Today, Venezuelans celebrate the 50th anniversary of the overthrow of the notorious dictator General Marcos Pérez Jiménez. The Caracas newspaper El Universal reports that marches and rallies will be held, and the National Assembly is holding a special session to promote historical awareness.
In honor of the event, we provide the following analysis of the significance of the Pérez Jiménez dictatorship—and what happened afterward—in Venezuela.
On January 23rd, 1958, the authoritarian regime of Pérez Jiménez was rejected by citizens who rioted in the streets in protest of his attempt to remain in office through electoral fraud.
The overthrow of Pérez Jiménez was a rare instance of cross-class consensus in Venezuela. The Venezuelan anthropologist Fernando Coroníl has written that the mass movement was “a crystallization of collective discontent… against [his] increasingly arbitrary and personal rule.”
According to Dr. Coroníl, the overthrow of Pérez Jiménez quickly became Venezuela’s “origin myth of democracy.” Venezuela has since been known for having strong democratic traditions. However, scholars say that in the decades following the Pérez Jiménez dictatorship, democratic institutions were slowly eroded under a system known as “Punto Fijo,” which allowed two parties to share power with little debate in society.
When Hugo Chávez was elected as an outsider candidate in 1998, Venezuelan democracy was rejuvenated. The win may have come as a surprise to some of the old political elites, but, to the poor majority, it was a natural extension of popular frustrations with the crumbling system.
US-Venezuela relations flourished under Pérez Jiménez, for the despotic leader courted foreign investors. American industrialists proved willing to cooperate with his regime and ignore the abuses of his secret police.
In fact, ties between Pérez Jiménez and foreign business interests were so strong that in 1954, the US military awarded Venezuela’s last dictator the Legion of Merit.
Pérez Jiménez spent the years after his overthrow languishing in a mansion in Spain. When he died in 2001, a New York Times obituary stated that the dictator had been “feared and hated inside his country and mocked elsewhere as the prototype of the Latin American military despot.”
In the United States, though, Pérez Jiménez was honored for his “virulent anti-Communism and his tolerant attitude toward foreign oil companies.” He was even nominated to be Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year” in 1955.
As Venezuelans celebrate 50 years of democracy, all of this would seem to suggest that the current president, Hugo Chavez, is better off for his bad reputation among Bush administration officials and a handful of profiteering multinational corporations.
Of course, Chavez remains a polemic political figure, and his role in Venezuela and throughout the Latin American region is frequently a topic of debate in the U.S. media.