Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Important Dates in Venezuelan History

The recent history of Venezuela is marked by a series of important dates that are etched in the minds of the people here. These dates serve in some ways as 'bookends' to distinct periods in the country's history. Throughout my blog I have mentioned a number of them but thought it would be useful to list some of them here and explain their significance.

January 23, 1958Dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez was overthrown by a coalition of political parties, mass movements and the military, and he fled the country. Up until that point Venezuela had been under almost 50 years of dictatorship (only broken by a brief 3-year period of democracy). The departure of Perez Jimenez marks the beginning of what is called the Punto Fijo period, which refers to a pact that was made in the city of Punto Fijo between the major political parties and key resistance movements in order to install democratic governance. In addition, this date was taken as the name of a neighborhood (23 de enero) in Caracas where tens of thousands of people occupied previously vacant government housing (see above photo). This neighborhood became the hotbed for political resistance against the new government (including the home of many urban guerrillas from the 60s), and has since played an important role in the development of leftist politics in the country.

February 18, 1983 – After a surge in oil revenues in the 70s as a result of the creation of OPEC, Venezuela suffered a devaluation of its currency, the Bolivar, on this date. The 70s were considered the 'golden years' in Venezuela (to be sure, they weren't golden for everyone, and those who benefited most from the oil revenues were already comfortable and politically powerful). But after a series of corrupt and inept governments, the country suffered from declining oil revenues and massive state expenditures. This date marks the beginning of a downward economic spiral that would produce rising levels of poverty. Within the next ten years, more than 50% of the population would be considered by international standards to be living in a state of poverty.

February 27, 1989 - The Caracazo: the name of the massive and violent street demonstrations that lasted for more than a week around the country, but mostly centered in Caracas. The demonstrations were spontaneously provoked when people got up on Monday morning to go to school and work only to find that their bus fares had increased by double and triple, a result of an International Monetary Fund Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) announced by the president in the previous week. With the country struggling in deepening poverty, presidential candidate Carlos Andres Perez had promised to not institute an SAP (a program which focuses on privatization of public services, debt repayment, and free market integration), only to renege on his promise two weeks after taking office. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets (sometimes violently so) and were severely repressed by the military and police. Anywhere between 300 and 1,000 people died. This was the first protest against SAP in Latin America but it would be followed by many across the world. (photo courtesy of

February 4, 1992 – An attempted coup d'etat led by military commander Hugo Chavez Frias against Carlos Andres Perez. Though popular movements had been organizing themselves against the government since the Caracazo, this was mostly a military coup which ultimately failed. Significantly, however, Chavez came out on television asking coup instigators to lay down their arms because 'for now' they couldn't achieve their goals of changing the government. That 'for now' made him an instant hero of the people, signally that change of what was considered a corrupt, elitist government would eventually happen. Chavez and fellow coup leaders were sent to prison where they continued to organize themselves, this time through a political party called The Movement for the Fifth Republic (the period 1958-1998 is considered the Fourth Republic). See youtube clip:

December 6, 1998Chavez is elected President of Venezuela with more than 56% of the vote. The election represented the rejection of the previously dominant two-party system and the entrance into a new era of Venezuelan politics, which would later be called by the Chavez government the Bolivarian Revolution (referring to Simon Bolivar who had led the independence struggle against Spain). Chavez immediately calls for the election of a Constitutional Assembly (one of his campaign promises) which over the next 8 months writes and approves a new Venezuelan Constitution.

April 11, 2002A coup attempt against Chavez is led by the national business council FEDECAMARAS and major media outlets (some argue that it was also supported by the US). Chavez is forcibly removed from the presidential palace, Miraflores, and taken to an island. Meanwhile most media outlets report that Chavez resigned his position allowing for a 'democratic' transition. Massive street demonstrations erupt calling for the return of Chavez. With the help of the presidential guard at Miraflores, Chavez is returned on April 13, 2002, giving rise to the phrase 'every 11 has its 13' (referring to the dates). This marks the beginning of a progressive radicalization of Chavez's political agenda for what he calls 'Twenty-First Century Socialism'. The following clip is the first in a series from a film called 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised'. (If you go to youtube to look for the other clips the comments give you an idea of how passionate both sides of the pro/con Chavez debate are.)

December 2002-February 2003 – A national oil strike, another attempt to remove Chavez from office, grinds the country to a halt. The strike is led by the opposition and supported by several large international businesses. As a petroleum-based country, the strike has a severe impact on national GDP over the next couple of years. Chavez supporters remember this as a difficult time when food was scarce and transportation was unaffordable, but they also think of it as a time when people pulled together as a community and did what they had to do to keep Chavez in office. This was the second time they 'saved Chavez'.