The Venezuelan dictator Juan Vicente Gómez (1857-1935) presided over the transformation of his country from a backward nation into one of the globe's major oil producers and an important force in international commerce.
Juan Vicente Gómez was born in the mountain state of Tachira and had virtually no formal education. He started to work as a cowboy, and within a few years he was the owner of a substantial landed property in his native state. He had also become involved in the turbulent local politics of his region.
In politics Gómez associated himself with another Tachira native, Cipriano Castro, who led contingents in several civil wars of the last decades of the 19th century. When Castro organized, from exile in Colombia, an invasion of his homeland, Gómez accompanied him in the effort, and when it was successful and Castro became president of Venezuela, Gómez was rewarded with the vice presidency.
Although Gómez had already acquired an extensive reputation as a plotter and schemer, Castro was injudicious enough to go to Europe for medical attention in 1908. Gómez promptly seized power and told the President not to return. From then until his death, Gómez completely dominated the government, although he served as president only part of the time.
During Gómez's regime oil was discovered and began to be exploited on a large scale. The first oil well was brought in 1914, and during the next decade and a half there was a frantic scramble for concessions by the big international oil companies. Gómez bargained astutely with these firms, perhaps more to his own advantage than to that of Venezuela. By the 1930s the country had become one of the world's major oil producers, and the finances of the Venezuelan government had expanded dramatically.
A man of marked native shrewdness and utter ruthlessness, Gómez took advantage of this change to build up what was said at the time to be the largest fortune in South America, while treating Venezuela largely as his personal plantation.
With the increased government revenues Gómez paid off the whole foreign debt of the republic; he mounted an appreciable road-building program in the interior; and he modernized the armament of the military, upon whom he largely depended for his continuance in power. In the meantime, his regime was so arbitrary that Gómez became widely known as the "tyrant of the Andes." Opponents were ruthlessly eliminated by being put in jail, where they were frequently tortured or killed. Thousands of people fled into exile to avoid the wrath of the regime.
Power remained essentially in the hands of the rude mountain folk who had descended upon the capital at the turn of the century. The Venezuelan army was top-heavy with generals who had won their rank by loyalty to Gómez and shared with him the proceeds from the exploitation of the country. They were allowed to seize land and other goods so long as they did not challenge the dictator. Gómez himself acquired plantations all over the country and was reported to have actually assigned various army units to cultivate a number of these on his behalf. He munificently endowed many of the scores of children whom he was reported to have sired during his long bachelor life.
There were numerous plots against the Gómez regime. On several occasions, invasions were mounted by oppositionists from such offshore islands as Trinidad and Curaçao. In May 1928 university students in Caracas revolted and seized the presidential palace—where Gómez seldom stayed—but were finally suppressed. However, none of these attempts to oust the dictator prospered, and he died peacefully in bed in Maracay on Dec. 17, 1935.
Further Reading on Juan Vicente Gómez
There are two full-length biographies of Gómez in English: Thomas Rourke, Gómez, Tyrant of the Andes (1936), is hostile; while John Lavin, A Halo for Gómez (1954), is an attempt to revise the established view of Gómez and portray him in a more favorable light.