no similar experience.”3

Under Pérez Jimenez, moreover, oil production doubled between 1950 and 1958, while personal consumption rose even faster. Between 1948 and 1957 the oil industry yielded $7 billion in government revenue, a sum “greater than the whole previous total of public revenue since the colonization of the country by Spain.”4 Money for speculative investments poured into Venezuela from all over the world, mainly to lavish public works and private construction projects. But this flood of oil and speculative money also exaggerated the already vast contrast between the prosperity of the cities and the declining countryside. The proportion of people in towns and cities grew from 35 percent in 1936 to 78 percent in the 1971 census, while the population as a whole tripled in the same period.

Unlike Perón in Argentina, Pérez Jimenez did little to achieve a more just distribution of income. In his Pastoral Letter of May 1, 1957, which helped to prepare the way for the dictator’s fall, the Archbishop of Caracas charged: “Our country is getting rich with impressive speed…. However, no one can say this wealth is distributed so as to reach all Venezuelans, since the great mass of our people lives in subhuman conditions.”5

Many Venezuelans now seem nostalgic for what they recall as the easy prosperity and relative quiet of Pérez Jimenez’s dictatorship in contrast to the social and political confusion of recent years. They tend to forget the waste and corruption and police brutality of his rule: “Sure he stole. But he did things also.” Jimenez’s election to the Senate in 1968 was annulled on a technicality, and the Venezuelan Constitution has just been hastily amended to prevent him from running for president in 1973. While five of the fourteen presidential candidates now in the field claim to represent the exdictator’s views, Pérez Jimenez himself keeps the country guessing about his preference. “Many pre-candidates have come to talk with me,” he said last spring, “but I cannot say to the Venezuelan community, ‘Vote for this one or that one,’ because this would be an insult to our people.”6

The survival of Venezuelan democracy still remains in doubt because of the decline in popular support for the major parties. Both now compete for the backing of the large family firms and economic combines that have been using political pressure behind the scenes so as to accumulate huge fortunes that directly or indirectly are based on oil. Consequently, the two major presidential candidates this year are men of conservative views: AD’s man is Carlos Andrés Pérez, who as Betancourt’s Interior Minister was responsible for crushing the guerrilla uprising of the early 1960s, while COPEI’s candidate is Lorenzo Fernandez, formerly Caldera’s Interior Minister, a conventional Catholic lawyer and father of eleven children who implemented a “pacification” program of amnesty for defeated guerrillas that helped quiet the country down after the turbulence of the 1960s.

Neither man has much popular appeal and both rely heavily on their organizations and on huge advertising and TV budgets to get votes. They travel around the country making the usual promises of housing for rancho dwellers and crop loans for peasants, giving no sign that Venezuela faces huge difficulties; that, for example, population is expected to increase by half over the next decade, while oil production—now the source of nine-tenths of Venezuela’s foreign exchange earnings and two-thirds of government revenue—may decline by more than one-third.

  1. 1

    Quoted in Mario Vargas Llosa, García Márquez: Historia de un Deicidio (Monte Avila, Caracas, 1971), p. 56.

  2. 2

    The Kennedy Administration extradited Pérez Jimenez in 1963 from his Miami exile at the request of the Betancourt regime. He was finally sentenced to five years in jail for illicit enrichment in August, 1968, and was immediately released—proceeding directly from jail to the airport to go to live in Madrid—after the court ruled that his sentence had been served in the five years of pretrial and trial procedures.

  3. 3

    Ahumada was the founding director of CENDES (Center for Development Studies) at the Central University in Caracas. His 1962 essay, “Hypothesis for Diagnosing Social Change: The Venezuelan Case,” forms the introduction to The Politics of Change in Venezuela. Volume 1: A Strategy for Research on Social Policy (MIT, 1967).

  4. 4

    From “Economic Developments in Venezuela in the 1950s,” in Economic Bulletin for Latin America, Volume V, Number 1 (United Nations Commission for Latin America, Santiago, Chile, 1960), p. 23.

  5. 5

    This document was reprinted in Testimonio de la Revolución en Venezuela (Tipografía Vargas, Caracas, 1958), p. 85. The same volume reproduces a Momento article by García Márquez on the role of the Church in the dictator’s overthrow.

  6. 6

    Quoted in the magazine Semana, Caracas, May 17, 1973, p. 12.

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