The Becoming of Social Democracy in Venezuela

In 1931, a group of 12 Venezuelans who were exiled to Colombia by the [Juan Vicente] Gomez dictatorship signed a document titled “The Barranquilla Plan.” With this, the Democractic Action (AD) Party’s social democratic search began.

By Rosa Tristan – Debate Socialista
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To speak of social democracy in Venezuela is to speak of the evolution of the Democratic Action (AD) Party. Its internal conflicts summarize the dispute over how to establish revolution on elusive democratic paths. In the following analysis, we will study the theoretical claims of social democracy, the form it acquired in its origins in Venezuela, its internal conflicts, and its current program.

Theoretical Origin of Social Democracy

The German Eduard Bernsten (1850-1932) was the founder of social democratic theory. The principal political proposals are the following:

1. For the social democrats, the decline of the capitalist system is improbable. They hold that capitalism has weapons of defense that permit it to self-regulate in the face of any crisis. These weapons are:

The possibility of obtaining credits, the maneuvering capacity of the so-called employer federations (such as Fedecamaras [Venezuelan Federation of Chambers and Associations of Commerce and Production], Conindustria [Venezuelan Confederation of Industries], and others), and combinations among capitalists in order to diversify production or access markets.

That is, for the social democrats the capitalist system is armored. And, they always bring up the following sentence:

“We cannot ignore that we are within a capitalist concert, and in a capitalist system, the laws of supply and demand apply.”

2. The social democrats argue that capitalism is invincible and that this is demonstrated by the continuance of the middle class over time and the aspiration of the dispossessed classes to become part of it.

3. According to the social democrats, the improvement of the political and economic conditions of the working class can be achieved exclusively by way of labor unions. These should lead struggles to win demands such as the shortening of the workday and better salaries.

4. We can reach socialism by gradually or progressively extending social controls. We can achieve this social control by promulgating laws that decrease the rights of capitalist proprietors. These gradual modifications, according to the social democrats, can be carried out without “epic revolutionary rhetoric,” in an atmosphere of inclusion of all sectors.

5. The problem of private property over the means of production is resolved with gradual expropriations in which private property owners (passively and without resistance) become simple administrators, since the capitalists will see how their property is losing value.

6. Finally, the control of management and operations will be taken away from these administrators who were previously capitalist proprietors, and collective work will take their place.

7. Decentralization is designed in order to democratize the policies of the state. This is another tool of social democrats for the progressive realization of socialism.

8. For the social democrats, universal suffrage is the great weapon of the proletariat.

Application of Social Democratic Principles in the Strategies and Governments of the Democratic Action (AD) Party

In the following section, we will attempt to summarize the political and economic policies of Democratic Action (AD), with the aim of observing its historical evolution.[1]


In 1931, a group of 12 Venezuelans who were exiled to Colombia by the [Juan Vicente] Gomez dictatorship signed a document titled “The Barranquilla Plan.” With this, the AD party’s social democratic search began. The plan expressed:

“Our revolution should be social and not merely political; to destroy Gómez and along with him Gomecismo, and, it´s worth adding, to destroy the regime of military strongmen and large estate owners.”

The Barranquilla Plan established a guide to action that included:

- The protection of the productive class against capitalist tyranny;

- The revision of oil contracts and concessions;

- A convocation* of all sectors of Venezuelan society to join as active militants in the party.

The October Revolution of 1945-1948

Once power was obtained, the concept of oil as a tool for the development of a new Venezuelan industrial economy was established as state policy during the trienium [three-year] period [of AD rule]. The AD trienium incorporated the terms “democracy” and “unions” into the everyday language of the masses, obtaining full legitimacy with the people. This government suffered a military coup that opened the way to a decade of military rule. However, the organized social democrats took power once again.

The Decade from 1958-1968 and the Impact of the Cuban Revolution

After winning the elections, [AD co-founder and Venezuelan President Romulo] Betancourt re-initiated social and economic reforms by way of moderation and consensus. Democratic Action negotiated the so-called Punto Fijo Pact with the other political groups. In this, the leaders committed themselves to defending constitutionality, the right to govern in accordance with electoral results, and the establishment of a basic common program that they committed to respect no matter which one of them reached the presidency.

They initiated a policy of import substitution industrialization. It was an effort to build a capitalist society with strong participation by the state while giving priority to improvements for the least favored classes. With this aim, they counted on the distancing of the National Armed Forces from the everyday political debate, conciliation among political parties, private enterprise, labor unions, and the Church.

With the arrival of the Cuban Revolution, an ideological earthquake occurred among Latin American youth. This initiated the confrontation between socialism and the social democratic reformist policies of the Betancourt government, which had already given a glimpse of its turn to the right through its affiliation with [US President John F.] Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress.

By April 1960, the “revolutionary left” had been expelled from Democratic Action. The first division of the people’s party had occurred. Many of the young people who were expelled formed the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR) and took up armed struggle against the Betancourt government, which initiated persecutions and assassinations against the dissidents.

However, the MIR’s proposals were of a lukewarm and democratic brand. One of its most prominent leaders, Domingo Alberto Rangel, stated in a speech in Maracaibo:

“We do not think that we are going to have a Bolshevik revolution here, or that we will literally copy what is occurring in Cuba. We are revolutionaries molded in the school of dialectics, which interprets social phenomena from an economic basis, and we know that politics in Venezuela must respond to the correlation of forces... conserving the coalition... Here, it is possible to carry out a land reform policy that satisfies the aspirations of the peasants. Here, it is possible, without having a deep revolution, to make an oil policy that protects the fundamental interests of the country. Here, it is possible to begin a policy of industrialization of the country without having a deep revolution. That is what we call a turn toward the left.”[2]

The Betancourt government created a national bourgeoisie that drove forward the construction of the CVG [Venezuelan Corporation of Guayana], Sidor [Orinoco Steel and Iron Company], and the Caroní hydroelectric complex. At this point, we see that the initial project split into a marked right wing led by Rómulo Betancourt, and a social democratic wing that aspired to gradual reforms and separated itself from the Cuban and Russian socialist example. The socialist path was not followed in this period of Venezuelan history.

Between 1961 and 1968, AD purged its most radical sectors and, for the first time, lost presidential elections. This was followed by the phenomenon of Carlos Andréz Pérez, who resuscitated AD. His economic directives were marked by the rise and fall of oil prices, creating deep distortions in an economy that was incapable of absorbing such a magnitude of resources in such a short time period. Although he promulgated the nationalization of the oil industry, the state company continued to be managed like a private company.

The social democrats’ final proposal for revolution in the 20th Century pertained primarily to the agriculture and oil sectors. The challenge for the Bolivarian Socialist Revolution lies in overcoming this and being the light that illuminates a new path. In the words of Rosa Luxemburg:

“Revolution is an act of political creation, while legislation is the political expression of the life of an already existing society. Reform does not have strength of its own, independent of revolution. In every historical period, the reformist project is carried out only according to the guidelines set for it by the momentum of the last revolution, and it continues as long as the force of the last revolution is in effect. More concretely, the reformist project in every historical period is carried out only in the context of the social form created by revolution. And that is the heart of the problem.”[3]






Translated by James Suggett for