January 09, 2007
"Long live El Mocho Hernández!" cried Venezuelan dissidents and rebels more than one hundred years ago. The battle cry of a popular movement at the end of the 19th century, "El Mocho" referred to José Manuel Hernández, a wildly popular leader and candidate for president in 1897. But he was a little too popular for Washington's liking.
After years of dictatorship, El Mocho represented a wide array of groups in Venezuela that had grown unhappy with the ruling Caracas elite who centralized power in their hands. He called for free, open elections, free public education, a crackdown on corruption, and decentralization of power among other things. He wanted to give the right to vote to all males over age 18. After years of political exclusion of the masses, they were calling for a more participatory form of democracy. These were hardly radical demands.
But for Washington, closely allied to the elite class in Venezuela, this popular movement was dangerous to their interests. The U.S. minister to Venezuela warned of spreading anti-Americanism among the "unenlightened" classes.(1) The "unenlightened" meant the popular classes, the poor majority of the population. As Washington saw it, only the wealthy, educated people could have control: the stupid majority should be denied any power. If a popular movement could take power, they would certainly transform the elite-dominated system, and the elite would lose their privileges. Washington could lose control.
The conflict going on in Venezuela today with Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution has exactly the same basis. In order to gain any popular representation and participation in the political system, the masses have struggled and fought for centuries against elite domination. The U.S. has been working against them all the way to the present. The Venezuelan masses who support Hugo Chávez today are demanding basically the same thing as those who supported El Mocho Hernández over a century ago; a real democracy with popular participation.
Dating back from the times of colonialism, a small elite class had always controlled and benefited from Venezuela's resources. The vast majority of the population has been neglected and were always excluded. The country was never developed nor modernized, very little industry was created, and the masses had neither job opportunities nor access to education. The economy has always been based on enriching a small minority with the export of primary resources, leaving everyone else out. The trick has been maintaining this undemocratic structure, which means preventing the majority from becoming involved.
Fear of the popular leader El Mocho led the U.S. minister to Venezuela, along with the Venezuelan elite class, to endorse El Mocho's conservative opponent, Ignacio Andrade.(2) According to them, the rural folk and popular masses that supported El Mocho couldn't be taken seriously as they were not "responsible" enough for full political participation. Both U.S. officials and the local elite showed their contempt for democracy when they agreed that the majority of the Venezuelan population should not play a role in politics until they had matured and "acquired the necessary culture." The people were not yet "ready" to participate.(3)
Dictatorship: The Solution to the "Problem" of Democracy
Preferable to Washington was the brutal, iron-fisted dictator, Juan Vicente Gómez who came to power a decade later. Dictatorship was much less risky, mostly because it was allied to elite interests and seldom challenged Washington's hegemony. Gómez ruled for nearly three decades until his death in 1935. During that time he prohibited all political parties and elections. Political opponents were jailed, tortured, and killed. He was very unpopular among the masses, but the Venezuelan elite class and Washington were pleased. The "backwardness" and "racially inferiority" of the Venezuelan masses made a "popular form of government next to impossible."(4)
For the U.S. oil companies, the Gómez regime was extremely friendly. When oil was first discovered in Venezuela in the 1920's he allowed the oil companies to write Venezuela's oil legislation to their liking.(5) For the next two decades they would profit handsomely from Venezuela's oil, and the growth of the oil industry allowed Gómez and the elite class to build their own fortunes.(6)
Other U.S. businesses also benefited, as wealthy Venezuelans imported mostly U.S. manufactured goods. The vast oil incomes created an elite consumer class and U.S. entrepreneurs immediately saw the opportunity to import consumer products for the Venezuelan elite. U.S. corporations opened offices in Caracas.
But after decades of dictatorship throughout the beginning of the 20th century, another popular movement arose in the 1940's with the founding of a new political party, Acción Democrática (AD). After taking power through a coup, political reform was the first item on the agenda. AD declared universal suffrage for all citizens over eighteen, including women. All political parties were legalized, and open elections were finally held. For the first time in history, Venezuelans could all vote and choose their political representatives.(7)
The U.S. saw this popular movement as dangerous. The fact that AD had the support of the poor masses and labor groups meant they might actually make decisions in the interests of the majority. Of course, this is how a democracy is supposed to work, but for the U.S. and the Venezuelan elite, these would be the "wrong" decisions.(8)
A democratic system is the one thing that presents the biggest threat to the interests of the elite class and their Washington allies. Therefore, throughout the history of Venezuela the participation of the masses has always been prevented and carefully avoided. If the popular masses could, in some way, exercise power, they would surely make decisions that would go drastically against elite interests. Most likely they would try to break their dependence on U.S. imports. Most definitely they would raise taxes on U.S. oil companies and use the increased revenues to improve basic services for the masses, like education, health, infrastructure; exactly what Hugo Chávez has done over the last few years.
