Marcos Pérez Jiménez

Marcos Pérez Jiménez (born 1914) was a Venezuelan military officer who helped overthrow a constitutional government in 1948 and then ruled as a dictator during the 1950s. He fled his country after a coup in 1958, was charged with political crimes, and remained in exile.

Marcos Pérez Jiménez was from the Venezuelan state of Táchira, born in the town of Michelena in 1914. His father was a farmer and his mother a schoolteacher. After being educated in his home town and Colombia, Pérez Jiménez entered the Military Academy of Venezuela. An outstanding student, he graduated at the top of his class in 1934 and then studied at military colleges in Peru. There he met other Latin American officers who believed that the military must play a leading role in the lives of Latin American nations and promote technological progress.

Pérez Jiménez rose to national prominence on October 18, 1945, when he participated, with other junior officers and civilian politicians, in the overthrow of the government of General Isaías Medina Angarita. Pérez Jiménez had helped organize a secret military lodge, the Patriotic Military Union, whose members believed that the civilian and military leaders of Venezuela were incompetent and dishonest. The young officers were joined in their conspiracy by the Democratic Action (Acción Democrática) Party. These idealistic young Venezuelans, led by Rómulo Betancourt, wanted a democratic and socially progressive Venezuela.

In the new government, which was first headed by Betancourt and then by Rómulo Gallegos, Pérez Jiménez served as chief of staff of the armed forces. But military officers chafed under civilian rule, concluding that elected politicians could never give Venezuela the nationalism, patriotism, and progress it needed. Led by Lt. Col. Carlos Delgado Chalbaud and Pérez Jiménez, the military overthrew the democratically elected Gallegos government on November 24, 1948.

Delgado Chalbaud assumed control of Venezuela, with Pérez Jiménez acting as second-in-command. But in 1950 Delgado Chalbaud was assassinated. While it has never been determined who ordered the assassination, Pérez Jiménez was the most obvious beneficiary of his superior's death. Pérez Jiménez initially ruled through a figurehead. After staging a fraudulent election, he declared himself president in December 1952.

Pérez Jiménez was a vigorous and energetic dictator. He relied on his skills as an organizer and planner to fulfill his goals. His motto was the "New National Ideal, " a philosophy that put a higher premium on national unity and material and technological progress than on political freedom and intellectual and moral improvement. He believed that the armed forces—disciplined, trained, and ostensibly non-partisan—could best carry out this mission.

In practice, the New National Ideal consisted mainly of lavish public works projects for Caracas, the capital city. The construction of new hotels, office buildings, apartments, and super-highways transformed Caracas into a glittering, modern city. In addition to public construction, Pérez Jiménez concentrated his energies and the nation's money on the armed forces, the mainstay of his regime. Soldiers lived like aristocrats with impressive barracks and social clubs and the latest in military hardware.

Along with revivifying Caracas and bestowing favors on the military, Pérez Jiménez brutally suppressed political and civil liberties with the aid of his efficient secret police. Leaders of the outlawed Acción Democrática Party were tortured and murdered. Social programs such as land reform that Acción Democrática had instituted between 1945 and 1948 were overturned.

In foreign policy Pérez Jiménez took an anti-communist stance and closely aligned his country with the United States. He also attracted U.S. investment and awarded generous contracts to American oil companies. The United States, under President Dwight Eisenhower, thanked the unsavory dictator by awarding him a Legion of Merit medal, the nation's highest award for foreign personages.

Venezuelans eventually came to abhor the dictatorship. Protests mounted over the political repression and wasteful spending on the military. Many suspected that Pérez Jiménez and his henchmen had stolen public funds. After a series of mass uprisings, Pérez Jiménez fled in late January 1958, first to the Dominican Republic and later to Miami, Florida. In December 1958 Venezuelans elected Rómulo Betancourt, who had returned from exile, as president. Since then Venezuela has maintained a political democracy.

In 1959 the Betancourt government asked the U.S. to extradite Pérez Jiménez on the grounds that he was responsible for political crimes, murder, and embezzlement. After lengthy court hearings, the U.S. agreed in 1963 to deport the former dictator if the charges were limited to financial misconduct. Venezuela then initiated legal proceedings against Pérez Jiménez, which lasted five years. In August 1968 Venezuelan judges ruled that Pérez Jiménez had personally enriched himself while in office and gave him a four-year prison sentence. Since he had been in jail during his trial for more than four years, the court permitted Pérez Jiménez to leave immediately for exile in Spain.

After 1968 Pérez Jiménez attempted to influence Venezuelan political life. Politicians loyal to him attracted a small amount of electoral support. In 1972 he briefly returned to Venezuela and registered to run for president. The Venezuelan legislature responded by enacting a constitutional amendment barring ex-presidents convicted of crimes from serving again. Officials also suggested that Pérez Jiménez might be tried for other crimes if he returned to Venezuela. In effect, Pérez Jiménez was condemned to perpetual exile. He returned to Spain and was politically inactive thereafter.

In light of Venezuela's widespread poverty, unemployment, and corruption, some citizens preferred the efficiency of dictatorial rule and credited the Pérez Jiménez government for controlling street crime and using the country's oil wealth to build skyscrapers, bridges, and South America's finest highway system.

Further Reading on Marcos Pérez Jiménez

There is no complete biography of Pérez Jiménez in English. For information and background, see Winfield J. Burggraaff, The Venezuelan Armed Forces in Politics, 1935-1959 (1972) and Judith Ewell, The Indictment of a Dictator: The Extradition and Trial of Marcos Pérez Jiménez (1981). A useful history of Venezuela is John Lombardi's Venezuela: The Search for Order, the Dream of Progress (1982). For U.S. relations with Venezuela see Stephen G. Rabe, The Road to OPEC: United States Relations with Venezuela, 1919-1976 (1982).