A Short History of Venezuela’s Liberators
“The devil came here yesterday, and it smells of sulfur still. Yesterday Mr. President of the United States (George W. Bush), whom I call “The Devil”, came here and spoke as if he was the owner of the world…”
This was the late President Chavez’s introductory statement at the UN congress held in 2006 in the heart of “Hell” (the UN Headquarters is in New York). During the speech, Chavez also rallied the other political leaders who were present to rise against the hegemonic aspirations of the US which he declared to be an impending danger to the survival of the human species, and all life as we know it.
I believe that this statement is an instance of the charisma which Chavez wielded, along with his talent for oratory which inspired not only the Venezuelan people but also a large number of outside entities.
To correctly understand the influence of Chavez upon Venezuela, we firstly have to review some pages of history.
The early Venezuelan state
The conflicts which overthrew the Spanish dominion in Venezuela began in a completely expected manner. Two crucial events that paved the road for the Venezuelan independence occurred during the 18th century: the independence of the United States in 1776 (which had an enduring impact on various colonies like Venezuela) and the French Revolution in 1789 with its famous advocacy for “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”.
The process of gaining independence started on the 19th of April 1810, when a group of locals from Caracas used the momentum generated by Napoleonic rule in Spain to overthrow the monarchical rule over the colonial territories.
On the 5th of July 1811, the creation of the new Venezuelan state followed, adopting a new constitution which was very similar to the one of the United States (federal), where the provinces conserved their autonomy and the system was decentralized.
A civil war of sorts was fought as the territory of Venezuela was basically ruled by two states: the new rebel republic called “la Primera Republica” (the first republic), and the old Spanish-ruled one.
The executive power of the Primera Republica was divided between three leaders constituting a triumvirate, but it was not very effective so they decided to give absolute powers to a military man, Francisco de Miranda, and proclaimed him “Generalisimo”.
As an aside, the early Venezuelan state was basically controlled by military figures like Miranda, Bolivar (who was a colonel) and other military figures; and the country was also divided in two forms of opposing government. History apparently repeats itself, since the country has gravitated back to this situation in other times. What we see today in Venezuela bears a strong resemblence to what happened back then.
The second republic
After a long period of strife, Miranda was eventually captured by the Spanish royal forces in 1812. He was imprisoned in Spain where he eventually died. The First Republic was no more.
In the absence of Miranda, Simon Bolivar fled to Cartagena (Colombia), where he wrote the famous Cartagena Manifesto where he explains why the First Republic lost in the first place emphasizing that the government was lacking unity due to the fact that it was deeply decentralized. He also stated that their armies had to be more aggresive towards the enemy and also that military training had to be more strict and disciplined.
Bolivar began a campaign from Colombia in order to re-capture Venezuela, starting from Cucuta (which is placed on the Colombo-Venezuelan border) and fighting various battles on his way to Caracas. The campaign lasted from the 28th of February until the 7th of August when he trimphantly entered Caracas and proclaimed the begining of the Second Republic.
The Second Republic ruled over 90% of the territory that constitutes Venezuela today, but it did not last for long due to the fact that the Spanish has received reinforcements from Europe starting a counter-attack against the Second Republic.
By 1814, many of the main Second Republic leaders had been captured, or fled to neighbouring countries. The ones who remained continued to fight small guerrilla battles all over the country.
The third republic and the end of the war for independece
The Spanish recaptured the majority of the provinces from the hands of the Second Republic insurgents, and continued their fight to stabilize the situation.
Bolivar fled to Jamaica where he wrote the “Carta de Jamaica” on the 6th of September 1815. In this famous article, he analyzed the situation of all the Hispano-American countries and accurately foresaw what was going to happen with the future of every single one of these nations. From Jamaica he sailed to Haiti, where he gained the help of its President, Haiti having been the first colony outside of the US to gain its independence.
During this period of time he went back and forth between Venezuela and Haiti, eventually starting the third campaign of recapturing the grand state.
After a period of intense strife, Bolivar, due to his victories, is proclaimed President and is entitled “El Libertador” (The Liberator). The campaign basically ended on the 8th of November 1823, with the battle of Puerto Cabello. Venezuela was finally an independent country.
But Bolivar’s mission did not stop there – he envisioned the creation of a great country called “La Gran Colombia”, so he started a successful campaign in Colombia and Ecuador.
Bolivar’s dream did not come to a positive end. After the liberation of the forementioned countries, tensions arose from within them, paradoxically wanting independence from the rule of Bolivar, the one who liberated them from colonial rule.
Colombia eventually separated itself from Venezuela and refused to acknowledge Bolivar as leader. Venezuela was also divided from within as insurgent groups constituted a parallel government which eventually overthrew Bolivar.
Bolivar died in Santa Marta, Colombia, on the 17th of december 1830 in depression and with his dreams shattered.