In 1947, in the country's first ever open presidential elections, AD's candidate Romulo Gallegos won with 73% of the vote. Three of every four Venezuelans had voted for him, and he immediately began to push through a progressive program of reforms.(9) New laws increased taxes on the oil industry's profits, and public education was expanded. AD had raised the minimum wage and began to promote economic diversification.
But Romulo Gallegos, the first ever popularly elected president in Venezuela, only lasted 10 months. He was overthrown by a military coup the same year he took power. A military dictatorship quickly reversed all of AD's progressive reforms and exercised ruthless control over the population for the next 10 years. Gallegos was kicked out of the country. The effective leader of the coup, Marcos Pérez Jiménez, exiled and jailed AD leaders, and repressed all political opposition to him. Political parties and peasant unions were outlawed.(11)
Domestic elites and their allies in Washington concurred that popular democracy was dangerous to their interests. A U.S. Minister in Caracas declared that "the people of Venezuela are not yet ready nor adequately prepared for democracy."(12) A few years later, in 1954, the Eisenhower Administration awarded the ruthless dictator the Legion of Merit decoration for his "special meritorious conduct in the fulfillment of his high functions." (13)
It was indeed "meritorious conduct" when Pérez Jiménez answered by awarding new petroleum concessions to the U.S. companies. For the elite class and Washington, once again, dictatorship was preferable to democracy. Representation and participation of the masses was to be avoided and prevented.
Interestingly, there is a lot that hasn't changed in Venezuela. The popular movement led by Hugo Chávez has been harshly opposed by the elite class and Washington. As with popular movements of the past, the elite has sponsored coup attempts and other actions to remove the widely-supported president from power. Washington has supported their attempts, financing radical opposition groups, and plotting against the government.(14) The mass media, entirely controlled by the elite and linked to U.S. capital, has maintained a constant campaign of attacks against the government, convincing a substantial segment of the population that Hugo Chávez is a horrible dictator.(15)
The conflict is, and has always been, one of class struggle. The elite has always opposed any transformation of the economy, which is based on an unfair system of exploitation. The export of valuable resources finances the import of U.S.-produced goods. But the interests of the popular classes go directly against this system. For the masses to have jobs, education and a good standard of living, the economy must be diversified, and industry must be developed. Income from natural resources must be maximized and used for the benefit of the majority. The dependence on U.S. imports must be reduced.
Ultimately, the benefit of the majority means the dismantling of the undemocratic, elite-based system. For that reason, Washington and the local elite have always feared a popular democracy that serves the common good. From the days of "Viva El Mocho Hernández!" to the days of "Viva Chávez!" popular participation has always been the enemy.
(1) Ewell, Judith. Venezuela and the United States: From Monroe's Hemisphere to Petroleum's Empire. The University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia ©1996, pg. 97
(2) Ewell, pg. 95
(3) Ewell, pg. 92, 109
(4) Ewell, pg. 123
(5) Ewell, pg. 134
(6) Coronil, Fernando. The Magical State: Nature, Money, And Modernity in Venezuela. The University of Chicago Press ©1997, pg. 82
(7) Coronil, pg. 132
(8) Ewell, pg. 155
(9) Coronil, Pg. 139
(10) Country Studies US/Area Handbook Series, Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress, U.S. Department of the Army, ©2005, The Transition to Democratic Rule, http://countrystudies.us/venezuela/6.htm
(11) Country Studies US, The Transition to Democratic Rule, http://countrystudies.us/venezuela/6.htm
(12) Ewell, pg. 159
(13) Ewell, pg. 160
(14) Gott, Richard. Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution. Verso ©2005, pg. 224
(15) Gott, pg. 246
Chris Carlson is a North American student and activist living in Venezuela. See his personal blog at: www.gringoinvenezuela.com