THE DEVELOPMENT OF A stable, democratic political system in Venezuela after 1958 represents a remarkable accomplishment. Few political scientists and historians in the late 1950s would have predicted that Venezuela would become a democratic model. The nation's turbulent past, which saw numerous regime changes, some of them violent, and its tradition of instability and penchant for repeatedly revamping its constitutions gave few hints of its impending transformation.
At the core of this transformation has been the emergence and the strengthening of a diverse party system that has progressively converged toward the center-left in its ideology and its policy orientation without abandoning pluralism. Elections since 1958 have been vigorously contested on a regular and predictable timetable. Political freedoms have been enjoyed by those in and out of power; presidents have been blessed with the sense that their mandate was legitimate. Perhaps even more extraordinary in the context of Latin American politics, outgoing presidents have peacefully handed over power to incoming presidents from another party of somewhat divergent political orientation.
This transformation from an authoritarian past to a healthy and long-surviving democratic regime cannot be understood in a vacuum, however. The political system evolved from a past fraught with instability and authoritarianism. After the heroic years of independence, Venezuelans suffered under the corruption and brutality of caudillismo (rule by local strongmen, or caudillos); fought a major civil war; and saw the constant redrafting of the constitution and changes in the rules of the political game.
Venezuela's independence began with its liberation by Simón Bolívar Palacios, who freed not only his own homeland but much of the rest of South America. In 1830, with the collapse of Bolívar's dream of a larger Gran Colombia, Venezuela was ruled by a patriot caudillo from the llanos, or plains, General José Antonio Páez. This first postindependence period lasted until about 1858 and was characterized by economic recovery and political stability as the young nation functioned under the reign of a conservative oligarchy. Páez established the model of strongman rule under which an undisputed caudillo governed for a long period, either on his own or through the selection of handpicked loyal subordinates, thus preserving the appearance of constitutional presidential succession. These traditional caudillos, who preserved constitutional appearances while subverting the constitution's spirit, also elevated the role of Caracas as the political and economic center of the country. Throughout the nineteenth century and to this day, the principal goal of traditional and modern caudillos has been to take hold of and control the capital and, from the center, dominate and overwhelm the periphery.
The discovery and exploration of large oil reserves early in the twentieth century accelerated the demise of old-style caudillo rule. Although change took place, there were important continuities as well, as constitutional ideals constantly competed with political realities. By the time the long-lived dictator Juan Vicente Gómez died in his sleep in 1935, the seeds of democratic transformation were already planted. The short-lived student protest of 1928 was the first manifestation of democratic stirrings that were to flourish decades later.
The Generation of 1928 that sprang from that experience included future Venezuelan presidents and eminent political leaders of diverse political views, such as Rómulo Betancourt, Rafael Caldera Rodríguez, Jóvito Villalba, Gustavo Machado, and Raúl Leoni. For a brief three years, between 1945 and 1948, many of these leaders experienced their first taste of democratic rule; but they were then perhaps too young and too impatient, and their democratic experiment was short-lived. Exile gave these leaders broader perspectives and provided essential links to other democratic forces. The last decade of dictatorship ended in 1958; by then the Generation of 1928 was prepared to implement democratic reforms without being overthrown in the process.
Since 1958 democracy has survived, although its record has not been uncheckered. Coup attempts, especially in the early years, were fomented by extremists of both the right and the left, sometimes in the pay of or under the inspiration of extremists from outside the country. But the constitution of 1961 has not been rewritten or abolished, even if the spirit of the charter has not always been observed. Corruption has existed as well. At times the oil bonanza has led to a disregard for fiscal responsibility and has also enhanced the notion that the government can always afford the luxury of one more panacea.
An oil-rich nation, by 1990 Venezuela enjoyed the highest annual per capita income in Latin America and a politically moderate labor movement. After more than three decades of democracy and a spirited presidential campaign, however, food riots in Caracas and elsewhere in the spring of 1989 shocked Venezuelans and forced them to contemplate the apparent fragility of their socio-political system. The food riots and looting of 1989, in which hundreds of people died violently, presented a stark reminder that Venezuelan democracy, although enviable by Latin American standards, was not without its flaws and its vulnerabilities.
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