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History, World War II and Postwar Politics

Romulo Betancourt, dictatorial methods, Perez Jimenez, constituent assembly, democratic election

Venezuela broke off diplomatic relations with the Axis powers at the end of 1941 but did not declare war on them until February 1945 in order to qualify as a charter member of the United Nations.

In October 1945 a revolution broke out, and violent fighting took place in Caracas. A new government was set up under the presidency of a young AD leader, Romulo Betancourt. Although foreign powers suspected he might be sympathetic toward Communism, Betancourt allayed their fears by his declarations concerning the prompt holding of elections and a program of acceptable reform. He also promised the foreign oil interests that no radical action would be taken against them.

The Betancourt government brought a new approach to government. Seven of the 11 members of the cabinet had been educated in the United States, and all were young men. For the first time an agriculture expert occupied that ministry and directed his efforts toward proper and efficient use of the land. Many difficulties confronted the new government in this field. The high wages paid by the oil companies had drawn workers from farms. Importation of food had increased the cost of living to one of the highest in the world. Small farms had been taken by Gomez to create a few immense cattle ranches. The new administration announced that these ranches would be converted into small holdings whose owners would be trained to raise a balanced crop for the benefit of the nation as a whole.

A new constitution, promulgated in 1947, provided for popular vote by means of a secret ballot. Later in the same year, after the first democratic election in Venezuela, Romulo Gallegos Freire, novelist and founder of the AD, was elected president. He took office in February 1948. However, the ADís extreme popularity among voters and its proposed reform program alienated important groups, including conservative elements in the church and the military.

In November the government was overthrown by an army revolt, the leaders of which immediately formed a provisional government headed by Lieutenant Colonel Carlos Delgado Chalbaud. The junta suppressed the opposition and employed other dictatorial methods, including censorship of news. In 1950 Delgado Chalbaud was assassinated. The junta appointed the diplomat German Suarez Flamerich as provisional president, but the main power behind the government was a military officer, Colonel Marcos Perez Jimenez.

The junta made elaborate plans for an election to choose a constituent assembly that would in turn choose a president. Electoral boards were appointed to register and poll the voters. The public was, however, indifferent. Finally, after government threats of punishment for anyone who did not register and vote, an election was scheduled for 1952. When early returns showed that the opponents of the junta were clearly in the lead, the military government suspended the election and the junta-backed government party, the Independent Electoral Front (FEI), installed Perez Jimenez as president. In 1953 the constituent assembly confirmed him for a five-year term. Leaders of the opposition left the country. Later that year the constituent assembly approved a new constitution. The country, known officially since 1864 as the United States of Venezuela, was proclaimed the Republic of Venezuela.

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