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History, Series of Dictatorships

Antonio Guzman Blanco, foreign debts, arbitration tribunal, separation of church, stable government

The political history of Venezuela was comparatively uneventful until the year 1846 ushered in an era of civil wars between supporters of the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party. Conflict between these two groups characterized the early history of many Latin American countries. Liberals generally supported voting rights for all adult males, the separation of church and state, and a weak central government that gave greater power to the states and provinces within a nation. Conservatives advocated the preservation of class and church privileges, close government cooperation with the church, and a powerful central government.

In 1870 Antonio Guzman Blanco gained control of the country. Under his despotic rule the public debt was stabilized, the building of railroads begun, and efforts were made to improve communications facilities. His administration also introduced reforms at the University of Caracas, emphasizing technological education, and rebuilt parts of the capital. Guzman Blanco stripped the Roman Catholic Church of much of its wealth and authority. He retired in 1888 as a result of popular demonstrations against him. Rival aspirants contended for the presidency until General Joaquin Crespo brought another interval of peace and order between 1892 and 1899.

On two separate occasions during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Venezuela became embroiled in conflicts with European powers. The first incident took place in 1886 over a dispute with Britain concerning the border of British Guiana (now Guyana). The United States persuaded Britain to submit the case to an arbitration tribunal that subsequently awarded the larger share of the territory to Britain.

The second incident occurred during the rule of Cipriano Castro, from 1899 to 1908, when the government failed to pay its foreign debts. In 1902 Britain, France, Germany, and several other powers blockaded Venezuelan ports, demanding payment. On two occasions, European warships bombarded the ports. In 1904 an international tribunal asked to rule on the dispute decided in favor of the allies.

In 1908 General Juan Vicente Gomez deposed Castro. Gomez established a stable government and began to pay off the country's vast debts. In 1917, when Gomez learned that Venezuela had large quantities of petroleum, he called the foreign oil companies together and asked them to submit their suggestions for a partnership with the nation for the production of petroleum. With the aid of experts, he made an agreement with the petroleum companies that made Venezuela prosperous enough to pay off all of its public obligations; it was the only nation in the world at that time free from debt.

Internally, Gomez ruled tyrannically from 1908 until his death in 1935, with two interruptions, from 1915 to 1922 and from 1929 to 1931. On both of these occasions, handpicked candidates under the control of Gomez served as president. Gomez had many of his political opponents imprisoned, tortured, or assassinated, and he treated the national treasury as his own personal account. Gomez did little to improve education, housing, or health care, but he oversaw the modernization of Venezuela. The stable, oil-based economy supported major public works projects in the cities and ports, as well as construction of highways.

Minister of War Eleazar Lopez Contreras succeeded Gomez as president. Contrary to precedent, Lopez Contreras refused reelection, turning over his administration in 1941 to his duly elected successor, General Isaias Medina Angarita. However, Medina Angarita made no effort to train the people to govern themselves, and his limited program of land reform did not satisfy the liberal Democratic Action Party (AD), a political party founded in 1941 by young reformers.

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