Aftermath and new dawn
After the death of Bolivar, the country suffered deeply due to constant changes in leadership and the frequency of coups. It was as if it was cursed to be ruled by military leaders which imposed their will through force.
The end of this particulary cruel pseudo-democractic period came in 1952 when a particular individual arose to power.
Marcos Perez Jimenez, a colonel from within the Venezuelan army, was named President and started a new form of dictatorship which was centered around his persona. He consolidated his power by ruthlessly eliminating his opposition (democrats and communists), putting them in goulags or simply murdering them. He used the secret service called “Seguridad Nacional” to control the country and further exercise his will.
The presidency of Marco Perez Jimenez had a very particular vibe, differentiating it from the others due to the fact that in that period the economy flourished on account of booming oil prices. The country got richer, became one of the richest in the world at the time. The main infrastructures and public works built at the time are still utilized today.
On November 1957, instead of organizing general elections as the constitution stated, Perez Jimenez instead opted for a referendum with the purpose of prolonging his reign. As an answer to this extreme proposition, the opposition informed the populace that the best thing to do is to not participate in the referendum, thus dismantling the process.
The populace obeyed and massive strikes started to occur all over Venezuela, combined with the general discontent towards the regime, and Perez Jimenez ultimately had to leave the country in January 1958.
As an aside, history repeats itself again in some manner. For example, during the presidential election of 2017, Maduro and his Constitutional National Assembly backed by The Supreme Court (which is controlled entirely by the party) organized the presidential ballot. Obviously, this process violated deeply the constitutional requirements. How can an ad-hoc Government constituted by force (after the PSUV lost the majority in the Original National Assembly, Maduro created a parallel government) suddenly dictate laws and organize a ballot? So the opposition did not participate in the elections and, of course, Maduro won by a landslide.
The democratic pact
After defeating the military dictatorship of Marco Perez Jimenez, the opposition parties reorganized themselves, many of the past leaders returning from exile. They faced a challenge in restabilizing the country, so that they can prevent any future dictator from rising again. They did that by signing a treaty called the Pacto de Punto Fijo, which allowed a triumvirate of parties to rule through rotation, thus avoiding hegemonic power accruing to a single actor. The parties which participated in this pact were AD (Democratic Action) , COPEI (Social-Christian Party) and UDR (Republican-Democrat Union) and excluded the Communist Party.
The opposition to this pact was made up of some journalists and hard leftists, who campaigned aggressively against the ruling Punto-Fijo parties, which later turned into a crucial advantage for Chavez when he came to power. They had removed a dictator from power to only give the same dictatorial, authoritarian powers to the parties which signed the agreement.
The pact also changed the constitution in 1961, by granting tremendous power to the ruling President in controlling oil revenues, dictating tariffs, exploitation rights, and so on.
From an economic point of view, Venezuela was extremely rich during the 1950-1980 period, due to the booming oil prices. Numerous advancements in the infrastructure of the country implemented by Marco Perez Jimenez’s government helped the new democratic triumvirate lead the country into becoming an exotic paradise where the citizens usually celebrated their holidays by frequently travelling to Miami as a main tourist destination (to this day, the Venezuelan diaspora is highly visible in Florida).
During this period, Venezuela was called “la Venezuela Saudita”, in reference to Saudi Arabia.
The first highly visible crack in the new Punto Fijo system came with the occurrence of the Caracazo between February 27th and 28th, 1989.
The government of Carlos Andres Perez (AD) imposed economic policies which caused a series of protests that transcended into civil unrest that further resulted in street fights against the police, plundering, arson and ultimately the death of numerous civilians.
Why did this occur? At the end of the 1980’s Venezuela was deeply in debt towards the IMF with to the tune of $31 billion. The increase in debt to incredible heights was also due to the international oil price crisis beginning in 1983. These factors led to the collapse of the state finances. The people who used to live in luxurious conditions were suddenly deprived of their comforts.
During the Caracazo, the chaos and death of hundreds of civilians generated by the street fights caused Andres Perez to rethink the implementation of the economic policies, and he finally rejected them.
This represented a critical factor in the motivation of Chavez to ultimately rise against the government in 1992, which resulted in him winning the presidential election in 1998.
A failed coup, but a great victory
On February 4th, 1992, a group of insurgents led by Lieutenant-Colonel Hugo Chavez attempted to overthrow the government in Caracas and in a couple of other territories, but failed.
Chavez and his group were captured and, soon after, he appeared in front of reporters and communicated a very short but important message that marked his ascension and stirred the hearts of the populace: “This Bolivarian message goes to the brave soldiers… who are in Aragua… and Valencia, comrades, for the moment we could not achieve our objectives in the capital city… it is time to stop the bloodshed… I assume responsibility for this Bolivarian military movement”.
