The military infatuation or how Venezuelans are manipulated by the military

I was born in a Venezuela economists used to call "Venezuela saudita", a third world country awashed in petrodollars. It was a democracy, even if it was highly dysfunctional. Back then and well into the years of increasing economic decline I used to think that even if Venezuela was very corrupt, dependent on oil and on a path to a crisis, we were rather inmune of the worst ills of other Latin American countries: military dictatorships and civil wars.

There were many people who came from Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and other countries to Venezuela to escape from dictatorship. In my classroom from kindergarten through primary and secondary school there were at least a dozen sons or daughters of Spaniards, Portuguese or of Eastern European origin escaping from the dictatorships of their respective countries or from South American countries living under dictatorships. One of my best friends at high school was from Chile, another one was from Uruguay. I knew about Venezuela's past dictatorships because of what my parents would tell me: about how life was under Pérez Jiménez, the right-winged dictator Hugo Chávez admires, or about how my grandparents suffered during the Gómez dictatorship. It was only after the caracazo and specially in 1991 that I started to see the real military threat. People were fed up of the corrupt democracy we had got. Already at the end of 1991 I remember how a good friend of mine and I were discussing when the coup was coming. We were sure it would come on the first quarter of 1992. We did not have relationship with the military. We were just reading on the wall. And we were right: on 4 February there was the first bloody coup in many decades, led by our current president.

Still, I did not realise to what extend we, Venezuelans, always had been prisoners of our long-standing infatuation with the military and I did not know how we were bound to repeat history because of the general ignorance about it.

I always knew the Bolívar cult was over the top, but it was something I found rather kitsch and nothing more. I appreciated the good things Bolívar did do and thought the cult was something that did not really hurt, like some non-extremist religion. Every visitor to Venezuela has seen it: the omnipresent cult to Simón Bolívar, the Venezuelan who played a key role in the Independence war in South America. The highest peak, the largest state, the main avenues and squares in every city or town, countless institutions, the main airport and the currency are just some of the things called after him. Bolívar's name is everywhere. The admiration for Bolívar is not only in Venezuela, but in Bolívar's country the name is so often used that it can get confusing.

There was a hat called "Bolívar" in Europe in the XIX century, a hat liberals would wear. Bolívar was definitely admired everywhere in the Americas and Europe and the many places - towns, streets, squares - called after him are a proof of this. People saw not just his opposition against the Spanish imperialism, but against slavery, against oppression of the Native Americans. It helped a lot that Bolívar died still in his forties.

Still, the cult for Bolívar's has been above all a Venezuelan diseases. Already Bolívar, although rejecting the title of a king promoted the idea of a president for life. Already he declared he only aspired to have the title "Liberator of Venezuela", as if Venezuela's independence would have been inconceivable without him. I won't get into the dark parts of Bolívar's role here, but will go more into the instrumentalization of his memory and that of the other military of his time in Venezuela's history.

Once the country became independent, the military who fought in the wars claimed special rights for themselves, as "próceres", as the ones who had fought with the Libertador. One of our first presidents, who was not a military, physician Vargas, had to resign after much pressure from the military demanding more power. Most of Venezuela's heads of states after that and until 1958 were military or the puppets of military.

Almost every single president since the Independence declared himself a "Bolivarian", whatever that would mean. As historial Manual Caballero said in his "Por qué no soy Bolivariano" (Why I am not a Bolivarian), caudillo Monagas declared himself a "revolutionary", promoted special rights for the military (something the current president has done as well in indirect ways), claimed to revive the Gran Colombia and placed many relatives on top positions in the government, just as our current president. And he was thrown out of the presidential palace in 1858 by people shouting "Death to the thieves". Several dictators were particularly active in cultivating the Bolívar cult but two used this new religion with particular zeal: Guzmán Blanco and Juan Vicente Gómez. Bolívar became an almost perfect figure and anyone associating himself with Bolívar became protected by this divinity.

Gómez in 1934

History books around the world always tended to glorify the national past or at least a part of it. Still, those in Venezuela have been particularly focused on the Independence time. It hasn't helped that many of them (Fonbona's etc) were written mostly by people who were anything but professional historians. It did not help that Venezuelans for many reasons always tended to have an abysmal knowledge of history.

