Remembering the fall of a Venezuelan strongman

Fifty-four years ago today, Venezuela’s last military dictatorship fell, as a mass uprising ushered in an unprecedented era of civilian-led democratic rule. From 1958 to 1998, center-left and center-right parties alternated in power as the result of competitive elections, and while the era was certainly marred by rampant corruption, and its second half hobbled by ...

631894_perez_jimenez.jpg
631894_perez_jimenez.jpg

Fifty-four years ago today, Venezuela's last military dictatorship fell, as a mass uprising ushered in an unprecedented era of civilian-led democratic rule.

From 1958 to 1998, center-left and center-right parties alternated in power as the result of competitive elections, and while the era was certainly marred by rampant corruption, and its second half hobbled by deep economic stagnation, it remains the only reference point Venezuelans really have for stable democratic governance.

"Veintitres de Enero," the date of the 1958 uprising in Spanish, has become an increasingly polarizing milestone in the 13 years of Hugo Chávez's rule. Since the beginning, Chávez has set out an aggressive propaganda effort to discredit the uprising and the era of civilian democratic rule it came to stand for. In Chavista propaganda, 23 de Enero has been transformed into the starting point of an era of false, bourgeois democracy, a debauched simulacrum of popular sovereignty used as a cover for the elite to ransack the state.

Fifty-four years ago today, Venezuela’s last military dictatorship fell, as a mass uprising ushered in an unprecedented era of civilian-led democratic rule.

From 1958 to 1998, center-left and center-right parties alternated in power as the result of competitive elections, and while the era was certainly marred by rampant corruption, and its second half hobbled by deep economic stagnation, it remains the only reference point Venezuelans really have for stable democratic governance.

"Veintitres de Enero," the date of the 1958 uprising in Spanish, has become an increasingly polarizing milestone in the 13 years of Hugo Chávez’s rule. Since the beginning, Chávez has set out an aggressive propaganda effort to discredit the uprising and the era of civilian democratic rule it came to stand for. In Chavista propaganda, 23 de Enero has been transformed into the starting point of an era of false, bourgeois democracy, a debauched simulacrum of popular sovereignty used as a cover for the elite to ransack the state.

The symbolic battle over the date continues to intensify year after year. This time around, the opposition’s Roundtable for Democratic Unity has picked it as the moment to unveil its platform ahead of October’s presidential election, asking all the primary candidates to sign on to it ahead of February 12’s primary vote. This spirit of compromise and conciliation among different factions pledged to unseat a military strongman harkens directly back to 1958, when an elite pact between the then three-main party leaders set the stage for the uprising that overthrew dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez (shown above).

What’s remarkable is that Pérez Jiménez was as different, ideologically, from Chávez as two Latin American military strongmen could be. Pérez Jiménez was a traditional, U.S.-backed right-wing caudillo in the style of Cuba’s Batista (who, as it turned out, fell to Fidel Castro just 11 months after Pérez Jiménez did.) In his eagerness to depict himself as the Venezuelan Fidel Castro, however, Chávez has had to do some creative re-arranging of the historical record, re-casting the democratic regime that replaced Pérez Jiménez in the Batista role: the heartless capitalists swept away by socialist revolution. This, in turn, has forced him to rehabilitate the historical memory of Pérez Jiménez, who, while never quite revered in chavista propaganda, is treated with a degree of deference and respect that stands in stark contrast to the torrents of abuse heaped on the democratic regime that replaced him.

The manipulation of history involved is enough to make grown historians weep. As this quick run-through should make clear, however, it also makes painfully little sense, whether ideologically or chronologically. It makes sense, though, from the standpoint of chavista myth-making. And that, it appears, is really all that’s needed.

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