The late President assumed responsibility and showed great courage and leadership to the Venezuelan citizens and to the world; also considering that for the moment they lost the battle but not the war, thus giving hope to his followers. The utterance of Bolivar’s name also had a strong impact on the citizenry.
The movement that Chavez talked about is called “the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement 200”and was founded by himself in 1982. Chavez was greatly inspired by Simon Bolivar, by his bravery and the romantic history that surrounds the great “libertador”. It left a profound mark on him, to such an extent that he dedicated his life to the liberation of Venezuela from the oppressors that he envisioned to be antagonistic figures. Copying the great Bolivar, who had taken an oath while he was in Rome to liberate his country from the chains that oppress it, so did the revolutionary officers under the great tree at Saman de Guere repeat the same oath.
Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias as future candidate
Before acquiring supreme power, Chavez was a humble man with humble beginings. He came from a poor family that lived in Barinas state, his parents were school-teachers, which had an important effect on his education and on his becoming an avid reader. At age 17, he enrolled in the military, where he quickly rose in the ranks as his charisma helped him into tailoring a successful career. He enjoyed public speaking, intellectual debates, and he loved to play in theater.
After the failed coup and the speech that made him famous, Chavez and his confederates were sent to prison. Luckily for him, fate played a decisive role again in his ascension – Perez was impeached for embezzlement of public money and Rafael Caldera was elected President. As Chavez became a popular figure and almost martyr, Caldera released him hoping to gain more influence.
It is said in Venezuela that Caldera and Chavez secretly plotted at the moment of the 1992 coup, so that if Chavez’s forces would have succeeded to take down the Perez Government, Caldera would had stepped in with his political administration.
After being released, Chavez dedicated his life to politics and started touring the country and gaining popular traction. People loved him. He won the presidential election in 1998 and everything changed.
21st Century Socialism
During the administration of Rafael Caldera, 55.7% of the Venezuelans were living in poverty, and 22.5% of those were living in extreme poverty.
The poor saw in Chavez a figure who can only be matched by the great Bolivar, and they finally had a voice through “a man of the people”. Meanwhile the upper-middle class and the democratic opposition saw only a dangerous rising dictator due to his populist affinity.
After he bacame President, he immediately changed the constitution and through it imposed a drastic shift in the administrative nucleus of the country, reforming it deeply.
In 2002, a coup was staged against Chavez, the insurgents brought him to an island not far off the Venezuelan mainland coast and forced him to sign a hand-written letter informing the nation of his resignation. This triggered a strong response among the populace generating massive protests urging the insurgents to reestablish Chavez in power.
He eventually was rescued by loyalist forces and returned to the presidential seat.
The failed coup caused a strong sentiment of uncertainty which later morphed into the radicalization not only of Chavez but also of his supporters. This later spawned a never-ending conflict between the “rich” and the “poor”, a terrifying dichotomy which divided the country deeply.
Every movement needs a common enemy for it to survive, and Chavez had a large pallette of antagonistic forces which threatened the stability of his rule. He actually had a perfect internal enemy to fight against in order to stimulate his followers, “the fascist right”, which was pretty much comprised of past Punto Fijo parties that had allegedly ruined the country, and basically anyone who opposed the “happy socialist revolution”.
Even though he won the Presidency constitutionally, the ruling PSUV party (Socialist United Party of Venezuela) crafted a public discourse which constantly invoked this revolutionary sentiment which was sparked by Bolivar, by Chavez’s coup and even the “glorious” Castrist revolution. These revolutions had, of course, the main objective of helping the poor and liberating them from the constant oppresion of the bourgeois. So the government thought that the best thing to do was to constantly evoke and pretend that they are engaged in a continous war or conflict between “good” and “evil”, which translates into Socialists vs Democrats, or Venezuela vs. The Empire (USA), or vs. any other “capitalist enterprise”.
The ideological mist that covered the minds of the Venezuelans like an opaque veil from which an unhealthy bias surged that affects the country even today was fueled tremendously by the populist actions and policies that the PSUV implemented over the years.
Chavez centered his views primarily on the heroic figure of Simon Bolivar and his comrades, many of whom became martyrs that fell in glorious battle against the enemies of the nation (Spanish imperial rule). They, like Chavez, liberated the country from the oppressors – nowadays, the rich, greedy and corrupt businessmen and politicians. The parallels throughout the country’s history are interesting.
Also, just like the poor allied with Bolivar in the past, so did the poor ally with Chavez to fight against “oppression”. So the new objective was “continous liberation”, they were basically engaged in a long-lasting conflict (maybe never-ending).
It is possible that Bolivar was profoundly influenced by Napoleon Bonaparte’s imperialistic ways; fueled by the love for his country and for the poor and oppressed, there is a high chance that psychologically he was fueling his imperialistic ego as well and was ultimately driven by it. To explain this theory we need only look at the fact that after he liberated Venezuela, he did not stop there. The Grand Colombia project continued to motivate him and he tried to liberate the vast majority of territories from Spanish rule and establish a powerful hegemonical country. If he had succeeded, the world would have looked a lot different right now.