Humboldt was on a related topic when he wrote:

"Native Americans kept their language, their national dress and their national character...[but] through the introduction of christianity and other circumstances I analyse elsewhere, historical and religious heritage progressively became lost. On the other side the settler of European origin looks down upon anything that refers to the dominated nations. He sees himself in the middle between the ancient history of the motherland and the one of his birth country and he is as indifferent to one as to the other; in a climate where the small difference between seasons makes the passing of the years almost unnoticeable he only dedicates himself with enjoying the present and he seldom looks back to past times"

Der Eingeborene hat seine Sprache, seine Tracht und seinen Volkscharakter behalten..durch die Einführung des Christentums und andere Umstände, die ich anderswo auseinander gesetzt, sind die geschichtlichen und religiösen Ueberlieferungen allmählich untergegangen. Andererseits sieht der Ansiedler von europäischer Abkunft verächtlich auf alles herab, was sich auf die unterworfenen Völker bezieht. Er sieht sich in die Mitte gestellt zwischen die frühere Geschichte des Mutterlandes und die seines Geburtslandes, und die eine ist ihm so gleichgültig wie die andere; in einem Klima, wo bei dem geringen Unterschied der Jahreszeiten der Ablauf der Jahre fast unmerklich wird, überläßt er sich ganz dem Genusses der Gegenwart und wirft selten einen Blick in Vergangene Zeiten.

The native American, the European and the African slave all merged into the average Venezuelan of today, but we still show either a complete disdain for history or love for one part of it, the part we identify ourselves most with. You will find most Venezuelans with some e ducation know Bolivar's birthday and death anniversary. Most of them would not know in what century the Europeans arrived in Venezuela or what reactionary tendencies Bolívar had.

And it is in that framework that Venezuelans have evolved. As the economic situation of a nation highly addicted to petrodollars deteriorated, a group of military pretending (and sometimes really believing) to defend some nebulous Bolívar heritage prepared the bloody coups of 1992.

Hugo Chávez has taken the Bolívar cult to new heights. He needs that. He single-handedly renamed Venezuela in 1999 by adding the "Bolivarian" (in spite of the fact that the approved constitutional draft had taken away that proposal of his).

That is why the current president can say Indians were almost socialists and all were equal and most of his followers believe that or that we are mostly a native American and African-American nation (the European part being mostly that of the opposition).

Now take a look at these maps. In the first one you see Venezuela's states. The largest state , in cyan, is called Bolívar. The states in red have been called after military from the times of the Independence movement.

The following map shows the municipalities Venezuela has. Municipalities in cyan are called Bolívar or Simón Bolívar. Municipalities in dark blue are called Libertador (referring, of course, to Bolívar). Those in red are called after military who fought in the Independence war. The ones in yellow are called after other military.

In future posts I will go further into the way Venezuelans process their history.

Municipalities named after Venezuelan military caudillos. In cyan those named 'Simón Bolívar' or 'Bolívar', in dark blue those named 'Libertador' (i.e. Bolívar), in red those named after other military men of the Independence time, in yellow those named after military men of post-independence times.

