General Marcos Pérez Jiménez

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The Independent Online

General Marcos Pérez Jiménez was the last of a long line of Venezuelan military dictators. His overthrow by an alliance of civilians and young military officers in 1958 spelt the end of an era of political instability and ushered in four decades of democratic rule, during which Social Democrat and Christian Democrat parties alternated in power.

Marcos Pérez Jiménez, soldier and politician: born Michelena, Venezuela 25 April 1914; Chief of Army Staff 1945, Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff 1946; Minister of Defence 1946-52; President of Venezuela 1952-58; died Madrid 20 September 2001.

General Marcos Pérez Jiménez was the last of a long line of Venezuelan military dictators. His overthrow by an alliance of civilians and young military officers in 1958 spelt the end of an era of political instability and ushered in four decades of democratic rule, during which Social Democrat and Christian Democrat parties alternated in power.

Pérez Jiménez was an old-style autocrat, who disapproved of political parties and persecuted their members. He was one of the leading conspirators in a military coup in November 1948 that put an abrupt end to a brief democratic experiment led by an idealistic novelist, Rómulo Gallegos. Like Augusto Pinochet many years later, Pérez Jiménez had won the President's trust, and had been promoted first to chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, at the age of 32, and then to minister of defence. He used that position to contrive President Gallegos' downfall.

With Gallegos and his Social Democrat friends out of the way, Pérez Jiménez remained as defence minister and member of the ruling military junta until (again like Pinochet) he became President of the Republic, in December 1952. His elevation was rubber-stamped by a tame constituent assembly in the following year, and for the next five years Pérez Jiménez ruled alone, indulging a taste for imposing public works and brooking no opposition, or even criticism, from the despised civilian politicians, many of whom were assassinated or died in prison. The lucky ones fled abroad, returning to take up the reins of power again when the general was finally overthrown.

Pérez Jiménez had himself declared President for a further five-year term by a plebiscite in December 1957. The ensuing protest demonstrations were ruthlessly suppressed by the all-powerful security police, but they continued to spread, and the death knell for the dictatorship began to toll on 1 January 1958, when a group of junior officers rebelled in the garrison town of Maracay, within striking distance of Caracas. That uprising was put down, but the democratic opposition grew increasingly bold, and by mid-month a military-backed general strike was under way.

On 23 January Pérez Jiménez admitted that the game was up, and slipped out of the country with his family. He took refuge in the United States, but in August 1963 he was extradited to Venezuela to face trial for corruption and misappropriation of public funds. In August 1968, a decade after his overthrow, he was sentenced to four years in prison, but was released immediately, as he had already been in detention for longer than that. He departed for exile in Franco's Spain, and remained there until his death of a heart attack on Thursday.

Marcos Pérez Jiménez was born in 1914 in Michelena, in the Andean state of Táchira, in western Venezuela. He entered the military academy in 1931, passing out three years later as a second lieutenant. His military career really took off when he participated, as a captain, in the planning of a coup against President Isaías Medina Angarita in 1945. Within three years he was a lieutenant-colonel, and four years after that he became President of the Republic.

His home state was the cradle of a long line of strongmen who had dominated Venezuelan political life since the civil wars of the 19th century. Pérez Jiménez was in a less heroic mould than some of his predecessors, but he had something that they generally lacked: money, and lots of it. He was fortunate to hold power at a time when Venezuela was fast becoming a wealthy country, on the strength of growing oil exports to the United States.

Pérez Jiménez used the revenues not just to build up a powerful security apparatus, and to keep the military happy with expensive equipment, but also to make some lasting improvements to Venezuela's deficient infrastructure. The spectacular motorway up from the international airport on the Caribbean coast to Caracas in its mountain-girt valley was one of his more notable achievements. He also launched a series of ambitious industrial projects, including a steel mill in the Orinoco lowlands to the east, and a mighty hydroelectric scheme on the River Caroni to power it.

By Colin Harding

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