Of course, factors of the geopolitical past could indicate that they needed to consolidate the power by freeing the entire region in order to not lose their territories again to Spanish rule, but paradoxically they lost the territories to internal strife.
Why was the oppressed lower class that Chavez rallied so strongly motivated by him? Well, apart from his incontestable charisma and leadership, we should look at the psychological and anthropological reasons. Human beings are constantly seeking to raise their status in a particular hierarchy, so what better way of doing it than joining a (noble) revolutionary cause which is based on the region’s glorious history and will surely shake the foundations of the respective country? But the problem is that they maybe did not realise that that particular action has the tendency of reversing the power structure’s poles, the rich may become poor and some of the poor may become rich. Or better said, the “smart” revolutionaries that were poor became rich and established nepotism based structures which generated a lot of leakage in the public funds and a lot of corruption, unprecedented amounts of corruption actually.
This tendency can be demonstrated by looking at the Soviet Union model, or maybe the Cuban revolution (where Fidel and his revolutionaries definitely became richer than they would have ever imagined). It generated a terrifying spectacle in the economic structure of the country, today having a hyperinflation which they cannot even count.
The “Chavista” movement was inspired by the Marxist proletariat struggle combined with the social and historical context of Venezuela by mixing Bolivar (as a central figure, people love having a central figure to fight for, especially a war hero or martyr); basically socialism as a vehicle, with the image of Bolivar as the logo of the vehicle that was driven by none other than Chavez and his loyalists, equals “21st century socialism”.
It was a new ideology that profoundly restructured and reformed the country. The “revolution” implemented numerous social activities and projects called “Missiones” (Missions), these missions promoted education, culture, social activities like communal organizations and co-operatives; a very important mission was the one through which the government constructed high numbers of homes (buildings, houses) that could be acquired almost for free. But the effects of these systems were not always positive – for example, the construction of new living spaces led also to the perpetuation of slums that affected the well-being of middle class areas.
Chavez was so close to the people that he usually sang traditional folklore songs during his rallies in front of thousands, he also liked to recite poems on TV and whatnot. He even had a TV show called “Alo presidente”, which aired on Sundays, where he personally spoke to people on the phone during live transmission. He was a showman who did not stop at nothing, having an immense amount of energy.
Poor people suddenly had access to social activities that they could only dream of in the past, or only the privileged class had access to. Psychologically, this particular matter created conflict between opposing groups. To put it more precise, as studies show, we humans are more likely to share with members of our group and are reluctant to do so with members of different groups, especially if they have the “image” of being uneducated and violent, representing a diametrically opposed faction which is indoctrinated towards hate.
The aggressiveness of Chavez’s discourse reached great heights when the opposition tried to remove him from the Presidency in 2004, ultimately failing. This only strengthened the government’s power and Chavez got even more support, further radicalizing his supporters’ beliefs and promoting more hate towards the opposition, usually naming them “fascists” and “savage capitalists”, constantly inducing the idea that they are backed by the US Government. This particularly hateful discourse had a strong impact in society and caused a fair amount of tensions at workplaces, churches, schools, even between family members; people that had different political views were seen as enemies.
All in all, Chavez did a relatively high amount of good for the lower class citizens but lowered the standard of living in general, causing a lot of problems due to the fact that his government meddled with economic policies and got deeply involved in social and political problems that they did not know how to manage.
“El Commandante” (The Commander) was very close to his followers, becoming much like a spiritual leader or an archetypal father figure. Most of the time he engaged in personal talks with the populace during rallies and tried to listen to every one of them, being extremely informal. His charisma was so great and his leadership so strong that he even fascinated opposition members and worldwide leaders.
Using Bolivar’s icon religiously, he managed to create a strong emulation that defied reasoned thinking about the practicalities of policies and concluded with a terrifying crisis which persists to this day based on the adoption of populist policies that were not backed by any logical economic forecast. Much like what happened during Bolivar’s days and how it all ended, Chavez saved the country from the vicious claws of his (or the people’s) political “oppressors”, at the cost of unknowingly subjugating it to endless internal strife.
He was a “magician” who knew how to use the words and how to communicate in a fascinating way, being able to mesmerize people and convince them that there is limitless potential in any endeavour. He was a passionate man who generated unconditional love within the ranks of his followers and tremendous amounts of hate from his opposition, which ultimately divided the country. Paradoxically, his death from cancer and the inadequacy of his successor spawned a cruel crisis which is maybe worst that the one which existed when he came to power, with Venezuela plagued by civil unrest, poverty, a mass exodus of the population, significant regional instability, combined with devastating inflation. The country is spiralling into a black hole from which a peaceful escape is highly improbable.
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