President Time in power remark Profession
Cristóbal Mendoza, Juan Escalona and Baltasar Padrón 1811-1812
Abogado / Militar/ Hacendista * Respectivamente
Francisco de Miranda 1812
General Militar
Simón Bolívar 1813-1814
General Militar
José Antonio Páez 1830- 1835
General Militar
Andrés Narvarte 1835-1835
Abogado / Político
José María Vargas 1835-1836
Médico, Científico, Cirujano y Catedrático
Andrés Narvarte 1836-1837
Abogado / Político
José María Carreño 1837-1837
General Militar
Carlos Soublette 1837-1839
General Militar
José Antonio Páez 1839-1843
General Militar
Carlos Soublette 1843-1847
General Militar
José Tadeo Monagas 1847-1851
General Militar
José Gregorio Monagas 1851-1855
General Militar
José Tadeo Monagas 1855-1858
General Militar
Pedro Gual Escandon 1858-1858
Abogado / Político
Julián Castro 1858-1859 coup General Militar
Pedro Gual Escandon 1859-1859
Abogado / Político
Manuel Felipe Tovar 1859-1861 coup Político
Pedro Gual Escandon 1861-1861
Abogado / Político
José Antonio Páez 1861-1863
General Militar
Juan Crisóstomo Falcón 1863 - 1868 war General Militar
Manuel Ezequiel Bruzual 1868-1868
Guillermo Tell Villegas 1868-1869
Abogado y Militar
José Ruperto Monagas 1869-1870 war General Militar
Guillermo Tell Villegas 1870-1870
Abogado y Militar
Antonio Guzmán Blanco 1870-1877 war Abogado / General Militar
Francisco Linares Alcántara 1877-1878
General Militar
José Gregorio Varela 1878-1879
Militar / Político
Antonio Guzmán Blanco 1879-1884
Abogado / General Militar
Joaquín Sinforiano de Jesús Crespo 1884-1886
General Militar
Antonio Guzmán Blanco 1886-1887
Abogado / General Militar
Hermógenes López 1887 - 1888
General Militar
Juan Pablo Rojas Paúl 1888 - 1890
Raimundo Andueza Palacio 1890-1892
Guillermo Tell Villegas 1892-1892
Abogado y Militar
Joaquín Sinforiano de Jesús Crespo 1892-1894 war General Militar
Ignacio Andrade 1898-1899
Cipriano Castro Ruiz 1899-1908 coup General Militar
Juan Vicente Gómez 1908-1914 coup General Militar
Jose Gil Fortoul (Gomez puppet) 1914-1915
Victorino Márquez Bustillos (Gómez puppet) 1915-1922
Abogado / Político
Juan Vicente Gómez 1922-1929
General Militar
Juan Bautista Pérez (Gómez puppet) 30 de mayo de 1929 -
13 de junio de 1931

Abogado / Magistrado
Juan Vicente Gómez 13 de junio de 1931 -
17 de diciembre de 1935

General Militar
Eleazar López Contreras 17 de diciembre de 1935 -
5 de mayo de 1941

General Militar
Isaías Medina Angarita 5 de mayo de 1941 -
18 de octubre de 1945

General Militar
Rómulo Ernesto Betancourt Bello 18 de octubre de 1945 -
17 de febrero de 1948
coup Político
Rómulo Gallegos Freire 17 de febrero de 1948 -
24 de noviembre de 1948

Escritor / Novelistas
Carlos Delgado Chalbaud 24 de noviembre de 1948 -
27 de noviembre de 1950
coup Militar
Germán Suárez Flamerich 27 de noviembre de 1950 -
2 de diciembre de 1952
transition by coupsters Abogado
Marcos Pérez Jiménez 2 de diciembre de 1952 -
23 de enero de 1958
coup Militar/Ingeniero
Wolfgang Larrazábal 23 de enero de 1958 -
14 de noviembre de 1958
coup Almirante (Militar)
Edgar Sanabria 14 de noviembre de 1958 -
13 de febrero de 1959

Rómulo Ernesto Betancourt Bello 13 de febrero de 1959 -
13 de marzo de 1964

Raúl Leoni Otero 13 de marzo de 1964 -
11 de marzo de 1969

Rafael Caldera Rodríguez 11 de marzo de 1969 -
12 de marzo de 1974

Carlos Andrés Pérez Rodríguez 12 de marzo de 1974 -
12 de marzo de 1979

Luis Herrera Campins 12 de marzo de 1979 -
2 de febrero de 1984

Jaime Lusinchi 2 de febrero de 1984 -
2 de febrero de 1989

Carlos Andrés Pérez Rodríguez 2 de febrero de 1989 -
21 de mayo de 1993

Octavio Lepage 21 de mayo de 1993 -
5 de junio de 1993

Ramón José Velásquez 5 de junio de 1993 -
2 de febrero de 1994

Rafael Caldera Rodríguez 2 de febrero de 1994 -
2 de febrero de 1999

Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías 2 de febrero de 1999 -
10 de enero de 2001
(elected, but former coupster) Militar
(Teniente coronel)
Pedro Carmona Estanga 12 de abril de 2002-
13 de abril de 2002
(2 días)
coup Economista
Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías 13 de abril de 2002 - 10 de enero de 2013

*Por qué no soy bolivariano: ISBN 10: 9803541994