Why you should care
Because democracies are fickle things.
They met secretively in the library of Rafael Caldera’s residence on a tree-lined avenue in downtown Caracas. Pens out. Paper ready. There, the three men in charge of Venezuela’s main political parties signed an agreement to be democratic, to share power and to hold elections — exclusive elections. Thanks to those signatures, Venezuela’s first democratic polls opened on Dec. 7, 1958. By the end of that year, a nerdy pipe-smoker named Rómulo Betancourt was named president in the country’s first true elections.
A year and half later, he climbed into his automobile and felt it erupt around him in a fireball.
The gentlemen’s agreement, known as the Punto Fijo Pact, had a lasting impact on Venezuela’s democracy. It was born out of Cold War tensions as the United States and the Soviet Union vied for control over resources and power around the world. Venezuela at the time was the world’s third-largest oil producer. Exxon and other American companies operated there, and so the priority for Washington, according to Ronal Rodriguez at Colombia’s Observatory for Venezuela at Rosario University, was to keep communist interests far from the oil-rich nation. “Imagine,” says Rodriguez, “if Venezuela and all its oil power had fallen into Soviet hands.”
The intention [of the pact] was to build a stabilizing mechanism.… Yet it turned into a straitjacket for Venezuela’s democracy.
Beatrice E. Rangel, government minister under President Carlos Andrés Pérez
During the 1950s, Venezuela was led by Gen. Marcos Pérez Jiménez, a friend of the U.S. and a guarantor of oil supply. Puffy-cheeked and usually sporting full military uniform, Pérez Jiménez was a popular dictator. Yes, he left a legacy of repression, but he also modernized the economy. Betancourt and his buddies were fearful that the dictatorship would only get more violent and repressive.
The thing is that while the Puntofijo gentlemen plotted a new democracy for Venezuela in comfy exile, students and other opponents of the Pérez Jiménez regime were clashing with security forces. It was these more radical groups who were bearing the true cost of the resistance to dictatorship. Among them were members of Venezuela’s Communist Party.
In January 1958, crises in the military and the Cabinet came to a head as the din of street protests in Caracas grew. Finally, on Jan. 23, Pérez Jiménez abandoned his country, fleeing to the Dominican Republic in a four-engine airplane called the Sacred Cow. The year 1958 would be, says Rodriguez, Venezuela’s “first experiment with democracy.”
But not for all. When elections were held late in the year, the Communist Party was excluded. Only the three main political parties were allowed to post candidates: Betancourt’s Democratic Action Party and two others. Rumors swirled around the Punto Fijo men, suggesting there was a preceding agreement between U.S. agents and the pact’s signers to bar the Communists. In any case, historians say the most likely deal was as follows: The U.S. would not object to removing Pérez Jiménez as long as the new Democrats promised to keep the oil flowing and stop Venezuela from sliding into anarchy.
Exclusive pacts like the Punto Fijo were not unique to Venezuela. In neighboring Colombia, a similar political fortress called the National Front ruled from 1958 until 1974. Feeling excluded, a ragtag band of farmer rebels attracted to Marxist ideas took up arms and started fighting the country’s elites. Half a century of brutal armed conflict ensued. In Spain, an agreement known as the Turno Pacifico meant two dominant parties took turns in power during the early 19th and late 20th centuries.
When Hugo Chávez won the presidency in 1998, he declared, “The last dictatorship in Venezuela was the dictatorship of the Punto Fijo, and it collapsed on Dec. 6, 1998, when the majority of the people elected this soldier as president.” Chávez portrayed the Punto Fijo as an elitist dictatorship and himself as its liberator. “The intention [of the pact] was to build a stabilizing mechanism. It wasn’t meant to be flexible. Yet it turned into a straitjacket for Venezuela’s democracy,” says Beatrice E. Rangel, a Venezuelan business executive and a former government minister under President Carlos Andrés Pérez. “Chávez came in and realized that the people felt left out of politics.… Chávez perceived discontent, tapped into it and took power. He took advantage of a Venezuela with no straitjacket on.”
After the infamous 1960 car bombing, Betancourt emerged from his home to pose for the cameras — hands burned, scarred and bandaged. His entire platform was anti-dictator. He was anti-Castro. He was against Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican dictator who allegedly authorized the bomb. With his appearance that day, Betancourt tried to show that even though he was wounded, his democracy was still alive, and with some treatment, it would get better and stronger with time. But it seems that democratic treatment can cause unintended symptoms to fester when it isn’t administered to everyone.